“Manda bala” is Portuguese for “send a bullet.”
Manda Bala is a documentary about the corruption, crime, violence, and general cruelty and misery in Brazil, especially Sao Paulo.
There are actually fairly few subtitles. A little bit is in English, a little bit is in Portuguese with English subtitles, and the bulk of the film is in Portuguese with then an interpreter repeating what’s said in English.
The subject matter is grim to chilling throughout, but it’s somewhat fast-paced, has plenty of attention-grabbing visuals, and has an energetic and at times even upbeat soundtrack, all of which gives it a little different feel than one might expect.
The style isn’t an obvious fit for the material, but I wouldn’t say it’s inappropriate necessarily, because I don’t know that the style distracts from or mitigates the morally gruesome elements. It probably makes the film a bit more watchable, but doesn’t sacrifice much seriousness in the process. It’s not like it trivializes the subject matter.
This film is maybe a little more emotionally relevant to me, because I’m quite fond of a really terrific woman from Brazil, in fact near Sao Paulo, and I had occasion once to talk to her for maybe a half hour or so about the state of affairs in her country. She spoke of what a beautiful country it is and how much potential it has, but how horribly corrupt it is. She had had fantasies of pursuing some kind of career, whether in politics or criminal justice or whatever, to try to help change things, because she feels so strongly about it, but concluded it just isn’t worth sacrificing her life, which she said it could easily come to, as those who try to do good in that society routinely die young.
The pain and the sincerity in her voice came back to me as I watched Manda Bala.
I have to think she would agree with the thrust of this film, though on the other hand, I could see a Brazilian person, even one who opposes the prevailing corrupt practices, reacting defensively to the film, since it’s not exactly a 50-50 balance of pro and con Brazil material. It’s pretty unrelenting in making the country look like a hellhole.
The film intertwines several interviews with individuals who represent some of the ugliest aspects of Brazilian life. Broadly speaking their stories are related in that they’re all about crime and corruption, but really the film goes back and forth among distinguishable threads.
Constituting kind of the symbolic center of the film is a frog farmer, reluctant to talk too much about how a corrupt governor set up numerous phony businesses, including a non-existent frog farm, and then directed government grants to these businesses. So throughout the movie, frogs are seen being skinned, slaughtered, eaten, etc., and even cannibalizing each other, to represent the fate of the bulk of the Brazilian people.
Most disturbing are the interviews with a kidnap victim who had her earlobe cut off (an average of one person a day gets kidnapped for ransom in Sao Paulo, with torture and cutting off of body parts to send to the family common), and with a criminal syndicate leader who organizes many such kidnappings and has trouble remembering how many people he’s killed by now or who was the first.
But, as one of the interviewees says, some people steal with a gun and some people steal with a pen. Even though the directly, blatantly violent crimes are more immediately striking and infuriating, the governor with all the fake businesses, and really the overwhelming majority of people who manage to become and remain rich in such a corrupt society, damage a lot more lives in the long run than the kind of hoodlums from the slums who rob and kidnap and occasionally murder people.
It’s comic and depressing at the same time to contemplate all the adjustments, all the changes, all the countermeasures that people get used to in an environment where they treat each other so abominably. Not that Brazil has a monopoly on that; we’ve gotten used to absurd things like that as well, from not being able to take shampoo on an airplane, to incarcerating a larger percentage of our population than any other country in the world in hideous facilities where they can be preyed on by guards and each other.
But in Brazil, the rich drive around in bulletproof cars, and are just beginning to implant chips under their skin so that they’ll be easier to track if they get kidnapped. Plastic surgeons do a booming business reattaching earlobes (or really building fake earlobes out of breasts or other tissue and attaching them, since it’s not like the kidnapping victims are given their severed earlobes to take home with them). One such surgeon is interviewed at length, discussing the new and improved techniques he’s come up with through practice.
How this species has lasted this long is a complete mystery to me.
Brazil is one of those societies with a huge gap between rich and poor. And needless to say the poor lead miserable lives just trying to survive. But it doesn’t look like the greatest place in the world to be rich either. Always looking over their shoulder, living in armed compounds, driving around in bulletproof cars, etc. Granted, in between dodging bullets and kidnappers and other rapacious businessmen and government officials trying to take their piece of the pie, they have a lot more fun than the poor. But is this any way for human beings to live, getting makeshift earlobes sewn back on them?
When people are willing to do anything to win, neither the winners nor the losers end up in a very enviable position.
I thought it was curious that there’s not a single mention of Lula, the somewhat leftist, somewhat populist president of Brazil. My understanding is that he’s tacked considerably to the center, whether because he sold out or because there was zero chance to achieve more leftist goals regardless I don’t know. Maybe that’s why he’s not mentioned here, because nothing changed. So it’s pointless to talk about who’s at the top, since all the same shit happens anyway.
But I don’t know; I’m just speculating. I know they didn’t have a revolution, but they had what from the outside looked like a pretty significant political shift to the left, and it’s interesting that that isn’t addressed at all here.
Maybe as depressing as anything about Manda Bala is the realization that relatively speaking Brazil isn’t even that bad. I don’t know where it would rank amongst all the countries in the world in terms of oppression and just behaving like cannibalistic frogs in general, but I’m guessing somewhere around the middle. There are lots of places where life is as bad or worse than in Brazil.
It is sad though, just thinking about how good-hearted my friend from Brazil is, and how she deserves so much better. She’s just starting a family now, and I wish it could be in a better society, and a better world, where people like her are the norm rather than the frustrated exception.