CITY OF SAO PÃULO IN MANDA BALA.
Jason Kohn likes to say what’s on his mind. At 28, he’s already honed his skills from one of the greatest living doc directors, has an award-winning film (which he began at 23) and survived the slums of São Paulo, Brazil, to make it. So Jason Kohn can say what’s on his mind.
His film Manda Bala (Send a Bullet) is as brash and in-your-face as he is. In the film he looks at the city of São Paulo, where bulletproof cars, kidnappings and restorative plastic surgery are the norm. The fast-paced doc (a brisk 85-minute running time) has three main threads. One centers on the corrupt politician Jader Barbalho, who created the largest frog farm in the world for money-laundering purposes. Another looks at plastic surgeon Dr. Juarez Avelar, who has performed miracles for deformed former captives by reconstructing the ears their kidnappers have sliced off. Finally, we meet a kidnapper, “Magrinho,” who puts the whole film in perspective when he says, “You either steal with a gun or a pen.”
Kohn avoids didacticism or hand-wringing over why São Paulo is in disarray. Instead he animates his film with a hybrid of jazzily scored talking-head interviews and beautifully stylized narrative set pieces. The style and attention to detail draws comparisons to Kohn’s mentor, Errol Morris. (Kohn was Morris’s former assistant.) For example, Kohn took from Morris the idea of shooting interpreters in the same shot as their subjects, a strategy Morris used when he interviewed former USSR leader Mikhail Gorbachev for a short that aired on the 2002 Academy Awards.
Kohn was awarded Best Documentary at this year’s Sundance and looks back in bewilderment on the five years he spent making the film. “I was 23-years-old and everyone thought of me as a student filmmaker,” he says. “For every interview everyone was shocked by the size of the crew, by the lights, by the equipment. They were expecting me, my buddy and a video camera, and they would walk into an environment that became a studio scenario. Long story short, I fell into it.”
City Lights Pictures releases the film later this summer.
Why did you want to make this film? I think a lot of the romantic bullshit about making movies is that you stumble on a story that “needed to be told.” I refuse to believe that quality stuff happens like that. I was in Boston, I was working for Errol Morris, and I wanted to make my own movie. Something to send to a film school to apply. The first day of filming [Manda Bala] was the first day I touched a film camera. I was doing research about Brazil and thinking about corruption. My dad lives in São Paulo, and he bitches about corruption nonstop. Then one day he told me about this frog farm, and it kept bugging me: what the fuck is a frog farm? And then I came across in The New York Times a story on the plastic surgeon and the ear reconstructions; I thought the culture of plastic surgery in Brazil being so huge was fascinating. I started seeing Manda Bala as a story about violence — most movies that are good in my mind are violent movies. So my first thought was that the frog farm, plastic surgery and all of those things were totally going to be subtext — you were going to intuit the corruption and the violence, and it was all going to be metaphorical. I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing. And then there was this idea of the rich stealing from the poor, poor stealing from the rich. But it wasn’t a fucking story — I mean, you should see the first cut of this movie. It’s unwatchable. There was like a 10-minute sequence on building bulletproof glass!
So then how did you wind up shaping the story? Part of it was hiring people who knew more than me. But it’s also training yourself, learning what story means, and that took a long time. I didn’t know what a story was. I got editor Doug Abel to come on, and he knew where the story was immediately. Before I worked with him, I was so obsessed with the visuals: How is this going to play off of that? How are you going to tell a story through the pictures? And he was like, “Fuck all that. First you make the radio edit.” I’ll never forget it. He said, “We’re not going to work with any picture; we’re just going to work with the dialogue.” And that’s the way it worked. We cut out all the pictures and just worked with the dialogue and figured out what dialogue is actually necessary. That was the process.
How long did you work for Errol? I interned for him during the second season of First Person, the entire production of that, and the first year of Fog of War.
FROG FARM IN MANDA BALA.
