After those bright yellow school busses leave the roads of North America, one wouldn’t readily expect them to retire to a job far more dangerous than carting bratty kids around all day. Focusing on the lifespan of one such bus that has outlived its usefulness in the States, Mark Kendall’s documentary La Camioneta offers up a fascinating look at something people probably don’t know exists.
After about 8-12 years, every school bus generally outlives its usefulness and is put up from that auction. Most of these vehicles will end up going to Africa or Central or South America to work as cheaper forms of public transportation. Kendall follows as one driver brings a bus and some spare parts on a 15 day trip through Mexico en route to Guatemala. Along the way, the driver gets shaken down by crooked “authority figures” with semi-automatic weapons, but it’s nothing compared to the dangers the next driver and owner of the bus will face.
The recomissioned bus from Spotsylvania is set to get a fresh new detailing, seats, and fixed up, but it will be placed on one of the most dangerous transit routes in the world: running between Guatemala City and Quetzal City in a country where 130 drivers and numerous other passengers have been murdered for refusing or not being able to pay the local gangs that shake them down every day on their ways to and from work.
Gorgeously and unflinchingly shot, Kendall captures moments of beauty and warmth alongside the shocking truths of having such a dangerous job. The busses offer the only connection to the larger world for many, and watching victims of violence pulled from off the vehicles seems remarkably senseless and barbaric. And yet for many, Kendall shows how the endeavour is a true labour of love and not merely something one does out of necessity to make money. The new owner of the bus is certainly cautious and more than a little frightened, but doing this work has also been a bit of a dream for him. Ditto the people who spend tireless days rebranding the busses and making them feel brand new.
For such a brief film, it’s a sprawling look at a country’s economic and social structure told through the story of a single inanimate object designed to bring residents closer together and those trying to make their community a better and safer place. Gangs are a problem, the former chief of police is a wanted man, and there are memorials outside of congress to protest the government’s inability to protect its citizens, but family and art are just as important considerations here. When it all culminates in a blessing of the vehicles and the brave workers who operate them, it all becomes incredibly poignant in light of what the viewer knows about the job. It’s a unique story to tell and told very well.