SCANDAL in the CITY

    {grate 3.5/5}São Paulo is at war. It’s a beautiful city, with endless high rises and booming industry, but overpopulation is at critical mass and the divide between rich and poor is at its breaking point. With director Jason Kohn’s award-winning documentary debut, “Manda Bala” (or “Send a Bullet”), American audiences will see a stunningly different side of Brazil.
    In his effort to expose the tug-of-war between economic classes, Kohn combines Hollywood’s stylized blockbuster techniques with hard-hitting interviews that shatter all expectations, delving deep into the fascinating and seldom-explored shadows of a South American city where rich and poor routinely feed off of each other. Politicians steal from the penniless, who in turn resort to kidnapping members of the elite for ransom, while a thriving industry of entrepreneurs march to the front lines in search of profits. Kohn weaves compelling images with pointed commentary to bring an overwhelmingly complex issue into focus: Interviews include a kidnap victim and a kidnapper, a politician and a plastic surgeon, a cop and a car dealer.
    But the film all begins with a frog farmer.
    By way of the green, wet and slimy, Kohn links the highest echelon of crime in Brazil — political scandal — by following its reverberations to the very bottom, to the people who are most effected. Though the frogs are so densely crowded in shallow reservoirs at the farm that they leap and clamor over each other by the thousands, the farmer who’s spent his life raising them — a big man with a bigger grin — still drops his smile mid-interview at the mention of possible scandal.
    Brazilian Congressman Jader Barbalho, who has used the farms to launder over $2 billion in stolen money, built the amphibious farm, along with hundreds of others. The farmer refuses to speak of the scandal, expressing fear of reprisal for even admitting there ever was one. Meanwhile, Kohn’s camera rotates the breadth of the city, revealing crumbling sky-high apartments and vast stretches of shantytowns. Over half the city’s population lives in squalor, packed into slums and increasingly turning to crime while its elected representatives reap billions.
    Kohn uses uses the farmer’s interview — along with recurring footage of swimming tadpoles that evolved into deep fried entrees — as a powerful visual metaphor for the film’s narrative. It’s about the never-ending cycles of wealth and corruption, poverty and crime. Underfed frogs turn to cannibalism just as humans turn on one another when their quality of life is depleted. Aside from desperate turns to serious crimes like carjacking and bank robbing, the fastest-growing offense in Brazil is kidnapping, which occurs as frequently as once a day in the metropolitan area.
    Kidnappers cut off body parts, mailing them to family members as incentive for hefty ransoms. The most common is the ear: Kohn interviews a victim who had both of her ears dismembered before she was freed. We then hear from Juarez Avelar, a pioneer of ear reconstruction surgery, who the kidnapped woman quickly turned to after her release. At first the doctor seems like a hero — then Kohn shows us footage of the doctor’s home, an extravagant mansion set within the manicured acres of his estate; yet another entrepreneur profiting from desperate times, one car salesman who specializes in bulletproofing automobiles as a kidnapping deterrant collects $415,000 a job. Their luxurious lives are visually juxtaposed in next frame to naked children playing in a street coated with trash and sewage.
    At first, we see every character in a focused light: the corrupt politician painted with Nazi hues, the amoral kidnapper who doesn’t give murder a second thought, the entrepreneurial car salesman making a killing by bullet-proofing cars, the innovative professional who revolutionized reconstructive surgery — all play clear roles in Brazil’s criminal climate. The film seems like a failed attempt to provide coverage of the scandal, as though the filmmakers came up shy and resorted to the juiciest footage.
    But Kohn’s efforts begin to fuzz our preconceptions. The kidnapper is a community leader in his slum, redistributing wealth like a present-day Robin Hood. The car salesman laughs at the paranoia of his clients and then admits he’s bullet-proofed all four of his cars. He and the other affluent citizens of São Paulo avoid the streets whenever possible, putting Brazil on the map for the world’s largest fleet of privately-owned helicopters. By the documentary’s finish, it has wrapped a brilliant and complex expose of class conflicts: a swift-handed curtain-rip to reveal corruption in all its forms, and a sincere observation of the worst symptoms of poverty.

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