Did you ever bring up your interest in making a film to him? The first thing I did was I went to Brazil to visit the frog farm with my dad. It was me and a little DV camera and this gorgeous frog farm. It looked beautiful. I went back to Boston and edited a four-minute video to show Errol, and he loved it. I told him about the ear surgery and he kind of gave his blessing, and I think when I told him I wanted to shoot it on film, that was when he took it seriously. He would give me a lot of advice on production. He told me to go see I Stand Alone, Gaspar Noé’s first feature, which was shot in anamorphic Super 16, and that’s where the idea [to shoot the film in anamorphic] came from. I started doing research on anamorphic. There’s a guy named Joe Dunton based in the U.K. who’s an old friend of Kubrick’s. He designed the anamorphic lenses for 2001. In my research I had found for achieving an anamorphic aspect ratio while shooting Super 16 you had to literally place an anamorphic projector lens in front of the camera lens. The problem is that you have two lenses with two separate focusing elements, which makes it impossible to move the camera and follow focus. Joe Dunton designed a set of lenses to be adapted for Super 16 cameras where you can shoot anamorphic Super 16 and move the camera, and we got them. So I could design all these moving shots and use dollies and cranes and make it actually feel like a real movie. But if I were to start again I would have done interviews in a VariCam. I honestly believe Manda Bala will be the last documentary with interviews shot on film. It’s so hard, cutting every 11 minutes. It’s infuriating, it’s no way to conduct an interview.
Did you have to go through companies in Brazil for crew or equipment? All the equipment aside from the lenses was Brazilian. This is another thing that people don’t understand very much. Brazilian cinema’s not a national cinema that’s producing tons of products that they export every year, but what they do have is a world-class advertising production market. They have the best crews in Latin America, the best equipment in Latin America and the best facilities to deal with one of the biggest commercial advertising markets. Manda Bala would not have been possible without the advertising industry. I started off with a director of photography [Heloísa Passos] whose bread and butter was making commercials, and the ball got rolling from there.
Did you storyboard? Yes. Visually the movie was thought out way before the story. Like the surgery scene — we had someone who shoots surgeries, so we knew everything that could happen before it even started. [We made] a conscious effort to use the visual language of traditional narrative storytelling. In many ways I thought that São Paulo contained many of the visual elements of cities in science fiction films I love. Also, the ways that technology and violence co-exist and often grow together was a central theme of Manda Bala. In order to represent those ideas, the film used those same visual conventions — CinemaScope, helicopter photography, kinetic car chases, stylized surgical procedures — I wanted the aesthetic to imply a world that an audience already knows in fiction but has never seen in a non-fiction film.
How were you able to find your subjects? Each one was a different story. Half of it was luck, coincidence, chance. The frog farmer, [he ran] the biggest frog farm in Brazil, the one that advertises the most. So I went there, and initially it was just going to be a metaphor for this corruption; I had no idea that he actually had any ties to the corrupt politicians. That came out only in the interview. When I was asking him about Jader Barbalho and he said, “I can’t talk about this” — I had no idea I had stumbled into a money-laundering scheme. You can’t film corruption. Corruption is what happens in the back rooms of offices. You can’t film it, you don’t have access to it. What I didn’t realize is that when these frogs are leaving for the United States – and, I mean, it’s impossible for me to prove — but I’m pretty sure we stumbled upon and started filming an actual money-laundering scheme right there.
I would think the hardest interview to get would have to have been the kidnapper. That was the longest one to find. I spent three or four months trying — that’s another long story. There were three phases of production. The second phase of production was when we ran out of money. Lost the last three days because there was an accounting problem and we were $40,000 over budget. I had two more days of filming, plus an interview with a kidnapper set up for the following week. It was set up in a prison; a guy who cut off some fingers [as ransom], and that interview alone was costing over $10,000 in bribes. I went back [to America], cut what we had with Doug Abel, and it didn’t have an ending because we didn’t have the kidnapper. A huge part of the puzzle was missing. We submitted it to the Toronto Film Festival and didn’t get in. It had been three and a half years, we had no money, we had been doing this for a long time, and this wasn’t a movie just to submit to film schools anymore. It had become professional. We thought, If this movie isn’t getting into film festivals, there’s something wrong, and that reaffirmed that it didn’t have an ending. So I ended up spending six or seven months totally broke. It was horrible, I was doing research at MSNBC in Newark on some BTK television documentary. I wanted to kill myself.
