January 23, 2007 / 4:43 PM / 13 years ago

American filmmaker tackles Brazil corruption, crime

By Mary Milliken

PARK CITY, Utah, Jan 23 (Reuters) - The connection in Brazil between a boom in ear-reconstruction surgeries and political corruption is far from obvious, but a young U.S. filmmaker crossed the country to make that link in a new documentary.

In "Manda Bala" (Send a Bullet), competing at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Jason Kohn argues that rampant corruption by powerful politicians in the poor north has fueled a violent crime spiral in the wealthy south.

The southern city of Sao Paulo, with its 20 million people, is the kidnapping capital of Brazil. Gangs from the teeming slums often cut off their victims’ ears to pressure families to pay ransom, and the victims often turn to plastic surgeons to restore their appearance.

As a ruthless kidnapper tells Kohn, most of the people living in his slum are from the north and northeast, driven to Sao Paulo by the lack of food and jobs in one of the poorest areas of Latin America.

For Kohn, it wouldn’t be that way if the politicians hadn’t stolen so much money.

"Linking those two stories was basically five years’ work and it wasn’t obvious at all in the beginning," Kohn, 28, told Reuters after premiering his first film, a polished product made on a tight budget.

His work is competing with 15 other documentaries in the top U.S. festival for independent film, which ends on Jan. 28. He expects to seal a distribution deal this week.


"Manda Bala" tells stories likely to shock even Brazilians numbed by centuries of corruption dating back to Portuguese colonization.

The film begins with a visit to the world’s biggest edible-frog farm, where Kohn discusses with the owner a corruption scandal involving embezzled government money for a frog farm that never materialized.

The farmer wriggles in his seat, uncomfortable talking about Jader Barbalho, who was accused in the phantom-farm scandal and is one of the most powerful men in Brazil.

Barbalho has been elected to every office except president and has been accused repeatedly of diverting government development funds into his own accounts.

Brazil’s prosecutors say they have no doubt about Barbalho’s history of embezzlement, but the courts have failed to convict him. In a separate interview with Kohn, Barbalho walks out when asked about the frog farm scandal.

Kohn also takes the viewer into the trauma of kidnapping, as one young victim tells about having her ear cut off and sent to her family with a ransom note. A video shows a kidnapper slicing a man’s ear, making him beg for his family to save him.

A young businessman talks about the security measures he takes to avoid kidnapping, like armored cars and tactical driving. He says he hopes to have a microchip planted under his skin to monitor his movements.

But Kohn also finds heroes. One is a macho policeman who locates and rescues kidnap victims. Another is a plastic surgeon who invites the camera to film an ear reconstruction.

Kohn used a mostly Brazilian crew, and employed his father, who lives in Brazil, and the film showcases the country’s tropical landscapes and infectious music. But he expects Brazilians to be split over his view of their country.

"A Brazilian woman at the screening last night was effusive," he said. "But there is a very typical Brazilian response that I have encountered in the past five years making the movie — ‘Why are you talking bad about my country?’"

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