Shot in Anamorphic Super 16, Manda Bala Connects Poverty and Corruption
Unexpectedly, Kohn says he didn’t make Manda Bala in order to raise awareness of poverty, or to effect change in Brazil. He says he made it more to challenge what he saw as hopelessly mundane, limiting ideas about what documentary films could and should be. The effort has opened some doors for him – Manda Bala won the Sundance Film Festival award for documentary cinematography as well as the jury prize for documentary, and it cleaned up at last month’s Cinema Eye Awards for documentary filmmaking – and he’s working on a screenplay set in Southeast Asia, dealing with corruption and violence in the international cargo-shipping business. In a wide-ranging, occasionally profane phone interview with F&V, Kohn complained about the state of documentary film, described the dangerous business of spending time at home with a violent criminal, and answered a few of his critics. (Manda Bala is available on DVD from City Lights Pictures.)
JASON KOHN: There’s a big difference between television documentaries and theatrical documentaries. I would never come down on television documentaries at all, but often what you see today is theatrical documentaries that are television documentaries extended 30 minutes past their prime and made into watered-down theatrical documentaries. Part of making this movie was a reaction against the watering down of something I truly love, which is the cinematic, theatrical documentary. Not a lot of people do them, because they’re expensive and labor-intensive. But if you expect somebody to pay 10 dollars to see a movie in a dark theater at night, you owe it to the audience to give them a cinematic experience. It was a reaction against what I saw as a cheap, lazy style of filmmaking in documentary films in general.
F&V: A lot of documentaries these days seem to be made to argue a specific political point of view. It’s like an instrument for mounting an argument rather than –
JK: Somebody from the PBS POV blog [POV series producer Yance Ford, in this post] mentioned that the lowest-rated POV show is seen by more people than 99 percent of the theatrically released documentaries out there. It’s a really important point. I don’t believe activism is a necessary or even a very useful part of the nonfiction film genre. I don’t think nonfiction films were born out of an activist tradition and, quite frankly, I don’t think it’s an effective forum for activism.
F&V: So you don’t see your motivation in making your film as activist at all? Or trying to catalyze change?
JK: Absolutely not. No way whatsoever. Let’s say the activist’s dream scenario came true, and Jader Barbalho was ousted from power, which is the only specific goal that one could possibly, in an alternate reality, expect this movie to have. Nothing would change. The problems in Brazil are institutional. This wasn’t about trying to effect change, because I genuinely don’t believe documentary film is a great form for that. But I do think it’s an important historical marker. It exposes very real connections between large-scale political corruption and violence. But first and foremost I made a film. My personal politics are in there because they are my politics, but I was way more driven by the oddness of the frog farm, the ingenuity of the plastic surgeon, and the opportunity to film in a city that I didn’t think many people really understood was as rich or powerful as it is.
F&V: In this industry we’re always talking about how things look: What’s your aesthetic strategy, or how are you trying to communicate visually? That’s a real important part of content. People talk about form versus content and style versus content, but a lot of the time, in this business, they’re the same thing.
JK: My biggest complaint in documentaries for years has been the conceit that content will always triumph over form – as a matter of fact, that form will always be the slave of content in documentaries. And that’s just bullshit. From Robert Flaherty to Errol Morris, what you see are intensely visual stories. Frederick Wiseman is brilliant because he shows process. He lets pictures tell a story. I loved just watching the frogs on the farm. I thought it was a beautiful metaphor for the cycle of poverty without being the patronizing white liberal western person going down into a developing country and sticking my camera in the face of poor people.
F&V: How did you find your cinematographer, Heloàsa Passos, and what was that collaboration like?
JK: I can’t speak highly enough of her. It was dumb luck. My father lives in Sà£o Paolo, and had met her at a party, sitting next to her on a couch and striking up a conversation. When I got down there, she was one of the first people I met. And we got along really well. I interviewed a whole bunch of cinematographers after that, but I told her that what I really wanted to do was shoot anamorphically, in the same aspect ratio as I Stand Alone by Gaspar Noe. I spoke to Noe’s DP at the time [Dominique Colin]. He stuck an anamorphic projector lens in front of the Super 16 camera lens to get true anamorphic in the frame. But because you have two lenses, you need more light. Plus you can’t move the camera because you have two focusing elements. So I found a guy in the UK, Joe Dunton, who had designed a set of anamorphics specifically adapted for the Super 16 camera. This guy’s an old-timer, a friend of Kubrick’s, and he developed the anamorphics for 2001. He became a real fan of what we were doing with them, and ended up sending them down for free. He was really good to us.
