writing << lifestyle

[originally published in Beyond Race Magazine]

a tale of two são paulos: brazil through the lens of manda bala

During a Q&A after a screening of Manda Bala, the new documentary about corruption and violence in Brazil, director Jason Kohn—who, with longish hair, glasses, and beard, looks the epitome of film school geek—started on an academic rant about the virtues of the 1987 film Robo Cop. After a few unstructured thoughts, he was able to catch himself, stop, breathe, then reel in the rabid fan boy the way all geeky film students must eventually learn to do.

So, what exactly would a director who just took the best-documentary prize at Sundance have to say in support of a big, violent Hollywood blockbuster about a robot cop? “I think a lot of people go into documentary with a lot of preconceived notions about what the genre means. There’s a lot of elitism involved. I just like movies and that’s one of my favorites…When I started going down to São Paolo, it reminded me a lot of that Detroit of the 1990s, or whenever it was supposed to have taken place, and it just seemed like the best way to capture what was going on down in Brazil was to portray it in a cinematic style similar to RoboCop.” And, to be sure, Manda Bala has a big cinematic sheen and brims with the vibrant hues we associate with our neighbors to the south. The film’s most telling moments come not from its fascinating character studies or even its scenes featuring footage of brutal torture, but from the gorgeous swooping Hollywood-style aerial shots of the South American metropolis. This story of institutional chaos is captured in one helicopter pan that starts in the skyscraper heights of the finest amenities capitalism has to offer, then flows down into the sea of ramshackle poverty surrounding it. This is the tale of two São Paulos: the tropical paradise, and the place where tourists do not tred—the violent underbelly of a top-heavy society.

Manda Bala is an ensemble documentary that seeks to piece together the political and economic tapestry of a nation with heroically lopsided discrepancies of wealth. The film is threaded with the vignettes of two of Brazil’s most booming institutions: political corruption and kidnapping. On one side, we meet a corrupt governor who stole millions from state projects aimed to benefit the impoverished masses in the Brazil’s northeast and the prosecutors who brought him down (only to see him released shortly thereafter). On the other side, we meet a kidnapping taskforce officer who trades tales of gun shot wounds with his fellow officers. We listen to a well-to-do Paulistano describe how the city’s elite live in fear, and the lengths they must go to incubate themselves from the populous. We hear the tale of a kidnapping victim, who, in a common tactic, had her ears severed and sent to her family for ransom. And we meet the plastic surgeon who has forged a career from “rebuilding” the severed appendages of the abducted.

But perhaps the film’s most frightening character is a ski-masked kidnapping boss from the city’s slums. How exactly can one go about finding someone who presumably makes it an indispensable part of his business not to be found? “I had been trying to get an interview with another kidnapper who was in prison, but it kept on falling through for various reasons,” Kohn recalls. “So, after almost a year of failing with this one prisoner, I ended up bullshitting with a friend of a friend who was a cab driver in São Paulo about my problem finding a kidnapper. Then he mentioned that he knew a guy and it was as simple as that. [The kidnapper] called me that night, and we went to meet him with [a payment for talking to us] and he was really very polite and hospitable. His wife cooked us lunch.”

The very polite torturer goes on to wax how he doesn’t really think of the consequences of his actions (which includes the abduction of children, and sending amputated parts of their bodies to their parents to coax them into giving up a higher price). “So, we were in [the kidnapper’s] home afterwards having beers and there’s a part of his interview where he says, ‘ask anybody: I’m a good guy. I take care of my community. I’m really well liked and no one around here will ever call me a bad guy. You just don’t want to know me when I’m working.’”

While the kidnapper (who also moonlights as a crack dealer) claims he has built sewage plants for his community in a place where the government never will, Kohn goes on to explain that “the guy’s a gangster. So, you know, I wasn’t just trying to show that he’s stealing from the rich to give to the poor.  He’s a really, really bad guy.  [The film is] more about the way gangsters work and come about in the absence of sufficient power.”

At its heart, Manda Bala is the tale of the consequences of a dysfunctional society. The top of the nation is given all the benefits of the modern world, while the masses at the bottom remain completely neglected. This creates room for bad men who hide behind the Robin Hood badge. This is the story of the rich stealing from the poor with pens, and the poor using guns to get it back. When greed rules over chaos, it’s the ingredients for a problem no amount of Hollywood sparkle and polish can take away.