(11/04/08) – Of all the films dealing with the terrifying reality of a dystopian Latin American emerging economy called Brazil, Jason Kohn’s Sundance-winning Manda Bala is the one that succeeds in making a holistic picture of a country that, in many ways, is a metaphor for a world where globalisation has increased the gap between haves and have-nots and humane values have been replaced with the obsessive worship of the money god.

Kohn focuses on various elements of a large web of money and corruption and gives the the viewer the job to join the dots. Not that it is difficult to do that as Kohn facilitates the task by presenting each situation in a very clear way. And the facts are themselves very eloquent. The structure of the film is rather simple: a series of interviews is interspesed with illustrative footage, some of which, especially the aerial shots of Sao Paulo, is quite stunning. Kohn makes the most of the faded modernist dream of Oscar Niemeyer, giving us a quick glimpse into what could have been if the country had not descended into social chaos after the military coup of 1964. The clean, straight lines of the vertical architecture make a poignantly ironic comment on the political and moral deformity that poisons everyday life.

We get to know a frog farmer in the outback of the country who received funding from Brazil’s most notorious political villain, Jarbas Barbalho; an upper-class victim of a kidnap who had her ears cut off (and who still manages to laugh when she recounts that Hitchcock’s The Birds was on television on the evening of the day when that happened (she was in captivity for 14 days and television was on 24 hours a day at full blast); an information technology professional describes his investments into avoid becoming a victim of crime; a kidnapper tells us about his work methods and members of government and police trying to fight corruption narrate their endeavours – and you have to admire them for their intelligence and bravery to stand up against ruthless assassins.

Despite the title’s reference to fire arms, not one gunshot pierces through the soundtrack during the film. However, the eerie, underlying tension created by the clinical elegance of the Cinemascope format that Kohn chose makes a more lasting impression than the millions of bullets exploding through the screen in Brazilian hit films such as City of God (2003) and the gruesome Elite Squad (2007). Manda Bala fits in the ‘reality fiction’ genre, a style that has the advantage of circumventing preconceived ideas on the topic of the film by appealing to the viewer aesthetically and poetically.

Manda Bala is a devastating, if not judgemental, portrait of a country that in many ways epitomises a new world (dis)order in which the future has ceased to be a symbol of hope to have become a looming threat. Kohn made a film about Brazil, globalisation, capitalism, violence, indifference, injustice and several other themes. It’s a haunting piece of cinema and very relevant.

The DVD of Manda Bala was released this week by City Lights Home Entertainment. Please follow the links provided and support Kamera by doing so. Please check out Kamera Books’ recent title ‘Documentaries…and how to make them’.