F&V: In a way, shooting anamorphic is like making an anti-television statement.
JK: I remember the first time I heard that HBO doesn’t broadcast anything in letterbox. And HBO is the most lucrative distribution outlet for documentaries in America. This was before they started doing 16×9 frames, or they might have just started. But they wouldn’t show anything in Cinemascope. And this was even wider than Cinemascope. Manda Bala is 2.69:1, because these are 35mm lenses adapted for a 16mm camera. It was a big fuck you, saying, “This is not a television documentary.”
Does that sound obnoxious? I get all worked up about this stuff.
F&V: Did anyone ever come up to you and say, ‘Are you cutting your own throat as far as getting this seen by a wide audience?’
JK: The only reason that’s even an issue is because of what happened at Sundance. It was a fluke. I didn’t expect to win at Sundance. It is a very, very small movie, and it hasn’t been seen by a lot of people – but the expectations from the beginning were so small that I had nothing to lose. It was an experiment to look at the way theatrical documentaries exist, and what they’re rooted in, and what they’ve come to mean today. It started off so small that it was never really an issue. After we won Sundance, the business end became a lot more serious. There were a lot more expectations. But, you know, I wasn’t going to listen to anyone anyway. My film was a mom-and-pop business, literally. My dad’s office was the Sao Paolo office, and my mom’s office was the New York office.
F&V: How did the money come together for it?
JK: Starting off? I was 23. I sold my car. I had a saxophone at the time. I sold that, too. That was the initial $10,000. Joey [Frank], the co-producer, came down. He brought about that much money, as well. And then we started shooting and Jared [Goldman, another producer,] got involved. The first phase of this was basically people begging for money. Me, I had a couple of friends who were doing well after graduating university. A thousand dollars here, three thousand there. It was piecemeal. We scammed together enough money to shoot about 25 hours of film, and we had what was the beginning of this movie. We edited together the trailer and got a grant from the Sundance institute, which gave us legitimacy. And then we found an investor who was sympathetic to what we were doing.
When we first started it, it was so different. Every single person that I said I was going down to make a movie in Brazil thought I was going to come back with some MiniDV footage of poor people. And then I came back with this really, really specific-looking anamorphic footage and this really crazy story, and a lot of enthusiasm. People felt like it was something to get behind. About three and a half years after it became more difficult, when there was still no movie, and we were so behind budget.
F&V: Were there ever places where the money just ran out?
JK: I spent about eight months in my apartment. I barely had enough money to pay my rent, and I didn’t have enough money to go out, so I literally stayed in my apartment doing nothing, waiting for more money to come or for somebody to give up on the movie. It was a nightmare. It was awfully difficult making the movie.
F&V: Watching it, it’s hard to imagine how you got access to these people and gained their trust. Did you ever feel that you were in danger while you were shooting?
JK: Yes, specifically during the interview with the kidnapper and the interview with Jader Barbalho. With Barbalho, it was different. There was a general sense that we were in his town, and after the interview we had a day to get out of there. That was just paranoia more than grounded fear. But while I was interviewing the kidnapper, there were weapons around. There was a kilo of crack and a kilo of cocaine in his home. It definitely felt like we had stepped into a world where violence and crime was pedestrian, and there was no reason for anyone there to act like it was an exception because there were a couple of white people in the house.
He was very nice to us, and his wife cooked us lunch. There was a small crew that day, only four or five people. Afterwards we went out for beers, and he was telling us more stories about his life. One of his neighbors saw us walking down the street, and one of his neighbors called the cops, because he usually sleeps during the day and works at night in that industry. And the cops came. He had this very sophisticated video surveillance system hooked up around the favela, the slum he lived in, and we literally watched the police come into the favela, stop in front of his house. He got this huge cannon of a gun and was standing right at the door. We were watching the police walk around, and that was a particularly frightening experience. Because of all the drugs he had in his home, and because of how fearless he was, if the police had knocked down his door he would have exchanged fire without thinking about it. It’s kind of what he considers his job profile. But as it turns out, the police were actually looking to catch him on the outside, drinking beers with the Americans, as opposed to breaking down his door and exchanging fire with him. Because if they had caught him on the outside, they would have been able to shake him down for money.
