There are frogs, hundreds of them, squirming over each other in a muddy pond. An intertitle tells us that this is “the largest frog farm in the world,” located in central Brazil. The ranch’s manager talks about breeding amphibians, and the film hints that we’re in store for an educational primer on our little green friends. Then an offscreen voice asks him about “the scandal.” Before we find out what the interviewer is referring to, we’re introduced to a São Paulo businessman who goes to extravagant means to protect himself from rampant street thugs. We soon meet, in quick succession, the country’s attorney general, a kidnapping victim and a tough-guy cop. What’s going on here?
Part of the brilliance of Jason Kohn’s debut is how his film forces the audience to bind seemingly random elements into a stunning sociological Big Picture. Puzzle pieces fall into place until chaos-theory connections are made: One politician’s laundering of public funds contributes to widening the gap between the haves and have-nots, favela dwellers make up for the discrepancy by turning to violent crime, thus spurring on a parallel economy devoted to security marketed for (and run by) the rich. Every cause has an effect, and the way Kohn’s cine-essay eschews standard vérité vocabulary for an oblique, murallike approach is spellbinding. By the time Manda Bala drops one final, devastating metaphor for urban breakdown—an image of black tadpoles sucked down a drain en masse—you feel as if you’ve witnessed a complete rebirth of the investigative-documentary form.