How did you then find the kidnapper that you actually interviewed in the film? After I came back to São Paulo for the second time, I learned that we couldn’t go to the jail anymore because there were stories in the papers while we were gone on how corrupt the jails were, so they no longer were being helpful. Pretty much I was screwed because I didn’t have the interview I needed. But my dad knew someone who knew a guy, and he set up a meeting with a kidnapper. We decided to do it, but the kidnapper told us that if his identity was ever revealed he would kill the contact’s family.
Did you have to pay for any other interviews? No. Only with the kidnapper.
MAGRINHO IN MANDA BALA.
Were you ever scared for your safety? Not really, because I didn’t look like I had money, and honestly, the crime is centralized in the slums. If you aren’t high profile you don’t have much to worry about. But there were two times. One was after we interviewed Jader Barbalho. If he had second thoughts about us, it would have been pretty simple to get rid of us. The other was when we interviewed the kidnapper and the cops came. Magrinho usually doesn’t go out in the daytime, but for us he went outside and walked around. Someone saw him and called the cops. His mom yelled to him out a window that they were coming and he ran back inside. Inside he had over a kilo of cocaine, heroine and God knows how many guns. He said something in Portuguese. I thought he said, “Hide my gun,” but what he really said was “Load my gun.” Our contact loaded the gun and gave it to him. His bedroom is his surveillance headquarters. He’s got the whole neighborhood wired for surveillance, he wouldn’t let us film it, but it was unbelievable. So he’s waiting by the door to see if the cops would come. What we didn’t realize until later was the cops weren’t really looking to bust him; they just heard he was out of his house and wanted to pick him up and extort money. The only thing I felt bad about with that situation was what if one of my crew got hit with a stray bullet. It’s one thing if I get hit — this is my film, I understand the dangers — but these guys didn’t sign on for anything life threatening.
And while this was going on, you weren’t filming, right? Well, we hadn’t set up yet — we didn’t have any time.
That must have been a moment where you wished you had shot on video. It would have been amazing to capture, but it really wouldn’t have fit with the rest of the movie.
But it would have made one hell of a DVD extra. Exactly.
Jader Barbalho is one of the major subjects of the film. How did you score an interview with him? It’s interesting, because I was never really interested in talking to him. When I went back [to São Paulo], it was to get an interview with the kidnapper — that was the main focus — but then someone said that this was a propaganda film. It really stuck in my mind, and then I knew I had to try to at least attempt to get in touch with him. All I thought was I’d get him on the phone and ask him the questions, and he’d say, “No comment.” So I had a friend that knew how to get in touch with his second in command. And she started flirting with him and telling him that we are North Americans doing a piece on agriculture, and he said, “You know what? The man you have to speak to is Jader.” So we set up a time and he showed up for an hour. I think he thought this was something to attract foreign inventors. I was nauseous — it was just disgusting. One of the things I remember Errol telling me is that looking straight into the eyes of an evil person can raise people’s expectation for a revelation. But he’s learned the truth about evil people — they are generally evasive and cunning, which can sometimes appear to be anti-climactic. But within that evasion is a truth about the nature of evil.
Did you have more respect for the kidnapper than Jader? You know what? In a way I did. At least the kidnapper tells you straight out that he’s a bad person. Now, don’t get me wrong — he’s killed people and tortured people, so he’s no better, but at least he admitted what he did. He’s dead, you know.
How? He was killed about three months after we interviewed him. I heard that he learned that his drug contact was skimming money off the top, so he killed him. Then the cops found him, there was a shootout and chase, and he was jumping from rooftop to rooftop, City of God–style, and he was wounded by the cops and captured. But when he was brought to the hospital he was dead already with a fresh bullet wound in the head.
The first words we see in the film are “A film that cannot be shown in Brazil.” Do you have any intentions of trying to get it shown there? I’d very much like to show it in São Paulo, but we’ve been threatened with a lawsuit if we distribute there, so as of now we have no means to fight this.
Do you fear for the safety of your family and friends that live in Brazil? I don’t, really. My father and I have talked about that, in fact. He’s a big reason why I did the film, so we knew from the start what doing a film like this could mean. But we aren’t that concerned.