Bus 174

Laura Clifford 
Bus 174
Robin Clifford 
In the year 2000 on Rio de Janeiro's Jardim Botanico, Sandro, a homeless man with a gun, hijacked a bus and its passengers.  Local police failed to secure the area, and soon the bus was surrounded by police, a swarm of media, crowds of onlookers and passers-by.  Using the live media coverage of that day and comments from survivors, Sandro's friends and family, social workers, police and S.W.A.T. team members, director Jose Padilha examines the culmination of events that led to the tragedy known as "Bus 174."

The persecution of the children of Rio de Janeiro's slums has been exposed in feature films from Hector Babenco's 1981 film "Pixote" through last year's "City of God."  Padilha's classically structured documentary (live footage intercut with talking heads) is an indictment of an entire social structure, which breeds brutality on its own streets.  It also raises an disturbing conundrum in that one of the very causes of the incident, an inflamed media which broadcast live coverage, has provided the director with the reality footage which makes this work so compelling.

"Bus 174" begins with aerial shots of the crowded city while voices of the homeless tell wildly divergent stories of how they ended up on the streets.  Later on in the film, when the siege on Bus 174 is at its peak, Padilha will repeat the aerial shot, this time showing his city as one engulfed by mountaintop broadcast towers.

The documentary is structured as a build of the makeup of Sandro, an orphaned, drug-addicted street kid and the failure of the city's protective agencies to save his hostages even though they had myriad opportunities to do so.  The media is the third story here, a barrier which exploited Sandro for reality 'entertainment' and protected him from the violence that ultimately created victims.

Padilha places police and survivor interviews in black-backdropped studio settings, while Sandro's family and friends, including a social worker known as Aunt Yvonne, are interviewed within their own landscapes, the city's streets and jails.  Captain Batista, a S.W.A.T. negotiator, expresses a disdain for the local police, believed to be poorly trained with only an objective to shoot down criminals.  Captain Pimentel, a S.W.A.T. instructor, defines an 'interrupted robbery' as a situation where the perpetrator takes hostages and says there is strong argument that it is better to let people escape under such circumstances. The police's failure to secure the area is astounding.  We see a man blithely ride a bike by the bus, unaware that a man is threatening people with a gun two to three feet away. Survivor Luana Belmont admits that she didn't take anything seriously at first, calling her boss from the back of the bus to say she'd be late for work - a sad statement on Rio's general safety levels.

Sandro's background is introduced generically, with video of street kids stopping traffic on a major thoroughfare to put on juggling shows for money.  As a social worker describes their need to have a social existence, Padilha's choice of image displays how needy people can become viewed as a nuisance to more comfortable segments of society. Early on, we're told that Sandro saw his mother slaughtered in front of him when he was only six years old, something which haunted him for life.  The infamous Candalaria massacre is retold, an unsolved crime where a gunman mowed down homeless kids who had been sleeping at the downtown church.  Amazingly, Sandro is located as a young child in video shot there the day before.  More shocking, though, is a female Candalaria survivor recounting how people would come there at night and crush the heads of sleeping kids with curbstones.  Reports from the Padre Severion juvenile jail flash across the screen as we're told that Sandro's behavior was markedly better after visits from his Aunt Julieta and his sister, then we hear another former inmate describe deplorable conditions including beatings.  In general, Sandro sounds like a petty criminal who escaped reality with coke (Belmont describes him as having seemed high) and sniffing glue, yet Padilha includes another street criminal, eerily masked on head and arms and hands, who explains that he and his friends have no mercy for those better off, then recounts a horrific crime.  A woman described as Sandro's adoptive mom shows the camera her very poor home and says with wonder 'I can't believe I have a bathroom.  I can't believe I have a stove to fry potatoes.' Padilha shows the distinct difference in the behavior of those who have a home, no matter how humble.

