Bus 174 Review

A 1997 survey estimated that there are a total of between seven and seventeen million street children living on the streets on Brazil, the majority of them in Rio de Janeiro, the country’s biggest city. Ignored by those who could help them, they are forced to eke out an existence begging or committing petty crime, scrounging for whatever sustenance they can find in the face of an indifferent world. They are, as Jose Padilha’s dramatic documentary illustrates, at best invisible and at worse seen as little better than rats, a pest that can be disposed of in any way the authorities, for which read the largely undisciplined and uncensored police force, see fit.

Bus 174 tells the story of one such stray, Sandro di Nascinmento, nicknamed Mancha by his friends, who on June 12th 2000 boarded a local commuter bus and, for no readily apparent reason, took its passengers hostage. Running away from his home at the age of five after witnessing the murder of his mother by thieves, he had spent his life drifting from one street community to another, sleeping rough in squalid corners of the city, living the same kind of life as thousands others like him, days made up of mugging and begging, drugs (glue sniffing or, if he could get a hold of it, cocaine) helping to dull the pain of his existence. In 1993, he was caught up in one of Brazil’s most shameful moments, the Massacre of Candelaria, when police gunned down a group of street children who had been using the Cathedral as a shelter. It is hard to imagine the effect of seeing a parent knifed to death before your eyes when aged only five, it is even harder to imagine what it would be like to then, eight years later, go through it again and see some of your best friends cut down by a sadistic regime that you are powerless to fight. It is little wonder that he ended up the way he did, on that bus in the blazing hot summer of that year, probably higher than a kite, a desperate man who could no longer cope.

In our media-reliant age, it is no surprise that as soon as news broke about the hostage situation on the bus cameras swarmed to the scene. Just as the attack on New York was to be fifteen months later, television covered every angle of the siege, providing a shocked (but also, one suspects, voyeuristically thrilled) country with live, minute-by-minute coverage of a situation that ended up lasting over four and a half hours. Director Jose Padilha has taken that footage and skilfully weaved it together which, together with talking heads from those directly and indirectly involved, he uses as a jumping off point to tell the wider story of the street children. It makes for deeply uncomfortable viewing.

As the opening aerial shot illustrates, Rio is a city where extreme poverty lives in uneasy proximity to extreme wealth, the shanty towns, or favelas as they are called, practically rubbing shoulders with the more well-to-do areas. Despite this closeness, for the most part the haves of the city do nothing, instead dismissing the situation with a shrug of the shoulders and a “What you gonna do?” Unwatched by their superiors, the general police force, often made up of those who could get no other work, have free reign to do what they like when they like in these areas, with sadly all-too-predictable results. Prisoners are regularly beaten up – and if they die, so what? – before being dumped in one of the squalid excuses Rio has for a prison, an overcrowded, disease-ridden squat in which the boys are herded in like cattle, ten, twenty to a single cell. From this it is little wonder that a kind of civil war has broken out, those on the streets vs those in nominal charge of law and order, a war with no end in sight and which, every so often, inevitably catches innocent passers-by in the crossfire, something this film makes all too clear.

This status quo is relayed through a mixture of footage filmed specially for the film (including a tour of one such prison, clearly showing its inhuman conditions) and the interviews Padilha conducted for the film. He worked a minor miracle in finding some of the people he did – all sides of Sandro’s life are covered, from the aunt who was his one remaining relative (someone the authorities and other media couldn't track down find following the siege), through to the children he grew up with on the streets, through to those on the bus and one of the negotiators called in for the siege. He also conducts an interview with a gangster, his face covered with clothes but his attitudes made abundantly clear. It’s a dog-eat-dog world to him, one in which death and violence are part of the fabric of everyday life. It is a frightening apparition, not least of which the moments when you find yourself beginning to see the situation from his side. Together, their testimonies combine to build up a complete picture of both street life in general, and what Sandro was like in particular. Padilha also managed to find records detailing Sandro’s many previous incarcerations, and, most movingly, some footage of Sandro from the day before the Massacre of Candelaria, one of the most quietly affecting moments of the entire film – the boy still shows some signs of purely child-like behaviour, a remnant of innocence that would be wrenched away from him within twenty four hours.

The heart of the film, though, is the siege itself, which is extraordinary. The police and special forces seem completely unable to deal with the situation, people almost just wandering by around the bus, hesitation clear on their faces and no firm plans being made. At all times Sandro and the hostages are visible, and, despite numerous chances to, snipers encamped in the surrounding area fail to take the opportunity to bring him down. (At certain points he even leans his head out of the window, offering a clear opportunity). Sandro himself is both unnervingly unstable and also, at times, strangely pathetic – although the speculation is that he was high on drugs at the time of the incident (and the manner in which he talks and acts does nothing to belie this opinion) it becomes clear that he desperately doesn’t want to hurt the hostages, but simultaneously can't see anything else he has to bargain with. Seeing that his bargaining tactic of threatening to kill one of the women gets minimal response from the authorities, he almost tosses her away and grabs another. “What about her?” he yells. “If you don’t care about the other, what about this one?” At another point he pretends to shoot one of the women but makes it clear to her beforehand that he actually won’t. At no point can one sympathise with the predicament he’s got himself into, nor feel for him at the same level as the poor people he holds in the bus, but, as the documentary makes clear, he knows what he’s in for if – when – the situation resolves itself. Being taken in by the police, as previously said (and subsequently shown here) is no guarantee of protection - quite the reverse in fact, especially given the heinous nature of his crime.

