By Emma Bernstein | The Playlist May 29, 2013 at 6:02PM
The Guatemalan documentary “La Camioneta: The Journey of One American School Bus,” from American director Mark Kendall, sheds light on a little known connection between the United States and Central America. After discovering that most of Guatemala’s public transportation buses – known as camionetas – are actually refurbished American school buses, Kendall set out to capture the process by which these vehicles gained a second life. In doing so, he has created a work of sociological significance as well as a surprisingly personal account of a community that has ensured its survival by salvaging these buses.
The film begins its lengthy journey at a rural Pennsylvania auction, held in an empty field teeming with decommissioned school buses that still operate efficiently and are generally in good condition; they are only eight to 12 years old, after all. Most of the auction’s bidders have traveled from Central America, and many will drive their purchase back with the hope of re-selling it in their home country, an outcome that’s all but certain if the bus isn’t a total lemon. Kendall follows one of these bidders, Domingo Lastor, as he returns to Guatemala, a 16-hour drive he must make every 15 days in order to buy and transport the buses that earn him enough money to survive. He makes peace with these bi-monthly treks by concentrating on his arrival, on reaching his destination safely, a feat that is by no means guaranteed: robbery, carjacking, and assault are not only prevalent on Mexico’s highways, they can be expected. Yet Lastor continues on, justifying the danger with a hope that the work will provide his children with a future.
A man named Ermelindo buys the school bus when it arrives in Guatemala, with the help of a few friends and a payment plan. Afterwards, he turns it over to a specialist, Mario Enrique Valle, who has made a business of designing custom decals and color patterns for the refurbished vehicles, hoping to make them stand out in the crowded city streets. The purchase and renovation is a dream come true for the Ermelindo. It’s a chance to have “something all our own” that will guarantee a regular income and stability for his family; it’s the promise for a better life.
This theme of a “better life” is a prevalent one in Kendall’s film, echoed by many interviewees. And the discarded buses, as veritable diamonds in the rough, provide a wonderful symbol of the future’s potential. Ermelindo calls them “migrants,” likening the vehicles to his friends and neighbors who have left his small town of Rosario Canajal in search of job opportunities and an improved quality of life in the United States. While his countrymen will find a better future outside of Guatemala, the used buses will reach their full potential as camionetas within it.
Yet even the hope for a better future will not guarantee one. Quetzal City, where most of the documentary is shot, is a metropolis rife with violence and corruption, and the personal aspiration the camionetas have come to symbolize has made them popular targets for bombings and gun sprees. Drivers are forced to pay off local gangs to ensure the safety of their passengers; refusing to comply with this extortion leads to certain attack. In 2010, 130 bus drivers were killed in Quetzal City. Kendall addresses this dark side of his story with respectful restraint. Rather than inundating his audience with horrible tragedy upon sickening instance of fraud, the director drives the consequences of the squalid socio-political situation home by privileging his subjects’ reactions over footage of corpses and burned out buses. A scene where two of Ermelindo’s drivers discuss the dangers of working a bus route, all the while surrounded by their wives and small children, is particularly powerful. This choice keeps the documentary extremely focused and dedicated to its subject matter without bowing to any personal crusade.
For owners and drivers, a bus they’ve purchased is as much a part of them as their own kin: its existence and operation will allow for their families to survive in Guatemala. As the film’s opening voiceover relates, “When you die, your body dies. But your being doesn't die. Your being, your energy lives on inside of everyone... It's the same for a bus, isn't it?” Kendall successfully captures the importance of this person-object relationship by treating the school bus with the same consideration and attention as his human subjects. Full body shots are rare, the camera instead closing in on individual parts – the mirrors, the gearshift, the steering wheel – with a delicate artistry that affords the inanimate object the value of a precious sculpture or painting. We are shown even less as Valle works on restoring the bus, with only bits and pieces of the completed masterpiece teasing us into anticipation. But once the finished work of art is revealed in a long shot, we can honestly rejoice in finally seeing the beauty of the new camioneta, along with Ermelindo and his crew.
“La Camioneta” is at once an insightful documentary and a poignant allegory. A novel and topical story draws viewers in; the illumination of very honest, human issues residing within will keep them in their seats. Even if it’s just for a few stops, we will all find ourselves passengers on the same bus eventually. [B+]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2012 L.A. Film Festival.