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No Leap Forward For Brazil

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"Manda Bala" is a documentary about Brazil that does not present the typical images of jungles of the Amazon, or the beaches of Rio. Instead, there are visits to the country's frog farms, plastic surgery clinics, and criminal haunts in the favelas, or slums.

By: GARY M. KRAMER

MANDA BALA

Directed by Jason Kohn

City Lights Releasing

Opens Aug. 17

Angelika

"Manda Bala" is a documentary about Brazil that does not present the typical images of jungles of the Amazon, or the beaches of Rio. Instead, there are visits to the country's frog farms, plastic surgery clinics, and criminal haunts in the favelas, or slums.

Producer/ director Jason Kohn unflinchingly examines the country's corruption and crime as perpetrated by both kidnappers and politicians, but he also presents the police, lawyers, and victims' perspectives. The result is a mosaic of Brazilian life that slowly and memorably comes into sharp focus.

An opening credit reveals that "Manda Bala" cannot be shown in Brazil.

The harrowing footage of kidnap victims and the film's presentation of the corruption scandals that have rocked the country provide an explanation why this might be.

Yet Kohn's film is shocking and challenging for any audience, with

disturbing scenes such as those of an ear being reconstructed by using cartilage from the ribcage. The film is at times difficult to watch, but for those interested in better understanding the staggering gap between rich and poor in Brazil, this is a documentary that should not be missed.

A series of images of modern city architecture may suggest the "order and progress" that is the motto of the Brazilian flag, but as "Manda Bala" shows, the reality is drastically different.

Viewers are introduced to a frog farmer who chose the frogs over his wife

and believes God put him on earth to raise them. When questions are raised about the role played by Jader Barbalho, a leading local politician and business man, the farmer clams up.

Another interviewee, known as "Mr. M" shorthands how the country is

heading in a bad direction, saying that at any given stoplight drivers run the risk of being robbed and/or shot. He buys a bulletproof car and takes a class on how to drive it without being kidnapped.

In contrast, Patricia, a kidnapping victim, who lost an ear during her ordeal, explains why she can forgive her tormentors who know no life other than crime. An anti-kidnapping detective recounts all of the bullet wounds he received during an "exchange of fire" on the job -- or at least the ones he can show on camera.

Curiously, some of the most compelling, even moving testimony in the entire film comes from Magrinho, a masked kidnapper, bank robber, and drug trafficker. Kohn doesn't delve into the economic gains Magrinho enjoys from his crimes in detail, but what is unsaid about his work says plenty in itself.

The real achievement of "Manda Bala" is in giving some reasonable parity to the voices of the poor who commit crimes as well as those of the privileged who are the victims and the politicians who are both privileged and criminals.

The film's agenda is to connect the narrative threads to make a clear case about Barbalho's corruption, Kohl informing viewers that the politician owns a newspaper, radio station, and TV station in the busy port city of Belem. One interviewee explains how Barbalho buys votes from the poor, giving them "one shoe for free," and the other "if I win."

The film brings the politician's laundering of money through the frog farm to light, yet gets Barbalho to talk on camera, in a performance that is slick -- that is until he cuts off the conversation when questions about scandal comes up.

Audiences might wish the film provided more detail on Barbalho, but are left instead with a massive chronicling on his deleterious impacts on people's lives, a leading plastic surgeon needing round-the-clock bodyguards presenting one particularly stark example.

Still, connecting the dots, viewers get the big, depressing, picture.

Kohn's point in making "Manda Bala" was to allow Brazilians to talk about how they live. One talks about the sky being the only safe place in Brazil - nobody has been kidnapped in flight. Another raises the frightening specter of microchips being imbedded under their skin to enhance public security and enforce the law.

But it is a startling image of one frog cannibalizing another that provides Kohn with the best metaphor for life in Brazil. If that sight isn't shocking enough, watch the ending credits where the entire tadpole society is slowly sucked down the drain.

Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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