It might seem strange that the protagonist of Mark Kendall’s feature debut is also, in fact, the conveyance vehicle of the film’s journey. La Camioneta begins by embracing the inherent oddity of its premise, gently anthropomorphizing the titular bus by assigning it religious properties. In fact, it might even seem impossible that the voyage of a re-appropriated bus could possibly be so utterly absorbing. Indeed, in the hands of a lesser filmmaker, it’s the type of documentary that might have been either completely swallowed up by the dreamlike cinematography, or bludgeoned by message-mongering.
Instead, La Camioneta wrings an extraordinary amount of humanity and geopolitical insight from its subject. Beginning with an auction of decommissioned school buses in Pennsylvania, Kendall follows the purchase of one 14-year-old model and rides along for the days-long drive past suspicious U.S. border patrol agents, corrupt Mexican officials and finally onto the potentially dangerous roads of its destination in Quetzal City, Guatemala.
There, a small industry revolving around the reclamation and resuscitation of school buses and trucks exists modestly; its ultimate goal is the repurposing of these vehicles for public transportation. Not only are they a means of transportation, the camionetas also become mobile works of art. Each company employs its own distinct design template, with each bus itself exhibiting its designer’s uniquely inspired touches. Kendall lingers over the loving details and craftsmanship involved in the process of the former school buses’ rebirths.
It may seem a meager way to earn a living, but in rural Guatemala, it can provide for a family better than farming—which is why they’re willing to risk the aforementioned dangerous roads. But it’s not the twisting roads, curling along the verdant mountains themselves that are the danger. Since 2006, nearly 1,000 bus drivers and fare collectors have been murdered by local gangs for refusing or failing to pay the shakedowns. Often times, the crooks pose as law enforcement, or worse—areactually law enforcement. To balance this unfortunate fact, Kendall also features police efforts to boost honest recruitment among their ranks.
Kendall wisely avoids imposing Western values on the proceedings. The details of life intrinsic to the country speak for themselves, and the film forms more a story that amounts to fascination with the journey of the singular camioneta. The exegesis, then, is ultimately up to the viewer, and this light touch works wonderfully. With shrewd camerawork and editing, Kendall’s film looks amazing and feels fluid. Culminating with a scene depicting a priest blessing a host of brightly colored, newly restored camionetas before their inaugural voyages, the visual grandeur alone makes it nearly impossible not to superimpose a spiritual life onto these inanimate objects. The life behind La Camioneta absolutely continues beyond what we can see or touch.
Writers: Mark Kendall, Shannon Kennedy
Starring: A bus!
Release Date: May 31, 2013 (Limited; Ongoing; DVD)