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La Camioneta: The Journey of One American School Bus (2013)

The Transformers

La Camioneta is another in a long line of films that are wonderful to watch, but difficult to review. Though Mark Kendall's documentary about a decommissioned American school bus is light on what one might call "plot", there's plenty to appreciate here--and more than enough to chew on. Still, I fear that describing a seventy-minute movie might discourage you from seeing it in a theatre, and I'll do my very best to avoid that act of cinematic manslaughter. This is as rich a big-screen experience as anything you'll see this fall.*

The film tracks a 1995 bus as it travels from an auction lot in California, through Mexico, and down into Quetzal City, Guatemala, where a cornfield worker named Ermelindo Velasquez plans to put it to use in the public transportation system. Along the way, the bus is cleaned, serviced, updated with a roof-mounted luggage rack, before finally receiving a stunning makeover by customizer/artist Mario Enrique Valle.

If, after reading that description, you immediately thought, "Sounds like a Spanish-language version of Pimp My Ride. Pass!", I ask that you please stop reading this review and pre-order your tickets for Bad Grandpa instead. If you're at all intrigued by the premise, I implore you to check this thing out.

What makes La Camioneta special is the way Kendall uses his bus to transport the audience from ignorance to enlightenment. Most of us are aware of the drug wars and rampant crime raging in Mexico and South America, but only as page-three headlines or nightly news sound bites. It's easy to compartmentalize those stories with fleeting images from pop culture, before getting on with our mundane, day-to-day stuff. But Kendall doesn't show any automatic-weapons-toting gangsters, focusing instead on a society that lives in fear of them. Though their lives are often too brief and weighed down by uncertainty, the Guatemalans we meet here devote themselves to turning vehicular afterthoughts into empowering artistic expressions.

Much of the film takes place in Valle's auto yard, where the bus is stripped of its yellow skin and school markings, and remade as a red, white, blue, and chrome marvel of imagination and craftsmanship. It's easy to mistake Valle and his crew for sculptors building modern-art installations: their patience, love, and innovation carry over into lives that, outside the business, are marked by financial struggle. Many live in shacks and support their families on small wages, while reassuring them (and themselves) that they won't fall victim to the gang violence so rampant in Quetzal City and elsewhere.

Kendall intersperses these scenes of tenderness with coverage of attacks on the city's many buses and bus drivers. Bombings and shootings are commonplace in a system that demands drivers pay protection money to monsters. This is especially frustrating for Velasquez, who counts on his meager profits to repay the loan he took to purchase the bus--a loan he combined with his meager corn-picking funds to realize a childhood dream. Sadly, he finds  himself on the lower-middle rung of an impoverished society where criminals openly and violently oppress those struggling to make an honest living.

Despite these everyday horrors (or perhaps because of them), Kendall's subjects tend to be very religious. St. Christopher is a popular figure in the local art and culture, and the film closes with a mass blessing of newly minted buses. It is Kendall's beautiful, unspoken thesis that the Guatemalan drivers are doing God's work in godless times. I'll leave it to you to decide whether or not the continued assault on these men of dedication and faith is proof of atheism, antipathy, or the popular "mysterious ways" point of view, but as presented here, the people of Quetzal City are more grateful for their talents and more intentional with their time than most people I speak with on a regular basis.

I'd hoped to be informed by La Camioneta, but I wasn't prepared to be moved by it. This is a fantastic documentary about culture, art, and industry that allows its subjects to tell the entire story. There are no talking heads examining the greater context of each scene (unlike the jerk who's writing this review), and no flashy edits to make the subject matter more interesting. If anything, Kendall frequently strays into Terrence Malick territory, allowing beautifully shot imagery to reveal grand themes in subtle details. Best of all, the movie accomplishes what all great documentaries should: it made me want to know more about things happening outside my limited realm of experience, and changing the way I look at world.

Chicagoans! La Camioneta begins a one-week run at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Friday, November 1st, with director Mark Kendall in attendance Friday through Tuesday. The Wilmette Theatre will also host a limited engagement of the film the following week.

*Full disclosure: I didn't see this on the big screen, but I really wish I had.

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