The very fact the cameras were present also provides an interesting subplot to the situation. Sandro makes full use of their presence, hoping that their very presence means the police won’t gun him down, for fear of shocking the viewing public. As well as this, it's also his turn in the spotlight - after a life lived as an “invisible” entity (for such are the street children known as, such a fact of life that most people filter them out of their consciousness in much the same way we filter out much of the daily minutiae we observe) this is his moment, not of glory perhaps, but chance to have a say, make a difference. At several points he yells out that “this is no action movie” but the very fact that people are watching him, hanging on his words and actions, means that finally he is somebody, regaining his visibility in perhaps the only way he could.

Although the plight of the street children is undeniably dreadful, and the behaviour of some members of the police guard unquestionably barbaric, Padilha’s film is ever-so-slightly one sided, in that none of those accused ever get a chance to respond. We don’t hear, for example, from the people in charge of the medieval-like prisons the criminals are housed in, or the people responsible for deciding the course of action to take with the siege. We are told that the police are largely made of those who could do nothing else, but there is a noticeable lack of representation for them among the talking heads, while scant regard is given to the underlying causes of the wider problem – Padilha shows us what the life is like, but not how it has come about.

Also, surprisingly given both the situation and the country, there’s an odd lack of emotion in it, a distance to the work which is at odds with the message it wants to put across. An excellent illustration of this is the footage taken inside one of the jails – Padilha chooses to show the film as a negative, something which actually works to mask the viewer from the worst horrors of what they are seeing, putting a shield between them and the reality, a strange directorial choice that doesn’t really work. Although there is plenty of hand-wringing from all concerned, both about Sandro’s plight and also the wider issues, there’s an odd lack of anger – only the professional gangster really gets worked up, which is one of the reasons he comes across, ironically, as one of the best. The others, instead, have an air of resignation about them – how else, they seem to say, could matters be? – which mirrors the inaction of those in Brazil who could try and do something more positive. This gives the documentary an ultimately fatalistic outlook, which is a sad reflection of the state of mind of Brazil towards this problem.

This doesn’t detract, though, from what is a very affecting piece of work. Last year the film City of God introduced the subculture that exists in the Rio favelas to an international audience but, with its flashy editing, made it seem more like a Brazilian version of a Tarintino movie rather than a real life situation. Jose Padilha’s approach is almost the antithesis of that film, a slow, thoughtful look at the situation which relies on the situation itself to make the point rather than a fast camera cut. He has made an absorbing, if clinical, documentary, one that it is important a wider audience sees. Thirty five million Brazilians watched the siege unfold live, but I wonder how many of then remember much about it six months, a year later? This film goes some way to redressing that balance, ensuring that Sandro, and through him those millions like him, are never quite as invisible again as they once were, a result that wouldn’t be a million miles away from what he was hoping for, that dreadful day in June 2000.

The Disk
The film is presented on a single dual-layered disk, with a 16:9 non-anamorphic transfer which occasionally looks a little stretched to fill in the screen properly. The menu opens with a piece of music that suggests you’re going to watch an urban gangster film, an unnecessary and vaguely inappropriate tone to set for the film (the same music is also used on the trailer), accompanied by some clips. All the extras are on a submenu. English subtitles are automatically turned on for the main feature but can be turned off – none of the extras are though, aside from the additional interviews.

Because much of the film consists of the news footage taken at the time the film is often grainy and not of the highest quality. The footage shot by Padilha and his crew themselves is better, but still doesn’t get an A-1 transfer, there being a softness of image to some of it. Oddly, the image also looks like it's been stretched in places, as though it's not in the correct ratio. These are minor issues though and in a film like this the image quality doesn't have to be of the highest standard as long as it is watchable, which this most certainly is.

Fine. Not speaking Portuguese, it’s hard to say whether the footage from the siege suffers from muffled voices, but it certainly sounds clear enough to me, as do the interviews and other footage.


The Making of Bus 174
Twenty minute piece in which director Padilha, in English, talks about how he went about making the film. He concentrates solely on the technical side of putting the film together, looking at such aspects as the structure and finding his various interviews, with no time given to how he felt himself personally about the subject he was documenting. Good, though, and works well in the absence of a commentary.

Additional Interviews
Features extra footage of four of the interviewees - the professional robber, a sociologist, Sandro's aunt and a social worker. These work well as a supplement, filling in more background detail to the world they live in and the people benefit from the extended time, putting across their views much more forcefully than in the film's, necessarily, edited-down version.

Jose Padilha Interview
This covers a lot of the same ground as the Making Of. Each question is captioned before the director talks for a minute or so about that topic. Nothing more is really added to what we know already, besides what became of the bus itself.

Socials Frontiers Photography Exhibition
Alexandre Lima has spent the past five years photographing the street children and gangsters in Rio, and worked as assistant director on Bus 174, helping introduce Padilha to find, as the opening text to this extra describes them, “the less salubrious” individuals he interviewed. Following a few pages of text introducing his work, there follows twenty seven examples, including some truly striking images. These give a good picture of what the life in one of Rio’s favelas is like, and their inclusion is one of the highlights of the disk. Well worth checking out.

Bus 174 Trailer
Reasonable trailer which starts off showing the street children before concentrating on the “thrilling” moments from the siege itself.

More from Metrodome
Four trailers for other releases - Monster, Donnie Darko – the Director’s Cut, The Corporation and The Last Victory.

An unsettling film is given a decent release onto DVD. Padilha, the star of the extras, comes across as a decent guy who saw, through one awful event, a chance to make a commentary about the state of Brazil today, and can be justly proud of the results. The extras, while not many, add to the picture the film creates, with the photos especially poignant.

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