Finally, someone has made a different kind of documentary about camionetas, those audaciously plumed former US school buses that churn up the roads in Central America and other southerly locales. Here in Antigua Guatemala, for example, there are hundreds that nest and hawk their way daily to and from the town’s dusty and clamorous bus terminal.
Gringos call them chicken buses, but our Guatemalan friends, who use them as serious transportation, call them camionetas. In that alone lies a significant difference in perspective.
Yolkobsens recently watched the documentary, La Camioneta, with great interest. What’s different about this one is that it avoids all of the usual cliches, trite passages and cheap shots found in most other attempts at chronicling this singular phenomenon. Frankly, I find almost all the run of the mill documentaries on this subject disrespectful and shallow. Many are downright ethnocentric and display a simian ignorance about the importance and roots of this vital form of transportation. For all its faults, excesses and dangers, it’s still a system that has to work for a population that is poor by any standard gringo gauge.
Documentary maker Mark Kendall has chosen to take a more enlightened tone, creating a film that tells the story of the second life of one bus, which, like most of the others on the roads here, had its first incarnation as a yellow school bus. This one cut its teeth in Pennsylvania where it took children to school for ten years, which is the average life span of such a vehicle by US standards.
The doc takes us first to the adoption agency, the Texas auction field where the star bus gets sold for about $3 K USD. Then the story spools out and focuses on the dangers of driving through Mexico, where the cops and bandits can make life dangerous and unprosperous for the camioneta buyer before he even crosses the border to Guatemala.
Once in his home country, the buyer quickly unloads the bus with a dealer who sells it for more than $10 K USD. After this, the film takes a few different turns, focusing primarily on the men who’ve clubbed together to buy it, who have it transformed it into a camioneta with looks they can be proud of, and finally, the dangers of putting it on the Guatemalan roads.
The group who united their resources, which are slim and stretched, spend still more money and create extended delay by taking it to the alchemist who will turn it from dowdy yellow to a chromed and super color charged road dragon.
Though converting buses with swirls of color and chrome is a convention here, the filmmakers never help us understand why this custom has such weight. And this is where the doc starts to lose its focus. Flashing back and forth on the progress of the bus conversion, we learn that many drivers and owners are at the mercy of the extortionist who demand a payment to refrain from robbing and killing passengers, drivers and fare collectors. We learn of the ruthless and gruesome retribution the extortionists take if their demands aren’t met.
We also learn that since 2006, almost 1,000 drivers and fare collectors have been killed.
The film also tells us that the drivers just keep on going though they and their families worry and fear into the night, as amply highlighted by the documentary makers, who were able to film inside the owner/drivers’ homes.
All in all, this is a documentary worth seeing, if only for the different and original perspective they take on the art of getting and keeping La Camioneta on the road.