My immediate instinct was, wow, this guy is going to think that we brought the police, that this is some kind of sting. He would have just shot us in the head. I assume certain risks, but the crew did not sign up to put themselves in that situation. That was a shitty day. But in the end, I ended up having to celebrate, because I got the end of the movie. That eight-month period I was talking about in my apartment alone was because I had edited a version of the film without the kidnapper, because I had run out of money the last time I had been in Brazil, and there was no ending to the film. I had this movie that wasn’t very good, and I knew it needed this last part, but I couldn’t get back to Brazil because too much money had been spent already. And after that horrible experience, we got the interview and I knew we had the movie in the can.
F&V: What was post-production like?
JK: It was the worst and most difficult part of the process. The fact is, [in the editing] you’re writing the script – with the limited vocabulary of what you’ve already shot. You’re putting together this enormous puzzle, and you’re totally alone in the dark. It’s a process by fire. You have to continually fail. In a movie like mine, when things are wrong it really feels wrong, and the bell resounds because of how weird it is. You have to strike all the right notes or it gets really bad. Not to say we don’t have some bad notes in there, but you have to minimize it. We had three different editors over 18 months of editing and three different phases of editing.
F&V: On the whole, are you pretty happy with what you got?
JK: I’m extraordinarily proud of the movie. More than I’m proud of the movie, I’m proud of the process. The cinematography is something – I don’t see this as “good for a documentary.” I’m so proud of what Heloàsa has done for the film. I think the cinematography stands on its own, fiction or nonfiction. The combination of the content and the composition and the use of Hollywood-style lighting prove that it was something unique and special. I really love it. I’m proud of the editing. The middle editor, Doug [Abel], whom I went to in absolute despair, was the one who taught me what a story meant. It’s immodest for me to talk about the movie because I really do love it.
F&V: I was taking a look this morning at your reviews, and I noticed a common thread. Several criticized you for a perceived sensationalism. There seemed to be a reaction to the stylishness of the imagery, and the soundtrack, and to some of the footage you used. Repeatedly critics were coming back and saying, “This is irresponsible” or, “It trivializes the material.”
JK: I have to say it was really frustrating, especially coming from certain mainstream sources. When it comes from The New York Times, from somebody like Stephen Holden – if you look at his documentary reviews, it’s patently obvious that he has no basis whatsoever to be writing about nonfiction films. He doesn’t understand the genre, and he has a bunch of pre-conceived notions about what a documentary should be. And, more specifically, he believes a documentary should hold up certain journalistic standards. When you make a documentary that is impressionistic, and which goes against a lot of tenets of journalism, that’s like criticizing an orange for not being an apple. He would never look at any other movie like that and judge it along the same criteria. If you look at his review of The Monastery: Mr. Vig and the Nun, which is a fantastic movie, he criticizes it for not including more factual details – and the movie’s about a relationship. I think there’s a huge problem in the way film critics look to documentaries to be informative, which shows a bias against the genre and a lack of understanding.
As far as the “sensationalism” goes, that’s – in the most perjorative sense, it’s snobbery and elitism. The fact is that these are extraordinary real scenarios that happen. The movie is literally about the connection between political corruption and violence, and to intellectualize it is one thing. But to see it happening, to understand what it actually means, is my responsibility as a storyteller. This is the reality of what people go through. Not to show it would have been irresponsible. Sensationalism is one of those misunderstood and overused terms. I hate going on the defensive, but I have a lot of serious problems with the mainstream critical approach to documentaries.
At the same time, the movie was made as a provocation. It was made as a provocation against all those things I couldn’t stand. The people who criticize it on those terms make it clear on which side of this argument they fall. I would have liked to think I could have convinced more people to come to my side, to support Manda Bala, to understand that the film, the subtext of the film, the texture of the film, the craft involved, that’s the important stuff. If there’s an idealistic part of this movie, it’s not about fighting corruption. It’s about reconsidering the way people think about documentaries.
