Well-intended documentaries do not always make for great documentaries. Such is the case with La Camioneta, a short documentary about a U.S. school bus’ transformation into a public transport on the streets of Guatemala. What begins as an interesting premise loses its momentum halfway through and then falters in the end.
Director Mark Kendall has decided to follow the trip of an outdated yellow school bus from Spotsylvania County to Guatemala. The film opens with the poetic musings of a frequent rider of these buses who offers a sense of being living on after death and shared experiences informing spaces once occupied by people, like a school bus. Kendall, who also lensed and edited the film, presents varied shots of the bus with a pulsing, vaguely ethnic score by T. Griffin, which also features Thierry Amar of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. It makes for a dynamic opening that ends in a short scene of silence and chirping birds as the bus sits on an open field. It’s a witty establishment of character for an inanimate object that passively exists in its moments.
And this could have been such a great film had it not concerned itself so much with exposition that is often left unexplored. I would have preferred a more minimalist story about the bus itself. The director offers a hint of what could have been with inventive shots from within the bus that hint at such a perspective. During the reveal of the bus’ new paint job a page of newspaper featuring the color photo of a dead body on a bus is torn away. It’s a beautifully loaded moment. One cannot blame Kendall for feeling obliged to report on the social and political turmoil into which the bus ventures once it crosses the Mexican border. However, there’s a hesitation to explore issues further that seems almost timid.
From the auction of the bus in the U.S. to its trip to Guatemala, Kendall covers the many facets of this bus’ new life by different temporary owners. The auctioneer explains many U.S. public school buses are sold off about 10 to 20 years into their lives for a few thousand dollars to countries in Africa and Central America. The buyer of this one bus lives a month on the road to bring one of these buses back to Guatemala for resale. His adventure seems harrowing, as he notes risks in dealing with corrupt Mexican police and a fear of being robbed by officers.
The buyer of the bus in Guatemala shares both dreams of owning one of these buses for work since he was 13 and a fear for his life of murderous, extorting gangsters. The artist hired to convert the bus to the brightly painted vehicle that will cover the streets of Quetzal City tackles the job with an earnest zeal of personal expression.
Even though the film clocks in at just over an hour, there are points when it simply drags. It stems from a desire to over-explain but halt at any real insight into social problems. By maybe speaking with more police officers or the ineffective politicians or even the dangerous thugs who extort the bus drivers for money to protect the buses from bombings, Kendall could have more fully fleshed-out this version of the film. Instead Kendall dwells a little too much on the people directly related to the bus and their life away from the bus. It almost seems irrelevant.
The point when the film unravels comes during a lingering breakfast sequence with a family. What began as a punchily edited piece halts to linger on a toddler reaching for a cup of coffee while his mother and father warn him over and over that it’s too hot. Oddly enough, what the film needs most to stay true to its original intent, as noted in the subtitle “The Journey of One American School Bus,” are scenes like that, if only more directly about the bus. But it’s all the jumping around that makes it feel hard to engage with. Despite this, the film remains a noble effort, and it’s far from a waste of time at the theater.
La Camioneta runs 72 minutes and is not rated (there are brief scenes of the aftermath of violence). It opens in South Florida exclusively at the Miami Beach Cinematheque this Friday, Sept. 20, which provided a DVD preview screener for the purposes of this review. Nationwide and even other parts of the world, the film might already be playing in your neighborhood or coming soon, see full screening dates (that’s a hotlink).