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In “Manda Bala,” a documentary about the economy of fear in Brazil in both its licit and illicit permutations, a kidnapper and drug trafficker cheerfully declares, “You either steal with a gun or a pen.”

The film, which won the grand jury and cinematography awards at the Sundance Film Festival and opens at the Angelika cinema in Manhattan today, sometimes over-determines the parallels between often-corrupt politicians, criminals and even the businessmen who profit from their friction. But it succeeds in drawing together vignettes of characters caught in the dynamics of protection and aggression, destruction and creation, social mobility and violent redistribution because, simply put, it’s a good story, told well.

This is despite the fact that “Manda Bala (Send a Bullet)” is director Jason Kohn’s first-ever film project. He was 23 and a recent Brandeis University graduate when he began working on the movie, and five years later, he hasn’t lost the earnest enthusiasm, or occasionally the jargon, of a late-night dorm room conversation. “The relationship between violence, industry and city-building — these are universal themes, and nothing will start or will end in Brazil,” he said. “But I do think you can understand a lot of other places in the world by understanding the dramatic crimes in Brazil.”

That eye on the bottom line, alongside the personal poignance of the characters, gives the film a certain reported discipline.

Much has already been made of Kohn’s connection to famed filmmaker Errol Morris and the accompanying influences: putting consecutive interpreters on screen beside the subjects, the camera lingering on a subject after speaking has ceased. But Kohn freely admits that, as an intern and briefly as a researcher on Morris’ “The Fog of War,” he never got to see him in production, and barely ever picked up a camera until “Manda Bala.”

Arguably the most potent imprint from Morris is his editor, Doug Abel, whom Kohn credits with giving the film its tight, feverish pace and flashes of humor. In learning how to be a filmmaker partly “by process of elimination,” Kohn said, in 18 months of editing, Abel “taught me more about storytelling than anyone else.”

This story first appeared in the August 17, 2007 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Despite the acclaim, Kohn is pragmatic, rather than showily modest, about what the years yielded. “Who am I?” he said at one point. “I’m just another schmuck from Long Island.” At a certain point, he said, it was too late to back out — as if determination, time, sheer volume of footage and money invested were collectively enough to generate something of any worth. In this case, the result is a brutally raw film that manages empathy for its less sympathetic characters and a humor that is both ironic and heartbreaking.

Kohn’s familiarity with Tropicalia, the late Sixties and early Seventies Brazilian rock and soul, and his professed inspiration from science fiction and action movies — a most apt reference point for the topic, Kohn said — help propel the movie to a place where everything lurches toward disaster, a kind of eternal brink of madness. Kidnappers claim the ears of their victims to send back for ransom, and a surgeon builds his fortune on reconstructing ears from rib cartilage. A company unveils GPS chips to be implanted in the bodies of potential kidnapping victims, and one São Paulo resident proclaims he would get two, because he works with computers and knows they can fail.

According to the opening credits, the film cannot be shown in Brazil, a move Kohn attributes to pending litigation with an interview subject. And to those critics, mostly Brazilian, who question the gall of an American critiquing their country (even if, as this one is, the son of Brazilian and Argentine Jews), Kohn argues Brazil lacks a culture of self-criticism. “There’s a practical reason: The best source of funding for documentaries and feature filmmakers is still the government,” he said. “You’re not going to bite the hand that feeds you.”

Kohn said he was able to circumvent the tired clichés of Brazil in the American vernacular, which mostly center on Rio de Janeiro’s sexiness and violence, by setting the film in the monstrously dimensioned city of São Paulo.

“The second you turn the lens of your camera on that, you’re already exposing an entirely new idea of Brazil,” he said. “This movie is not about poverty, not about the beach, not about the touristic aspects of Brazil. It’s about wealth, decadence and corruption.”

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