Last night marked my first trip down to the Starz FilmCenter for DocNight, a monthly documentary series presented by the Denver Film Society. This month’s film was Manda Bala, a truly outstanding documentary that weaves together several story lines to paint a gritty and rich portrait of corruption in Brazil.
The film, directed by Jason Kohn (who also appeared in-person for Q&A at last night’s event) was the product of over five years of hard work and emphasized the concept of the documentary as a form of cinematic storytelling. Kohn explained that his goal with Manda Bala was not to make an informational, political message movie, but instead to showcase his subject matter using the most cinematic methods. Those methods included creating an overarching metaphor using cannibal frogs and creating characters of his unique interview subjects.
The “cast” included several members of the Sao Palo police and anti-corruption task force as well as victims and perpetrators of various crimes. We meet police officers who tally up their gunshot wounds like they were fantasy football wins, an ultra-paranoid member of Sao Palo’s upper class who boasts about his bullet-proof Porche and goes only by the spy-like moniker of Mr. M, the owner of a frog farm that seems to be at the center of a large-scale political controversy, and even a kidnapping victim who describes the way Alfred Hitchcock movies played a role in her imprisonment.
One of the most fascinating characters is a plastic surgeon who specializes in creating artificial ears, a growing industry in a region where kidnappers frequently send the appendages to victims’ families to demand higher ransoms. Though he is a truly skilled surgeon, he seems to have an almost unreal God complex and truly believes that the lord works through him during the procedures.
We also meet other entrepreneurs, such as the staff of a school that teaches classes on how to drive your bullet proof car to avoid getting kidnapped and a company that manufactures microchips that can be implanted in the body and used to track a person’s location. This focus on the growing industries that have sprouted because of crime was a fascinating twist to the usual perspective.
In what are certainly the most surprising interviews, Kohn was able to speak with both a kidnapper who paints himself to be a Robin Hood type hero and Jader Barbalho, the corrupt politician who is the villain in the cinematic story of the film. The film weaves these two men together to create an engaging landscape and describe just how far crime really stretches in the country.
Films like Manda Bala open doors to all sorts of political discussion as well as conversations about documentary as a means of storytelling. Thankfully, with Kohn and Denver Post film critic Lisa Kennedy at the screening, there was lots of time to chat about the artistic and social merits of the film.
While this was my first DocNight experience, I enjoyed it so much that I can say with certainty that it will definitely not be my last.
View the trailer for Manda Bala here: