La Camioneta


I have the great pleasure of participating in the RiverRun International Film Festival in Winston Salem, North Carolina this year and am excited to be able to report on some fantastic international films that can be used as teaching tools.  Here is my first film RiverRun film review!

When you were a kid in the US, you likely got on a big yellow bus every morning to get to school.  Your biggest worry of the day might have been about who to play kickball with at lunch or whether your homework was done on time.

But did you ever wonder what happens to many of those big yellow buses once they’re put into retirement? The documentary, La Camioneta, covers the tale of just one of those ubiquitous yellow buses as it makes its way from an auction in Tennessee (US) to the streets of Quetzal City, Guatemala.  It also teaches the viewer why getting on that same bus in a place like Nicaragua may mean wondering if you’ll make it home alive.

We watch as a man drives from Guatemala to the auction and purchases the bus.  Then he drives it through Mexico, where he is often subjected to police abusing their power and stealing his money.  (This was fascinating to hear him talk about, as I have friends who drove their personal vehicle from the US to Ecuador and had to pay significant bribes to police in Mexico, more than once, simply to be able to get to their home in South America.)  Nevertheless, the Guatemalan man arrives home eventually and we begin to see how the bus exchanges hands in the local community.

We are invited into the life of the new bus owner and learn of his childhood dream to own a bus.  This is also where we begin to see the radical transformation of the yellow bus into a work of art, as well as begin to understand the dangers in owning, driving and riding a bus in Quetzal City.lacamionetas2

The bus undergoes a extreme make over.  Craftsmen brand it with an elaborate paint job, refurbished windows and stylish metals to set it apart from other fleets in the area.  Recall that the previous US owner had seen this same bus as not worthy of public use and sold it as a “retired, worn out” bus to a man from Guatemala, who recognized it as a vehicle with a long life ahead of it, ultimately treating it as an object of beauty.  Perspective is always relevant when crossing cultures.  One man’s garbage is another man’s treasure and in this case a sustainable one.  The viewer gets the sense that items from the scrapyard are creatively reworked to add not only value, but an aesthetic quality to “la camioneta.”

The craft work quickly becomes secondary to the misery of extortion that takes place in the city.  Bus drivers are targeted . If the bus company doesn’t pay up, they risk being attacked by gangs who kill drivers and set off explosives.  One hundred and thirty drivers were killed in bus bombings in 2010 in this region. We hear about widows and children left without fathers, murdered by the local gangs.  We witness a poignant scene where an young child who has lost his father plays on his mother’s lap as the community testifies to the local government about the crimes taking places on las camionetas and the impact on families.

Culture again becomes abundantly apparent as las camionetas are decorated and parked in front of a church where prayers are made to St. Christopher, asking for protection for the drivers and all passengers.

La Camioneta is an excellent documentary to be shared in Spanish and Latin American studies classes, as well as criminal justice and political science classes.  It would also be appropriate for anyone studying sustainability issues, as the first half of the film highlights the differences in how cultures view waste.

Here is the trailer of “La Camioneta”: