I had the opportunity to talk with Jason Kohn about his debut movie Manda Bala. This movie was a big winner at Sundance and opens in New York tomorrow. It is a documentary looking at the seamier side of Brazil. Corruption, kidnapping, plastic surgery, and Frog Farming may seem an unlikely combination, with little common ground, Jason see’s it differently. 

Can you tell us a little about yourself Jason?

Well I am 28 years old, and live in New York, I graduated in 2001 with a double major in History and European Cultural Theory. I did minor in film making theory, and I stress the word theory. I never touched a camera. I have always loved films and really wanted to get involved with the industry.

Although you have been involved with other movie projects I understand that Manda Bala is your first time in the directors chair. Was it what you expected?

Absolutely not! It was trial by fire. In fact the first day of production was the first day my hands touched a camera. It was definitely a case of learning on the job. But I was very lucky, my production team did a great job of teaching me. The directors role is different from everyone else involved, everyone is a specialist and they only have to deal with a single aspect, the director has to have his finger in every pie, he is involved with every detail. 

Before Manda Bala you spent a couple of years working with Errol Morris. A couple of people have remarked that your techniques are very similar, the off centre interview for example. Do you feel that Errol has left his mark, or are these critics wrong?

I cannot undervalue what Errol imparted in me, and yes I did adopt some of his techniques, but that was because they work so well. An example are the interviews, I was concerned about having subtitles, I wanted a movie the audience could watch not read. And while working with Errol he shot an interview with Mikhail Gorbachev where he was centre stage and the interpreter was back off centre and soft focused, the effect was so amazing that I had to use it. The use of interpreters instead of subtitles allows us to impart inflection and feeling into the words.

It’s tough being an Indie film maker, as I understand it you really did not have much of a budget for Manda Bala, and yet it is superbly constructed. How did you finance it?

To get started I sold my car, and then my Saxophone,  in other words everything I owned that was of any value. Some friends also chipped in, a thousand here, and a thousand there. After the first season of shooting we had about 25 hours of film, we edited it down to an 11 minute trailer and that got us a Sundance grant to continue. We eventually found an investor, and we were in business.

You assembled a very high quality production team, had you worked with them before?

No like I said earlier I had never even touched a camera before. I have to say that there was a certain amount of luck involved getting this team together. I spent 5 months just looking for an editor, I think I interviewed every editor in New York. There were plenty who wanted the project, but I was looking for someone that would gel with my concept.

I am guessing that you have stirred up a bit of a hornets nest in Brazil, and probably have made one or two people rather unhappy. In fact I understand that the film is banned in Brazil. Were you scared while making the movie? And what was your reaction to it being banned?

There is a misconception here, the film is not banned, but certain parties have made it clear that if the film is shown in Brazil there will be law suits flying. Unfortunately the laws in Brazil are quite different that here in The U.S. Here a documentary is covered by the same protection that the press enjoys. In Brazil that is not the case, there is no protection.

Was I scared? Well I have to admit that there were a couple of occasions I woke up in a cold sweat. If word got out to the wrong ears about what we were up to….. well life is cheap in Brazil. The good news though, was that he was far away in the northern part of Brazil. You also have to realize that what I was doing had already been covered in the media. The scandal broke in 2001, so I was not really unearthing anything new.

Being shown at Sundance is an achievement, winning at Sundance is amazing, and opening in the theaters must be a crowning glory! Is this what you expected?

Actually at first I was disappointed with Sundance. I really had not realized just how much of a competition it is, you are there to sell your film. And it wasn’t selling! I have never been much of a Film Festival fan and this commercial aspect was not what I expected. Of course my views changed after Manda Bala won!

If you had asked me 5 years ago when we were just starting production what my dream was for the film, I probably would have said, just to get it completed. Actually I’ll change my mind on that, my dream would be to have the movie shown at my local theater the Angelika in New York. This is my favorite theatre, and one where I have watched many movies.

Well my dream has come true, it opens at the Angelika tomorrow.

Where did the idea for Manda Bala come from? Do you have ties with Brazil to be so in tune with the situation?

My Dad lives in Sao Paulo and it was him that first put me onto the story, I also read a fair amount about the scandal in the newspapers. I thought about it, and the phase ‘The poor steal from the rich, and the rich steal from the poor’ came to mind, and the idea was born.

Films are like drugs, do it once, do it again! So what is your next project?

Well I am currently writing a feature. The one thing that I have learned about documentaries is that they are hard to make and hard to finance. There is a big difference between a TV documentary and a cinematic one. It is a very hard sell.

I love the title Manda Bala (Send A Bullet) how did you come up with it?

Actually I was vacationing with some friends and we were sat outside enjoying some cocktails. There was only a small amount left in the glass and someone came out with the Brazilian phrase ‘Manda Bala’, which in slang translates to ‘Kill it’, drink it down! With that I had the title!

Manda Bala opens at the Angelika in New York tomorrow, if you have the opportunity do try to catch this movie, you will not be disappointed. Jason Kohn is a very down to earth guy, and all of us here at Bloggernews wish him every success with Manda Bala.

Simon Barrett


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