F&V: Well, what documentaries have you seen lately that you really liked?
JK: I saw a phenomenal undistributed documentary called Sweet Dreams about a boxer and a bookie in Rhode Island. It’s so well crafted. It feels like Rocky. But it’s a very honest portrayal of these two working-class guys. There are two different reasons why it’s not distributed, and they’re obvious. One, it’s a sports movie, and people have trouble figuring out how to sell sports movies. And two, the characters are working-class Italian-Americans. And lower-middle-class and the true middle class do stand in some kind of hostile opposition to the educated upper-middle-class who watch and distribute documentaries. There is a lot of hypocrisy amongst the left – what it means to be left-leaning, to be liberal – and this movie kind of throws a lot of that in their face. It’s not purposeful, but it’s there. Working-class values sometimes clash with liberally educated upper-middle-class values. It’s directed by Eric Scott Latek.
And I loved The Monastery. It’s a relationship movie. It’s fantastic. It’s hilarious. It’s about this crazy old man who wants to start a monastery in a castle that he bought in the 1970s in Denmark, and he brings in a Russian Orthodox nun to see if this building would be suitable for a monastery. It’s a really odd story about very peculiar, funny characters. I’m a hardcore atheist, and I shy away from anything that deals with spirituality or religious matters in a sympathetic way. But this was about two very spiritual people, and I loved the movie so much because the characters and the relationships were so strong.
F&V: I was going to ask you about the difficulty of getting a film seen, but it sounds like after Sundance you had more success than you thought you would.
JK: Tragically, this year the Academy Award rules have flooded the market because of the way movies had to become eligible for the Academy Awards. In a typical year you would have maybe one or two documentaries out at a given time over the summer. This year, we were up against four or five documentaries. In New York City or Los Angeles, that’s a recipe for disaster. It’s such a marginalized genre. The audience is very small, and if you have too many movies in the theater, people just don’t go see them. The result is that just about every documentary released this year between August and November underperformed by about 300 to 500 percent.
Usually you see a few movies a year that make somewhere between $3 to $5 million. Manda Bala is not that kind of movie. Manda Bala is a movie that given a theatrical run and a marketing campaign, it had the potential to make between $300,000 and $500,000. It’s a modest sum for a movie, but I think that was our potential. And we ended up making $120,000. Between $120,000 and $500,000 I still don’t get paid, so it doesn’t matter. But movies like No End in Sight, My Kid Could Paint That, and King of Kong are movies were made for big audiences, and should have been seen by big audiences.
F&V: You’ve got more people able to make documentaries because the technology has become more democraticized and there are more documentaries out there, which makes it difficult for any given documentary to be seen.
JK: You know, I’ve never really bought into this whole “democratization of technology” in the first place. The kinds of people who will go out and make a documentary with a $5,000 camera that they own are not so different from the kinds of people that go out and rent equipment and make a $1 million documentary. The people who make the $1 million documentary just work a little harder. The genre isn’t more accessible to the people that one likes to romanticize, who will have access with all these cheap cameras. The thing still costs the price of a car. And who is going to pay for that? Someone with access to money. And you have a lot of people with access to money, so you get more hacks making movies, rather than more people of lower economic means with the ability to tell different stories, really giving a democratic and diverse idea of the world.
F&V: Do you think there’s hope that, in the future, we will actually see more culturally and economically marginalized people having the means at their disposal to participate in the media?
JK: If history has any say in it, of course not. At what point in the history of the world do poor people ever not get fucked? I came from a middle-class family, and I had a lot of advantages. But I also worked really, really hard. Work was always something I thought was very liberating and good in general. But I’m not going to sit here and romanticize the plight of the poor, because I think that’s horrible. There’s this tendency of people to go down to Brazil and fall in love with poverty. They see everything through these rose-colored glasses because the Brazilian people, by and large, are really nice. They’re really welcoming. They’re wonderful people. You can go into the favelas and say, “Oh everyone’s so cool. You don’t have to be rich to be happy.” You don’t have to be rich to be happy, but everybody deserves potable water and a goddamned toilet. And these assholes are like, “Oh, there’s something so great about it.” I think poverty is something that people need to think very seriously about, and it has to be dealt with.
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