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PARK CITY ’07 INTERVIEW | Jason Kohn: “I really thought of ‘Manda Bala’ as a non-fiction ‘RoboCop’

PARK CITY '07 INTERVIEW | Jason Kohn: "I really thought of 'Manda Bala' as a non-fiction 'RoboCop'

[EDITORS NOTE: indieWIRE is publishing two interviews daily with Sundance ’07 competition filmmakers through the end of the festival later this month. Directors with films screening in the four competition section were given the opportunity to participate in an email interview, and each was sent the same set of questions.]

Jason Kohn‘s documentary feature debut, Manda Bala, is about the relationship between violence and political corruption in Brazil. Featuring interviews with kidnappers, victims of kidnapping, and the people who profit from both, the film portrays the “tragic domino effect that has reshaped the face of [Brazil] and created an entire industry built on corruption,” according to Sundance. “Manda Bala” is screening in the Independent Film Competition: Documentary section at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Please introduce yourself…

I am 27 and my day job has been making “Manda Bala” (Send a Bullet) for the past 4 1/2 years. I have consistently worked since childhood. My grandfather owned a retail store in Midtown Manhattan for Brazilian tourists, and my first job was cleaning display windows (I couldn’t have been more than 10) and worked my way up to selling sunglasses. Through high school I was a photographer’s assistant (weddings and bar mitzvahs) and worked though college at the Rose Art Museum. I spent two years working for Errol Morris before leaving for Brazil to make my first film. There were plenty more jobs in there…

Where you were born, and where do you live now?

I was born and raised on Long Island, New York, and currently live in Manhattan.

Did you go to film school? Please elaborate on your learning process.

I didn’t go to film school, but studied film theory in college as well as history. Most practical theory, though, I learned from Errol. My first time touching a 16mm film camera was the first day of production and every aspect of production I learned on set by the various member of my crew. In a sense, Heloisa Passos (cinematographer) and Doug Abel (one of the editors) taught me the most about directing. My principal objective was to surround myself with talented and experienced people who had the patience to deal with a first-timer. By the time we had spent as much money on “Manda Bala” as one would spend on a post-graduate film program, I was convinced that I had learned far more about production and directing than most were taught in school.

Producing the film, though, was by far the most difficult part of making “Manda Bala”–a hell of a lot harder than directing. Although I had help from Jared Goldman and Joey Frank (my two producing partners), the business of making a larger than average documentary over the course of nearly five years is an experience familiar to very few. The learning curve was steep and the process was grueling, lonely and lacking a great deal of immediate satisfaction.

Please discuss “Manda Bala”, and how the initial idea come about.

“Manda Bala” is about the cyclical relationship between political corruption and street violence in Brazil. It is told though many different stories including that of a frog farm at the center of a 2 billion dollar political corruption scandal and a plastic surgeon who reconstructs the ears of mutilated kidnapping victims. The initial idea was simply a story about how the rich steal from the poor and how the poor steal back from the rich. Having a Brazilian mother and a father who lives down in Sao Paulo I had been traveling to Brazil often while researching ideas for a film. It’s pretty obvious to anyone who travels to Brazil, and probably fair to say about many other places in the world as well, that there is no single factor more responsible for developmental problems than a gross concentration of wealth. Economic disequilibrium shapes every aspect of Brazilian life and culture and these two crimes (kidnapping and corruption) seemed to me the clearest way to get to the heart of this issue.

Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making “Manda Bala.”

“Manda Bala” was made according to an idea that documentary movies are merely one of many genres that make up cinema and not a separate form of storytelling. I don’t buy into the conceit of documentaries as a triumph of content over style. Rather, I tried to make a non-fiction film in the cinematic tradition that I love. I believe that Errol Morris is single-handedly responsible for creating and upholding the idea that non-fiction subjects deserve the same level of care, craftsmanship and ingenuity that fictional subjects get every day. I really thought of “Manda Bala” as a non-fiction “RoboCop” depicting a very real broken and violent society.

“Manda Bala” director Jason Kohn. Image courtesy of Sundance Institute.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making the movie?

Shooting a documentary in film, and especially in cinemascope, was very difficult. Had I to do over, I would have probably shot the interviews in video, but the technology wasn’t really there when I started. Film is expensive, time consuming and technically challenging, but rewarding beyond measure. I expect a certain level of production value, though, when I pay $10.50 to see a movie and, I think, many of those things apply to theatrical documentaries as well.

What do you hope to get out of the festival, what are your own goals for the experience?

The same as everyone I suspect, to sell my movie and get the ball rolling on another film.

Describe the moment you found out that you were accepted into Sundance. Where were you?

I got the call while mother was teaching me how to make a hearts of palm pie for Thanksgiving. So far, I can make half a hearts of palm pie.

What is your definition of “independent film?”

I have always thought that striving to make “independent” films is like an able-bodied person striving to be in the Special Olympics. People talk about freedom, but in practice independent filmmaking is rife with limitations. I haven’t yet figured out what’s so liberating about not being able to afford a steadicam when needed. Personally, I don’t think there’s anything independent about filmmaking.

What are some of your favorite films, and why?

Sullivan’s Travels” is my favorite movie about movies. A film about the power of entertainment and self delusion, two things I think about a lot. “Deconstructing Harry,” in my opinion, is the high-water mark of Woody’s comedies. “Close-Up,” Abbas Kiarostami‘s mix of documentary and re-creation footage is up there with “The Thin Blue Line” for the coolest and smartest movie ever. It’s a conceptual masterpiece and absolutely inimitable. “RoboCop” wasn’t only a huge influence on “Manda Bala,” it’s also one of my favorite films of all time. Good science fiction, horror and comic book films are usually so much richer in metaphor, allegory and layered visual meaning than drama, foreign or art films.

What is your top ten list for 2006?

Apocalypto, “The Departed,” “Borat,” “Casino Royale,” “Jackass: Number 2,” “District B13,” “United 93,” “Cache,? Lady Vengeance, Jesus Camp.

What are one or two of your New Years resolutions?

Loose those annoying last 5 lbs.

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