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On June 12th, 2000, a young man boarded a bus travelling through the middle-class Rio de Janeiro district of Jardim Botânico. What unfolded over the following hours transfixed the nation, and forms the subject for the documentary Bus 174, which seeks to show what happened, and explain the background behind the events.
The young man in question, Sandro do Nascimento, was a menino da rua, a street kid, who had been living rough on the Rio streets since he was only a child. He had originally left home after seeing his mother brutally slain in front of him. Like many thousands of other young people in urban Brazil he had spent most of his life sleeping rough on the streets, begging, stealing, and mugging to survive. He was a survivor of the Candelaria massacre, an infamous 1993 incident where several off-duty police officers killed eight street kids who were sleeping rough by the main cathedral in downtown Rio. In common with other street kids, Sandro had been in constant trouble with the police, spending time as a juvenile at the notorious Padre Severiano facility before escaping, and, in common with many other street kids, he had developed a taste for drugs, particularly, in his case, cocaine.
And so he entered the 174 bus on that fateful day, armed with a pistol. What began as a simple hold-up, of the type that is epidemic in urban Brazil, quickly transformed into a hijacking, as Sandro took the passengers hostage and declared a standoff. The police soon arrived. Unfortunately, Rio's ordinary police force is woefully under-trained in addition to being underpaid and lacking in basic resources (such as effective communications equipment), and they failed to establish an effective perimeter around the bus, which meant that the major television networks were able to penetrate the police lines and get right into the midst of the action as it unfolded. What had begun as a simple robbery quickly escalated into a media circus, with over 35 million Brazilians tuning in to watch the events unfold.
To tell the story of the hijacking of the 174 bus the director of this documentary, Jose Padilha, chose to, in essence, make two separate films that were then skilfully inter-weaved. The first film is a narrative, an account of the events of the hijacking, presented through the use of stock footage obtained from the various Brazilian television networks (particularly from the Brazilian media giant, Globo TV). Padilha judiciously cut together the hours of footage into a coherent and engaging story, keeping his own narration minimal, and leaving the description of the specific events mostly to his interviewees, the hostages, members of the media, and policemen who were at the heart of events as they unfolded.
The second film-within-a-film is a theoretical work, an investigation into Brazil's persistent social and economic inequalities, as understood through the events of the short but troubled life of Sandro do Nascimento. Padilha sees Sandro as emblematic of an entire caste of people that have been rejected by society, ignored and reviled by ordinary people and brutalized by the state. Brazil is one of the most unequal societies in the world, and life is very unpleasant for those at the very bottom of Brazilian society, the street kids. Sandro's actions on the bus, his frenzied rants, his unpredictable actions, served, in Padilha's eyes, as a way of confronting the rest of Brazilian society with the uncomfortable realities that tend to be glossed over in everyday life.
This strand of the film documents Sandro's life with a forensic precision, a process that helps to underscore Padilha's points about the very real problems that Brazil faces. Of course, having spent much of his life on the streets, Sandro's background does not lead itself to easy investigation; he had experienced none of the orderly procession through school and work that would characterize wealthier Brazilian twenty year-olds. However, with a bit of digging, Padilha was able to unearth a sizeable amount of documentation tracing Sandro's progression through life, particularly from the psychological reports that are commissioned for all young people entering juvenile detention facilities. Padilha was also able to track down Julieta do Nascimento, Sandro's maternal aunt and his sole surviving relative that had kept some contact with him through the years. She had even spent a long time attempting to take custody of him when he was in the juvenile system, yet had found herself stymied at every opportunity by the Rio state bureaucracy. In one of the more poignant scenes, Padilha interviews the woman in the satellite slum of Nova Holanda who had taken in Sandro as her own in his late teenage years, and had provided him with food to eat and a roof to sleep under, as well as the sort of motherly attention that he had been so desperately searching for ever since his own mother was killed.
In filling out the details of Sandro's life, Padilha also spoke to Yvonne Bezerra, a social worker who had once worked with the Candelaria children before the massacre (and who chillingly recounts how in the aftermath a poll organized by the radio station found most respondents backing the police officers responsible), as well as a variety of his former associates from the streets, such as Rogerinho, who had also survived Candelaria and had spent many years committing crimes alongside Sandro. To further flesh out his themes of the problems of Brazilian social exclusion, economic inequality, racism (for most of the very poorest are, like Sandro, black), and state corruption and violence, Padilha also spoke to Rodrigo Pimentel, a trained sociologist and captain in BOPE, the elite special police squad, and Luis Eduardo Soares, a Rio sociologist, as well as to a variety of unconnected street kids, who simply describe the struggles of their daily lives. In order to better explain Sandro's desperation, Padilha also takes the viewer inside the Brazilian prison system, whose vastly overcrowded cells see men living in absolutely feral conditions, brutalized by beatings, torture, and abominable conditions - Padilha's point is that the horror of such places does not serve to rehabilitate, but merely to brutalize further.
After hours of the standoff, Sandro left the bus with a female hostage, perhaps hoping to escape on foot. He was immediately fired on by a member of the special police force, and in the chaos that followed, the female hostage, Geisa, was shot dead. Immediately the vast crowds of people that had gathered on the periphery of the scene descended as a mob to kill Sandro, who was pulled out of the melee by police officers, who then threw him in the back of a van and proceeded to beat him to death in the full glare of the television cameras.
In many ways, Bus 174 covers much of the same territory as the celebrated Brazilian film City of God, but unlike that film there is no hope on offer, no redemption; which is unsurprising because the demands of a fictional narrative are, or at least tend to be, different from the requirements of documentary film-making. This is not, needless to say, 'fun' viewing. It is not light, it is not frothy, but what it is is a thought-provoking exploration of both the enormous scale of Brazil's social problems, as well as what the practical impact of those problems means at the individual level. If you are at all interested in the second most populous country in the Western Hemisphere, I would suggest tracking this down.