La Camioneta: The Journey of One American School Bus review: get on the bus

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La Camioneta green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
Follow a humble yellow school bus as it is transformed into something joyous and defiant. It’s like discovering that your grandma has another life as a secret agent.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

It’s like discovering that your grandma has another life as a secret agent or something. The humble yellow school bus, the kind we see rumbling through sleepy American suburban streets, the kind you may once have actually ridden yourself… when they are done with their relatively short service ferrying kids to school — after 150,000 miles or so — they are still in excellent shape. So they are sold at auction, and many of them end up in Guatemala, where they become las camionetas, the so-called “chicken buses” in the ad hoc public transit network.

Documentarian Mark Kendall, making his feature debut, followed one such bus from its auction in Spotsylvania, Virginia, to Guatemala. His camera is just tagging along on the journey, and he simply lets his various (human) subjects speak without interruption — the bus itself is a taciturn creature — and he offers no overt commentary on anything he shows us. And still La Camonieta presents a remarkable portrait in contrasts, and sometimes surprising ones. The guy who spends his life driving back and forth between bus auctions in the U.S. and Guatemala? (He tows his own car behind the newly acquired bus for the return journey.) Turns out he’s totally comfortable with the American border guards in Texas, despite the reputation of that contentious crossing for foreigners from down south; it’s once he’s in Mexico, where the authorities are abusive and downright dangerous, that he fears for his life.

The passion of the men who refurbish these buses is palpable, and infectious. For the new owner of the bus, the vehicle is like a member of his family, and not only because it will ensure their economic survival once he puts it into service in his little independent bus company: a bus that starts out drab and lifeless is transformed not only in form but in spirit as well, almost as if it is imbued with his hopes and dreams. There is serious artistic competition among the guys who bling out the school buses with lots of chrome and fancy multicolored paint jobs that show off racing stripes, starbursts, and — one touch I loved on this bus — birdlike sylphs. This bus is gonna fly!

My first instinct is to call this ultimate recycling, Olympic-level recycling even, of stuff we Americans discard long before it has run out its usefulness. And it is that, but even that makes what happens with these buses sound more like a dutiful chore than what it really is. The remaking of this vehicle is an expression of ultimate joy and defiance, for while running a bus in Guatemala is well-paid work, far better than toiling in agricultural fields or having to emigrate to find a decent job, it is also a deadly one in which drivers who fail to cooperate with the protection rackets of local organized crime end up dead far too often. Putting a magnificent beast such as the one this bus becomes out on the road seems like it’s only asking for trouble. And there it goes anyway.

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Thu, Apr 03, 2014 1:24pm

This sounds fascinating! The reclaiming and refurbishing seems much like what’s done with jeepneys in the Philippines.