Spout Mavens Disc #11: Manda Bala [Send A Bullet] (2007)

Director: Jason Kohn
Kilo/City Lights, 1:25, color, Portuguese/English

Cinema 4 Rating: 7

Just like the once seemingly lost battle I fought for far too many years in the past regarding watching films in widescreen ratios (and because its the generally the same group of people griping about both), subtitles seem to vex a lot of Americans. They don't want to have to read when they go to the theatre, and it appears that most of them would really like to do it even less at home on a much smaller screen. (Hell, I think a lot of them just don't want to read, period.) Nix the subtitles then, my friends, and watch it dubbed. But please don't complain or mock the film when the dubbing doesn't sync properly or makes the film look cheap. You got us into this mess with your phobia of being forced to read off a screen. Or maybe you prefer the dubbing, Americans, so you don't have to hear someone speak a language other than English. Anything, you say, just don't remind us that there are other cultures outside (or even inside) our borders, or that there is anything going on outside of our increasingly sheltered country.

My own knowledge of world cinema is, I hope, better than the average person, and I never shy away from subtitles. In fact, I adore them. But despite this, I must make an admission. The bulk of my foreign film watching is derived from seven places (I am not counting primarily English-speaking lands in this), in order: Japan, China, France, Russia, Germany, Sweden and India. Of late, Korea has been pulling up to the pack. But Brazil? One of the biggest countries in the world? What have I seen from there? I have four fingers on my right hand, and each finger accounts for a single Brazilian film that I have seen up until the point that Manda Bala landed in my mailbox late last week. The four fingers add up to City of God, which I think everyone with even the slightest interest in cinematic excellence should see, and three of Marins' Coffin Joe horror flicks, of which I feel the opposite (though, speaking for sick little me, I dig them). And that is it for Brazilian films for me. Comparatively, I've seen nothing at all.

Of course, I have seen films which have taken place in Brazil (The Emerald Forest, for example), or involved the country in them for a handful of scenes or referenced in dialogue, often for people fleeing to the country for some nefarious reason. (I suppose that I could add Brazilian erotica into the mix, but then that wouldn't leave the fingers on my other hand free...) And I have seen the occasional television program dealing with the rain forest. But these images are fleeting, and except for City of God, no real sense of the people or the political workings of the country can truly be derived from them.

Until Manda Bala showed up in the mailbox and became the thumb on my right hand. Though it is not actually a Brazilian film by creation -- it is a documentary directed and largely produced by Americans -- it has done just as much to allow me to see the true nature of Brazil in a way that only City of God has done for me. Not only did it open my eyes to concepts that I had heard fleetingly about but had never really considered deeply -- kidnapping as a business -- or concepts I had never considered at all -- the cottage industries, like bulletproof cars and plastic surgeons who specialize in building new ears for kidnap victims from their own rib cartilage, that spring up as a result of kidnapping becoming a business -- but it introduced to my crowded head the concept of frog farms. As in, farms that specialize in breeding frogs for eventual devouring by humans.

Seriously, I knew people ate frogs (or at least, frog legs), but not on my watch. It's just something that has never happened around me. Not that I am against one of my friends eating a frog around me, and even last weekend at the OC Fair, there was an open opportunity for it to occur. It just hasn't happened, and frankly, it's not something which I am going to do myself. I'm at peace with amphibians of all stripes. I like holding them or petting them once in a while, but that's it. As a result, I had never really considered that anyone would make even a halfway decent living raising or shipping them, outside of the pet industry.

Manda Bala not only starts us off at a pretty well-sized frog-farming outfit, and shows us details of the farming along with interviews with the slightly befuddled proprietor of the establishment, but it also uses the frog farm concept as an overall metaphor for the state of the poor in Brazil as a whole. It's a metaphor that you are going to have to sit through the credits to fully ingest, but it's a strong one for sure. I was slightly reminded during the frog butchering scene at a restaurant -- and please beware of it, my weaker-stomached friends, if the idea of seeing living frog throats cut, bodies stripped of skin, and the eventual weirdly composed shot of a trio of decapitated, almost smiling frog heads on a counter makes you feel wiggy -- of the rabbit-skinning scene in another more famous but equally provocative documentary, Michael Moore's Roger and Me.

Though completely different in style, I was reminded of it in more ways than one, because like Moore's film, Manda Bala is also a tale of corruption and the deep and abiding rift between the classes. Here the similarities end, because this film is a far more violent tale in the end, and perhaps more complex. A tale of squandered opportunities and laundered monies. A tale where the rich take advantage of the poor economically, but the poor in turn take their own physically direct (and eventually, mental) advantage of the rich via the violence of kidnapping or outright murder, and where those in between often become the nouveau riche by taking advantage of the entire situation.

To be fair, the film is stacked against one politician in particular, Jáder Barbalho, a lifelong mover and shaker from the state of Pará, who resigned from his role as President of the Senate to avoid impeachment after facing numerous corruption and embezzlement charges from his critics. Nothing major though... just the disappearance of, oh, I don't know, a billion dollars from a federal developmental agency, SUDAM, with which Barbalho had major pull. One of the accusations against him is that he helped influence numerous phony SUDAM projects through which much of the missing money was laundered. And one of these projects -- surprise, surprise -- is a frog farm. (See? I never would have even thought to launder money that way.)

I will go no further, for there is much to discover for those interested in delving into a deeply fascinating, though rather confusing, film. It sometimes does seem like director Jason Kohn has bitten off a little too much, but somehow it all pulls together. There are interviews with victims of the kidnappers, one of the kidnappers himself, and the people who profit from the violence. We see how bulletproof cars are built, the different steps in farming those omnipresent froggies, and get some amazing footage from the ear-replacement surgery. We see some of the harrowing footage sent by the kidnappers to their victims' families (themselves victims in all of this, now that I think of it), including one of the men getting a section of his earlobe lopped off. It might seem quaint with its gentle opening at a frog farm, but this is not a film for the weak of heart. It's is a film suffused with -- if not actually showing it in most cases -- the violence at the core of a culture which has found it necessary to turn deeper towards it for survival. Such is the history of man, I suppose. And Brazil's history, more than ever, is everyone's history.

And all the more reason for those that shun subtitles to quit complaining, brother, and shut up and read. Or learn to read. Or learn to speak Portuguese. Whatever you have to do to be able to see one of the most fascinating if not bizarrely constructed documentaries I have ever seen. (I won't bother to tell you it's in widescreen, too, because I wouldn't want to stack the deck against you seeing it.)


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