The media is the loose cannon in this whole mess.  Clearly Sandro, even high, was familiar enough with the power of television to know how to play it.  He instructed his victims to write with lipstick on the bus windows - 'He is going to kill us all' being an example. He set a 6 p.m. deadline on his demands to rachet up the drama and survivors tell us that 'He told us to make things more dramatic.  There was dialogue going on in the bus.'  Sandro even stages a shooting, his distaste for actually harming someone adding to the tragedy that ensues.  Sandro's use of the media did protect him, as police were reluctant to enact a bloody shooting on camera.  Yet clearly, though Padilha uses these media images to bring injustices to light, isn't it safe to assume this whole affair would have been nipped in the bud in their absence?

On a June day in 2000 in the city of Rio de Janeiro a nervous young man boarded a bus on a busy street, pulled a gun out and took the vehicle and its passengers hostage. The police are slow to act, neglect securing the area and seem helpless to resolve the sudden crisis. This little incident attracts the TV news crews and, suddenly, the hijacking is a national event that keeps the people of Brazil glued to their television sets. Documentary filmmaker Jose Padilha uses the event as the jump off point to tell a story that is even more far reaching in “Bus 174.”

Jose Padilha builds an incredibly deft documentary of that single day when a small-time criminal and former street kid took it upon himself to hijack a public bus in the hope that, somehow, he would escape the horror and sorrow of his life. The young man, Sandro do Nascimento, was born to the mean streets of Rio and suffered the trauma of seeing his mother brutally murdered when he was only six years old. With only an aunt to watch out for him, he turns to the gangs on the street for safety and support and begins a life of crime in order to survive. Padilho tells Sandro’s story, intertwined with his last desperate act, in such a way that you don’t realize that two hours has just gone by while watching “Bus 174.”

The filmmaker benefits, greatly, from the absolute avalanche of video footage of the hijacking. The TV crews were all over the place with newscasters setting up their cameras mere yards away from the bus. This astounding and chilling footage is shown mostly in a linear fashion as Padilho intersperses the images - of Sandro waving his gun; forcing a hostage to take the gun in her mouth before the horrified police; making demands for hand grenades and a rifle; swearing that he will start shooting hostages – with probing interviews from the surviving hostages, law enforcement officers, journalists and the family and friends of Sandro.

“Bus 174” is much more than a chronicle of the events that took place, with every television in the country tuning in, on a public bus on a busy street in Rio. Padilha uses this to begin an examination of Sandro, his life and how he ended up in his horrific predicament. He begins by bringing his camera high over the beautiful city as the interviewees tell of the despair of the homeless in that city and the tough life lived by the street kids. Survival, finding enough food and a safe place to sleep are a daily struggle for a homeless kid. Even worse, these children are considered fair game to anyone who decides to rid society of its vermin. One woman, a former street urchin, graphically describes how some people sneak up on the children sleeping in alleys and drop heavy paving stones on their heard. The documaker also tells about the infamous massacre at Candelaria where children were slaughtered, reportedly by the police, punctuating the spoken words.

Padilha and his camera crew venture into the reform schools and the prisons where the children end up after police sweeps round them up. The law is quoted that these kids are to be cared for and educated as part of their reform. Instead, they are abused and only learn more about a life of crime. As we come to discover how a man like Sandro came to be, the drama of his hostage taking and the bungling by the police in controlling the situation unfold with dramatic tension. The S.W.A.T. team sent to cover the situation doesn’t even have the simplest tools of a modern police force – like radios. The team, led by Col. Pendendo, is forced to communicate by hand signal and shouts, adding to the growing list of ineptitude of the officials’ handling the crisis.

“Bus 174” culminates in the end of the hostage crisis. The finale is as poorly handled by the police as their actions were from the start of the day and it is a bitterly sad, unnecessary conclusion. Jose Padilha documents and explains, in many ways like Fernando Meirelles did in his powerful examination of Rio’s street kids in “City of God,” how a child could grow to such a point of desperation and violence. In a year of great documentaries, “Bus 174” is one of the best. I give it an A.

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