This review is a long time coming. A very long time. It's been weeks since I saw, and loved, Manda Bala, and yet I haven't gotten off my ass(or, to be truthful of my actions right now, ON my ass) to write up a review, or even a collection of thoughts. Manda Bala was excellent, more than I expected in every way possible, and yet I find myself grasping for things to say about it. The movie speaks for itself so perfectly that I don't think I could add anything that would heighten the experience. Or maybe I'm just having trouble finding a way into the movie.
Manda Bala is a documentary about... well... just what is it about? It opens with a man being interviewed about frog farming in Brazil, and he good-naturedly refuses to answer questions about some sort of scandal involving frog farming. So is it about frog farming and government corruption? Yes. The movie then shows us a young businessman who has invested thousands of dollars into protection, walks with a dummy wallet for random(and frequent) carjackings, and takes courses teaching how to outrun gunmen on the highway. So is this film about the insanely high rate of crime in Sao Paulo? Yes. Then we meet a woman who was kidnapped and held for ransom for 16 days, eventually having her ear cut off and sent to her father. So is Manda Bala about the human cost of corruption, violence and class distinction in one of the most impoverished parts of the world? Also yes. But wait there's more; the plastic surgeon with a surprisingly healthy God-complex who has made his name, and fortune, on reconstructing all of the dismembered ears of kidnap victims, the overworked and understaffed anti-kidnapping squad, the corrupt politician who has bilked millions- billions, even!- from his countrymen, and the masked kidnapper who sees himself as an urban Robin Hood, protecting and providing for his neighbors in the slums of Brazil.
Manda Bala is a complex spiderweb of a documentary, a project much more ambitious than the filmmakers apparently set out to make, and completely unlike the more high profile documentaries that make it to theatres. There is no narrative here, and no narrator. What we get are a series of interviews, some instances of found news footage and a few uses of title cards. But really the focus is on the personalities at play, and the filmmakers let their subjects speak for themselves. Obviously there is some judicious editing here; someone chose exactly which statements would make the cut, and someone chose how to arrange them to make certain ideas more resonant, but overall the film feels more honest and real than any documentaries I've seen lately. And yet the film has a distinct theatricality to it, which would seem to play against the realism on display. For one, Manda Bala is shot on film stock, which gives it a theatrical, commercial sheen. For another, all of the shots are shamelessly set up in advance. How else to explain how locations are perfectly lit as characters walk through them, purportedly for the first time?
The theatricality does not, as you would expect, detract from anything. Instead it lends Manda Bala a more exotic locale. The stories being told are all the more shocking with they take place in the middle of a postcard perfect color palette, and everyone is lit like a movie star. Perhaps I'm playing this up a bit much, since there would be no mistaking this for a Hollywood production. And yet, for all it's production values and manipulation of the image, the filmmakers don't attempt to create any sort of story out of this, other than what appears on screen. Obviously our natural inclinations will be to view the kidnapper(who has, presumably, disfigured victims, and has admittedly killed several cops) with disgust, the corrupt politician as a scumbag, and the plastic surgeon with the contempt we normally reserve for plastic surgeons. But think for a minute, and listen to their words. Sure the doctor seems like a prick of the first order, but he is helping people who more genuinely require his services than the average socialite. The kidnapper uses heinous acts of violence against strangers for money, but in his eyes he's fighting for survival, not just his, but his neighbors, in a country where the government and the wealthy are bleeding the life out of them. He has the most striking moments in the film, particularly when he talks of his own children. He has 9, and his wife is pregnant with number 10. He seems to view it as the only way out of the entire mess, and dreams that one of his children may grow up to be president and fix his country. And the politician... well... he's still a scumbag.
The point being, none of these characters has any judgments cast their way. And that, as great as it is, leaves me a little lost. I'm not used to documentaries not telling me how to think. What is this new feeling? Is this what those public radio hippies call independent thought? It feels good. And I'd recommend it to anyone out there reading this.