‘La Camioneta’ review: A powerful, elegant documentary
by Michael Phillips
Documentary filmmakers can make any number of rookie mistakes with their first features. Casting too wide a net is one of the most common. "La Camioneta" avoids that pothole, beautifully.
Filmmaker Mark Kendall keeps the focus narrow, indicated by the film's subtitle: "The Story of One American School Bus." His elegant and fluid account, just more than an hour in length minus end credits, begins with Guatemalan resident Domingo Lastor at a rural Pennsylvania bus auction, where decommissioned school buses go for two, three, perhaps four thousand dollars. Many of the buyers come from Central America.
"La Camioneta," translating loosely to "chicken bus" and referring to a brightly colored, blinged-out mode of public transportation, tells the story of one such bus, and the mechanics and drivers dependent on its safe migration from the U.S. to Guatemala City, and then to Quetzal City.
The latter route is full of risks. According to "La
Camioneta," roughly 1,000 drivers and fare-collectors have been murdered by Guatemalan gang extortionists since 2006. The socioeconomic dimensions are tapped into place, lightly but firmly. One mechanic/artist interviewed by Kendall speaks of the buses as migrants, ironically making their way south from America at the same time many Guatemalan nationals venture north in search of a living.
"Have mercy on my drivers," one man says, near the end of the film, as the newly refurbished bus — as much a rolling art object as cheap transportation — is christened.
Director Kendall will introduce "La Camioneta" at several of this week's Chicago premiere screenings at the Siskel Film Center.
It's well worth seeing.