Arts and Entertainment

“When the rich steal from the poor, the poor steal the rich” Part two

By Denebola
Published: October 2007
By David WeintraubThe closing shot of Jason Kohn’s incendiary documentary Manda Bala lingers long after the credits have stopped rolling.
In it, we see an overhead view of a tub lined with dirt and algae; the water slowly sinks into the drain at the center of the frame; and into this vortex flow an uncountable number of tadpoles. The tadpoles struggle and squirm in their slimy, pathetic way, but they cannot withstand the force of the moving water.
They are overpowered and, inevitably, they die.
This shot, by far the most memorable and lyrical in a film filled with such images, provides the central metaphor which drives the film.
In context, the tadpoles represent the runts of a gargantuan litter of frogs raised, slaughtered, and packaged for consumption by a farm that doubles as a slush fund for the corrupt Brazilian politician Jader Barbalho.
Out of context, the image works to reveal the inevitable cycle of despair and hopelessness precipitated by Brazil’s all-encompassing culture of violence, corruption and civic neglect.
The miracle of the film is how the filmmakers turn this morose subject into a lively, funny, and tongue-in-cheek statement on the trickle-down nature of violence in an advanced capitalist nation.
In the sprawling urban center of Sao Paolo, the largest city in the southern hemisphere, violence permeates every aspect of city life.
The poor live sequestered lives in favela ghettos, where masked gunmen harboring delusions of Robin Hood-style beneficence rule the streets.
The rich live in opulent apartments far above the city, decked out with helipads and bullet-proof cars.
The politicians, meanwhile, seem never to roam outside the modernist Capitol building in the remote and isolated city of Brazilia.
Indeed, the majority of the film is spent with members of Brazil’s political and business elite, citizens who, despite their physical distance from poverty, have nonetheless altered their lives (both positively and negatively) as a result of the culture of violence.
Perhaps “culture of violence, in the case of Sao Paolo, is a misnomer’€the correct term is certainly “industry. Manda Bala presents violence as the chief source of income across the class spectrum.
The basic cycle that the film outlines can be summarized as follows:
1) Politicians, such as Jader Barbalho, siphon public funds away from public resources like education, health-care, infrastructure, housing, etc. to satisfy their own greed.
2) With no social welfare programs or opportunities for mobility, the poor turn increasingly desperate in their search for the basic necessities, and they turn to kidnapping, robbery, and murder.
3) The middle classes, most affected by these waves of brutality, look for ways to protect themselves.
4) The business class sees enterprising opportunity in this middle class fear and create a multifaceted industry centered on protection and prevention of crime.
5) Business interests collide with political greed to entrench the status quo and stultify any significant change.
While the above cycle may look dauntingly complex, Manda Bala effortlessly illustrates its causes and effects by personalizing each link in the chain.
The filmmakers interview a staggering variety of subjects, each in their own way a victim and a perpetrator of violence. We meet a middle-class 20-something year old woman whose ear was cut off during a kidnapping. We meet a young male entrepreneur who has made millions bullet-proofing people’s cars. We meet a bandit who cannot even remember the first murder he committed, so banal has the act become. We meet a plastic surgeon who became rich by specializing in ear-replacement surgery motivated predominantly by kidnappings. We even meet Jader Barbalho, the only clear-cut villain in this complex moral atmosphere.
The filmmakers edit the disparate interviews into an ironic mosaic in which the sanctimoniousness of one character comments on the pain of another. This tactic of creating meaning through juxtaposition safeguards the film against easy moral grandstanding, and turns it into a tart confection.
Kohn’s visual flair asserts itself in lyrical shots like the frog sink mentioned above but also dips into shocking sensationalistic terrain, as when he films a gruesome ear-replacement surgery in all its sinewy glory.
Kohn’s ironic statement about Brazilian culture at large’€that the same forces that could forestall the vicious cycle are precisely the ones prolonging it’€shines through in this juxtaposition between the lyrical and the lurid, the lively and the somber, the slick and the decrepit.
Manda Bala is angry, grotesque and poignant. It demands change without resorting to sentimentality. Like his mentor Errol Morris, Jason Kohn weaves a mosaic of desperation, humor and vitality to prove that if we don’t understand the network of hidden connections that seek to exploit and dominate us, we will sink like his tadpoles.

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