Director Jason Kohn‘s doc “Manda Bala (Send a Bullet)” jumped into the festival circuit fray with a big win at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, taking both the grand jury prize for best documentary and the doc cinematography award for Heloisa Passos. The film’s tag line basically sums up the doc’s overall subject: “When the rich steal from the poor… the poor steal the rich.” Set in Brazil, “Manda Bala” examines the corruption and class warfare that runs rampant in the South American country, with individual stories from the country’s elite who fall victim to kidnapping for ransom, while conversely spotlighting the high-end thievery practiced by society’s upper echelons. “Manda Bala (Send a Bullet)” opens in limited release beginning Friday, August 17 from City Lights Pictures.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career?
I think like most directors, I just love movies. For the better part of my life I had imagined that the “industry” was a magical place only accessible to the lucky, brilliant and super talented. Well after my first summer internship during college working on a medium budget indie film, the Wizard of Oz was revealed. The industry was full of normal people simply making their livings. I figured that if they could all do it, so could I.
Are there other aspects of filmmaking that you would still like to explore?
I look forward to working with actors.
Please talk about how the idea for “Manda Bala” came about and evolved…
This project had very humble beginnings. I was researching a story about a group of revolutionary landless peasants in Brazil that I thought needed a new image and big budget marketing campaign. I even had storyboards drawn up for what could have been their slick new TV ads. The movie was going to be a political satire but was a little too on-the-nose. While doing research, though, I came across these two other stories that I thought were more subtle but could be just as provocative without being so didactic about class struggle and all that. It started as a story of a frog farmer in the country and a plastic surgeon in the city, two men at the top of their fields, and the relationships of their relative fields to the crimes surrounding them. Thanks to a conversation with a friend, though, that amorphous relationship turned into the idea that this film could be about the ways that the rich steal from the poor, and the poor steal back from the rich. From there it became a lot easier to tell people what the film was about. I recruited another friend, Joey Frank, to come down to Brazil with me and start this adventure. We were young and had little to loose.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in development and production?
When you’re 23, have literally no production experience whatsoever and make the decision to work with a sizable crew on film, and especially in cinemascope, one of my first concerns was how to gain the respect of the crew. I was afraid they were just going to assume I was some over-privileged young American asshole and this project was merely going to be another pay check to them. While this is totally naive, I wanted the crew to believe in the project and feel like they were part of something special. Heloisa Passos, our DP, understood what I was trying to do from the beginning and her enthusiasm helped bring the crew around and I think a large part of why the film looks the way it does is because all their hard work prints. Heloisa taught me more than anyone when it comes to production, she was my film school, and her trust in me built a lot of the confidence it took to complete this project when times got hard. I still haven’t had a screening for the crew and it kills me that we’re having legal issues stopping us from screening the film in Brazil.
Who are some of the creative influences that have had the biggest impact on you?
Aside from filmmakers like Errol Morris, Paul Verhoven, Frederick Wiseman, Terry Gilliam, Abbas Kiarostami, the Coen brothers, Gaspar Noe and countless others, Howard Stern has probably been one of the greatest cultural influences in my life. Aside from being the most under-rated entertainer of at least my generation, he has been on a campaign fighting hypocrisy in the media and in politics for about as long as I have been alive. These are often seen as fighting words in many social circles, but Howard is a true anti-elitist, he has no regard for authoritarian establishments and these qualities were the intellectual building blocks for “Manda Bala (Send a Bullet).”
What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed at all since you first started working?
Perhaps the most fundamental struggle directing “Manda Bala (Send a Bullet),” and probably every film ever made, has been that against compromise. And in my experience, there are two main arenas this struggle takes place: in story and in production. When storytellers/directors/producers raise their own money to make their own films, rarely do they have to compromise in content, and that is probably the heart of what is most romantically called “independent cinema.” While on the other hand, commercial cinema, full of cliched stories and conventional characters, grants directors access to vast production resources that allow the kinds of visual story-telling rarely achieved in the independent world. Whether commercial or indie, though, I have very little tolerance for snobbery on either end and refuse to judge a film by its budget. At this point, “indie” is a convenient marketing term.
What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?
I would urge anyone trying to make films to avoid the confusion between the democracy of the medium (which is endless) and the democracy of the process (which is non-existent).
Please share achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of.
During most of production, the “Manda Bala” mantra was “success is completion.” Finishing this film was such a monumental achievement that could have gone south so many times. Everything since has been gravy.