Documentary Magazine

May 30, 2013

The Magic School Bus: ‘La Camioneta’ Tracks a Transformative Journey
by KJ Relth

Mark Kendall Pew Fellow Artist Filmmaker Guggenheim MacDowell Sundance Yaddo

It once shuttled thousands of school kids, from kindergarteners to high school seniors, through sweltering heat and blizzards, from the nervous anticipation of the first days of school in September through the giddy excitement of the last days in June. But as it yields to newer, sturdier vehicles, it undergoes a transformation and repurposing, from public school bus in suburban America to mass transit vehicle in Central America.

Thus is the life of a single decommissioned American school bus, as poetically depicted in Mark Kendall’s debut feature film, La Camioneta. We follow this camionetaon its journey from an auction in rural Pennsylvania, south through Mexico to its new home in Guatemala, where the vehicle is sold into a fleet, refurbished, repainted and eventually staffed by dozens of drivers as a reliable method of transportation for the daily masses navigating the route between Guatemala City and Quetzal City.

The care that goes into repurposing this vessel is not unique—all auctioned camionetas go through a similar bidding, travel and renovation process. But as Kendall’s film highlights, every bus has a different story to tell. The particular vehicle featured in La Camioneta represents just one of hundreds, and the people involved in its continued operation just several among thousands.

Beneath this narrative of continued life and fulfilled dreams lies a sinister truth: In the past six years alone, nearly one thousand camioneta drivers have been murdered for failing to pay extortion money to members of the local mafia. This fact doesn’t deter eager visionaries like Ermelindo, who, since the age of 13, has dreamed of owning his own bus. For him and drivers such as Angel Mario Voc Bixtún, owning and operating these camionetas is their livelihood; they risk their lives every day by simply doing their jobs. But Kendall does not overtly make these men heroes. They’re doing what they need to do to survive and ensure that their families can also live on.

Kendall opts to focus on the personal stories, rather than the widespread violence so prevalent in Guatemala’s current narrative. It is through the characters that we learn about the recent murders and hijackings in their metropolis, sparing us from witnessing too much bloodshed firsthand. There is a short segment that illuminates some of this death and suffering, as police and medical workers drag a limp body from the steps of one of the many camionetas that run through the streets of Quetzal. Kendall spares us from seeing the dead man’s face, but we do see the faces of the children who have lost their fathers in recent months.

Kendall came to his story while in the Social Documentary Film graduate program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. “I began to develop the idea a bit right before the end of the first year,” he related in an e-mail. “Once the summer came around I pretty much jumped right into production. I’d go down to Guatemala any time I had free from my obligations at school and then I’d come back to New York to continue with classes.” Having earned a Student Academy Award nomination for his documentary shortThe Time Machine, Kendall had the instincts to produce another successful film. He engaged Guatemala City-based award-winning journalist and documentary filmmaker Rafael González, who assisted him on the trips to Central America. His guidance during production is probably what kept them out of harm’s way.

“Originally I had imagined we’d follow the converted bus into its new route and spend some time seeing it back in action and getting to know some of the folks in the community it serves,” Kendall said in an e-mail following the film’s premiere at the 2012 Los Angeles Film Festival. “But given how things were going, I decided it wouldn’t be safe to film on the camioneta while in its route—not only for our own safety but also for the safety of our subjects. So in some ways we chose to stay of the way of trouble.” This restraint during the filmmaking process eventually dictated the focus of the final cut, which, as mentioned, celebrates life, rather than dwells in death.

The arc of the film unfolds at a calculated pace, never defying the time frame from the auction purchase to the complete transformation of the bus into a bright, colorful and fully-functioning camioneta. We are right there as Domingo Lastor takes the vehicle on its 16-hour journey from the United States through the Mexican border and down into Guatemala. The story doesn’t try to rush through the painstaking care taken by Mario Enrique Valle as he stencils the elaborate designs over the exterior of the vehicle. Kendall is not afraid to let his camera linger on the mundane, understanding the delicate and quiet beauty of meditation.

In a few of these still moments, droplets of rain gather on the camera lens, making the viewer aware of the piece of glass between the filmmaker and his subject. A perfectionist would have gone back for pick-up shots, deeming the footage with the rain spot unusable. But these little imperfections lend the film a cinema vérité authenticity. Never do we experience a traditional interview with any of the characters. Instead, we are introduced to them as they move throughout their lives, their stories revealing themselves slowly and sparsely through voiceover or conversation. Kendall – who spent 18 weeks over the course of one year filming his subjects on the road, at home and on the job – has put his supporting subjects completely at ease, despite the camera’s presence.

La Camioneta unfolds beautifully, with still and deliberate intention. There is no emotional manipulation, no social or political agenda, no ulterior motive from the filmmaker. Kendall’s is a simple and poetic document of the journeys we all take, and the ways we can help each other along these roads. Don’t expect sensation. Engage this film with tranquility, and you will emerge slightly more connected to humanity.