Sunday, May 26, 2013

Mark Kendall's LA CAMIONETA: The Journey of One American School Bus

One of those Who-Knew? movies that acquaints you with a topic of which you knew little-to-nothing and then, unfortu-nately, leaves you wishing you knew a lot more, LA CAMIONETA: THE JOURNEY OF ONE AMERICAN SCHOOL BUS tells us about the after-life of many American school buses. Evidently, these buses, still in pretty good working order, are auctioned off, in many cases to Latinos who have come to the U.S. precisely to purchase them and then drive them back to... Guatemala!  Is this the only country south of the border all that interested in buying our used school buses?  As we don't hear otherwise, it would appear so.

The film's director, Mark Kendall, shown at left, has done a nice job of organizing his movie so that one of his and his narrator's themes -- the connections forged between people who have ridden in the same vehicle (the other is the utter precariousness of the lives of those men who drive these buses in Guatemala) -- is picked up at the film's beginning, shown now-and-then throughout, and then used for a quietly effective finale. Otherwise the director relatively effectively cuts between scenes of driving the bus to its destination and what happens to it, once there: design, paint job, chroming, and the like. We also learn that simply driving through Mexico is a crap shoot in which the driver's life is at risk.

Unfortunately, things don't get any better once the drivers reach Guatelmala. In the course of the documentary, we learn that, since 2006, nearly 1,000 bus drivers and and fare-collectors have been murdered for either refusing or being unable to pay the extortion money demanded by local gangs. One news report informs us that a recent attack "could be the result of not paying extortionists their Christmas bonus." (Viewers may have the sense that no irony at all is intended here.) Later we witness the police dragging off a bus the body of a dead man, perhaps the driver or the fare-collector.

Though we meet several of the bus men involved in all this -- Ermelindo, who purchases the buses; Angel, who drives them; and Mario, who does the artwork for them -- and some of their family members (scenes of family life alternate with the work on the particular bus we follow), we don't delve deeply at all into any of this. We do get an enormous sense of the injustice of it (something that seems to go with so many Central and South American countries, and that is increasingly seen here in our own, as the USA becomes more and more of a Banana Republic -- and I am not referring to that clothing chain).

One might have wished that Mr. Kendall could have done more investigation, though given the state of the corrupt police force (a nod to this is told us along the way), any investigation might have resulted in very bad problems for the filmmaker and his Guatemalan friends. The one scene of a politician promising to help, and a widowed mother and her child being used to promote that help seems like very little very late.

Once the bus in finished and ready for action, it gets a blessing from the local pastor/priest, along with a special St. Christopher story (he's the patron saint of travelers, in case you didn't know), showing us once again that religion is indeed the opiate of the masses. In this case, as in so many others, it's pretty much all these masses have got. There is no "Afterward" given us as the end credits roll, but since it has been at least two years since the filming took place, it might have been nice to let us know if all (or any) of the bus-involved folk we've met here are still alive.

La Camioneta (from IFP), a slight film with a slight running time of 71 minutes (including six minutes of credits), opens this coming Friday, May 31, for an exclusive one-week theatrical engagement at the reRun Gastropub Theater in Brooklyn. On June 7th, it opens in Los Angeles at the Downtown Independent, and on July 2, it hits San Diego via the Digital Gym. Elsewhere? I'm not certain. But a DVD ought to be in the works eventually.

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