'La Camioneta': LAFF Review

SXSW Film La Camioneta Poster - P 2012

SXSW Film La Camioneta Poster - P 2012

An unexpected and fascinating aspect of migration in the Americas, viewed in intimate close-up.

Mark Kendall's rich and vivid documentary tracks the journey of an old American school bus repurposed to carry commuters in Guatemala.

U.S. director Mark Kendall has put his interest in cultural anthropology to rewarding use in his first feature documentary, a film that’s rich in detail and character observation. La Camioneta: The Journey of One American School Bus is just what the title indicates — and that turns out be an intimate and vivid report on a surprising connection between North and Central America.

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A selection of the Los Angeles Film Festival, the concise and well-constructed film looks destined to continue a successful fest-circuit journey, and would be a fine fit for small-screen venues that welcome adventurous nonfiction fare.

Having discovered that the public transportation camionetas widely used in Guatemala are repurposed American school buses, Kendall embarked on a filmmaking project that would trace one such vehicle’s transformation. The action begins with a Pennsylvania auction of decommissioned buses, where most of the bidders are men who have traveled from Central America. For the man who buys the titular bus, on a payment plan, after it has arrived in Guatemala, the transaction fulfills a lifelong dream.

Another one of the individuals that Kendall’s astute camera highlights is a young man who makes the trip between Guatemala and the U.S. twice a month, driving 16-hour days, to purchase and deliver the buses. He’s at peace with the nature of his work, but can’t deny the dread he feels each time he enters Mexico, an understandable reaction given the country’s recent spate of violence.

The homefront is not much easier, as La Camioneta makes clear without reaching for heavy-handed explanations. Camioneta drivers must contend with gangs that extort them for cash. Those who don’t comply are often the victims of shootings or grenades; in 2010 alone, nearly 200 drivers and fare collectors were killed.

In succinct fashion, the film captures the situation at the public and the private levels. There are the crime scenes and dead bodies, the appeals to legislators for compensation to help the orphans and widows, and, in a dark-comic nod to a legacy of institutional corruption, a wanted poster for a former chief of police. Sociopolitical implications are neither forced nor denied; Kendall’s chief interest is his subjects’ experience, as when he catches the anxiety in the faces of two drivers discussing their daily challenge.

Yet as much as it is an alarmed look at dark doings, the film is also a celebration of ingenuity and the buses’ refurbishment. Body-shop workers transform the classic yellow behemoth into a multihued work of art, designing its new shell with care and pride.

Priests bless the finished product and offer prayers for the drivers’ safety. But another kind of faith fuels La Camioneta — an existential equanimity in precarious times. “Everything carries you along,” one driver says. “On a journey,” another observes, “there’s nothing that is written.”

Venue: Los Angeles Film Festival
A Follow Your Nose Films production (In Spanish with English subtitles)
Director/director of photography/editor: Mark Kendall
Producers: Mark Kendall, Rafael González
Executive producer: Esther Robinson
Music: T. Griffin
Co-editor: Shannon Kennedy
No MPAA rating, 71 minutes.