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Manda Bala

Jason Kohn's Manda Bala (Send a Bullet) is a documentary that Americans really need to see. The subject is extreme income disparity and its social consequences. Mr Kohn's jocular eye and spry editing make his picture very entertaining, often funny. But the message is clear. With the possible exception of Jader Barbalho (a politician who has so far dodged a series of corruption charges), everyone in this movie is a victim. The rich are victims - they're kidnapped; their ears are cut off; they have no sense of security. The poor are victims, too, living in their unwholesome favelas.

Manda Bala makes a star of its principal location, Sấo Paolo, the Brazilian metropolis. The film opens with a series of images of helipads atop tall buildings. We're later told that the city hosts the largest fleet of private helicopters in the world. That's because they're safer. You're never out in the street, vulnerable to kidnapping. Cars can be bullet-proofed - only not really. Bodyguards can be picked off. When you're thrown in the trunk of your captors' car, there may already be another hostage in there.

The good news is that if the kidnappers cut off one or both ears, there's a plastic surgeon who can make new ones that look perfect. First, he takes rib cartilage... oh, you don't want to hear about that? I certainly didn't want to see it. There are some truly tough sights in Manda Bala - just enough, I should say, to assure that sympathies are roused. But if you're an American, don't go feeling sorry for the Brazilians. Worry about importing their mess here, by means of mindless free-market anarchy.

Manda Bala follows a few story lines without working very hard at making connections. I never did figure out why the frog farm got so much attention, but I was amused by the footage. There's the young woman whose days as a hostage coincided with a Hitchcock festival on the TV channel to which the kidnappers had tuned in (the volume blaring, to cover her moans), and who never wants to see another Hitchcock movie again. There is a faintly smarmy computer entrepreneur who calls himself "Mr M" and who speaks English with the faintest of accents - clearly the graduate of an American university. Brazil's Attorney General and as Assitant Attorney General speak quite freely about corruption, the former with a kind of glee, the latter with a sullen anger (both men appear to be quite honest). In the background, there's the idea that corruption diverts money from programs for economic development, which in turn produces stagnant job growth, which leads to poor people crowding in favelas. Mr Kohn is adroit to leave it there - in the background. His job is to illustrate a crisis, not explain it.

For all its wealth and glitter, Sấo Paolo seems to be a broken city. It could happen here. (August 2007)

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