Manda Bala, a penetrating new documentary by Jason Kohn about Brazil’s recent slew of kidnappings and the intricate net of contradictions animating Brazilian society is a tortured study in tightrope walking. The story is similar everywhere in South and Central America: kids from rich families are plucked from standing traffic at gunpoint and soon a ransom is demanded. Sometimes, an earlobe will follow by mail, and other body parts, until the money is received.
Kohn interviewed a young woman who spent sixteen days in captivity after being kidnapped; next, a biker cop working in the kidnappings unit of the Sao Paulo police gives his take on his city’s rampant criminality, with a somewhat terse sense of humor. He then flashes an impressive collection of semi- and fully-automatic weaponry before the camera with a twinkle in his eyes.
Prosecutors, lawyers and Brazil’s attorney general, even, were paraded before the cameras to contribute their struggles to unroot corrupt government officials–given the stakes, it’s amazing that they even agreed to be seen in public and naming names. How did Kohn do it? Then, the criminals themselves: a Praetorian politician agrees to briefly weigh in on the questions unconvincingly and finally, a kidnapper, concealed by a ski mask. Sao Paulo-native Magrinho has ten children to feed but came to the realization that one kidnapping is worth more than several bank robberies. In a moment of tortured irony, he states: ‘maybe one of my kids will grow up to be president and fix this place.’
A powerful aspect of Manda Bala is its total lack of pathos. No attempt is made to squeeze dessicated irony or sentiment out of us. And there are no lessons, either. As a Brazilia-based attorney put it, the vicious cycle stifling Brazil’s poorest started grinding on early. In the 1980s a powerful elected official was put in charge of a New Deal-styled package of government subsidies aimed at reviving the Amazon region, the poorest in the country. Funds meant to jumpstart local economies were instead diverted to foreign bank accounts, in sums which defy estimation. As a result of their continued impoverishments, inhabitants from those regions migrated South to Sao Paulo to live in better conditions compared to their previous state, to later resort to crime.
Manda Bala will not disappoint; and even though this yarn has already been told, Kohn approaches his subject matter with his revolvers hung low.