Jewish Journal


August 30, 2007

Documentary: Sao Paolo nightmare gives lesson in class warfare


Magrinho, criminal leader of slum in Sao Paolo, turned from robbing banks to kidnapping because it was more profitable

Magrinho, criminal leader of slum in Sao Paolo, turned from robbing banks to kidnapping because it was more profitable

In "Manda Bala," Jason Kohn's nightmarish documentary of Brazil, a young woman describes how a "secret admirer" kept phoning her home in Sao Paolo. But when she went to meet him, she found the flattery was a ruse to kidnap her and hold her for ransom. She was chained inside a box, and her ears were sliced off and sent to her father as a Father's Day present. "I only knew it was night or day because of the TV," the woman says in the movie. "'The Birds,' by Alfred Hitchcock, was on the day they cut my first ear. That night I dreamed that a bird had bitten my ear off. I still have that dream today."

In "Manda Bala" ("Send a Bullet"), Kohn portrays a dystopian nation where the rich steal from the poor and the poor literally "steal" the rich. The "characters" include a politician who allegedly stole billions from a poverty fund, a frog farmer who allegedly laundered the money, a kidnapper who uses ransom loot to help his community and a businessman so afraid of being kidnapped that he wants a microchip implanted in his body as a sort of human LoJack.

The movie won best documentary and documentary cinematography awards at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival and "is as well directed as a thriller," according to a review in The Hollywood Reporter.

"Once you get past the gore, which takes many forms - from frogs eating each other to a long sequence in a plastic surgeon's theater as he restores a cut-off ear - 'Manda Bala' makes a powerful statement about the consequences of wanting the good life at any cost."

The brisk, brash documentary is to be expected of Kohn, 28, who describes himself as a New York "leftie Jew" and, above all, a "radical atheist." He says he lives in a small apartment in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen and does not own a home telephone (he uses his cell). His connection to Brazil comes from his South American émigré parents, who forced him to attend a Conservative religious school, which he despised because even as a child he did not believe in God. "But some of my favorite heroes come from a certain tradition of secular intellectual Jews who have changed the world for the better ... : Karl Marx, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud," he says.

Kohn grew up working in his family's store near Times Square, which catered to Brazilian tourists. But the seeds of "Manda Bala" came later, after his parents divorced and Jason began visiting his father's new home in Sao Paolo. "In America, my father was just another middle-class guy, but in Brazil, he lived [lavishly]," the filmmaker says. "Not only did he have a maid, but everyone had a maid, and many people had two maids. I was fascinated that people were driving around in bullet-proof cars."

From the balcony of a relative's apartment, Kohn could see sprawling slums just beside a wealthy enclave of sleek high-rise apartments.

After Kohn graduated from Brandeis University with degrees in history and film in 2001, his father told him about the "frog farm" scandal. Around the same time, Kohn read a newspaper story about a Sao Paolo plastic surgeon who specialized in ears. Kohn flew down to Brazil to visit the frog farm, where he noted that the larger amphibians ate the smaller ones - an image he felt might work in a film about class warfare.

He discussed the idea with his mentor, the eccentric documentarian, Errol Morris, for whom he was working as a research assistant.

"The story had crime, mutilation, cannibalism and the potential for metaphor, which fascinated Errol," Kohn says. "He suggested that I see this brutal French film, 'I Stand Alone,'" which was shot in 16mm film with anamorphic lenses - a good way to shoot a very wide-looking movie cheaply. I thought that might help me [depict] Sao Paolo as the kind of futuristic, anti-utopian city you might see in a science fiction film."

In 2002, Kohn left his job, sold his car and moved down to Sao Paolo to try to make his movie.

It was a rash move, since he was only 22, didn't have much money and didn't know any Brazilian politicians. But he knew some of his father's friends within Sao Paolo's tight-knit Jewish community, and he slowly began to make contacts. A police detective introduced Kohn to the young woman whose ears became a Father's Day present; and authorities gave Kohn torture videos that had been sent to other victims' families.

By April 2006, Kohn had cut his film, but he still lacked the ending he had envisioned - an interview with a real kidnapper.

"I was depressed, broke and basically living on my stepbrother's bed," he recalls.

A break came when a cabbie offered to introduce Kohn to a kidnapper who served as the "don" of a local slum. Several days later, the cabbie drove Kohn and his crew to the thug's compound - a block of shacks surrounded by walls and equipped with an elaborate security system.

The 35-year-old criminal, Magrinho, was relaxed and affable during the two-hour interview, describing how he began stealing food for his family at age 9, and how he turned from bank robbing to kidnapping because it was more profitable. "You either steal with a gun or with a pen - politicians steal with a pen," he says in the movie.

The interview was cut short, however, when security monitors showed police entering the slum and rushing toward Magrinho's compound. The kidnapper grabbed his gun as the filmmakers cowered in a detritus-filled courtyard.

"I thought he'd assume we had brought the police, in which case we would all have been executed on the spot," Kohn says.

But it turned out the police had come only to extort bribes from Magrinho, and when they didn't find him on the streets, they left.

Even though "Manda Bala" is largely set in Sao Paolo, Kohn believes the movie is universal.

"It is as much about present-day Brazil as it could be about the United States in five years," he says.

The film opens Aug. 31 in Los Angeles. frog cannibalism
Frog cannibalism - a metaphor for class conflict in 'Manda Bala."

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