Watching (and loving) La Camioneta

Last night I finally watched La Camioneta, a 2012 documentary film about a school bus that travels from Pennsylvania to Guatemala, where it is transformed and outfitted for its second life as a brightly-colored extra-urban bus ferrying mostly indigenous passengers to and from the satellite town of Ciudad Quetzal. Although multiple people had recommended this film to me, it wasn’t until my wife discovered that the film was available for streaming on Netflix that we finally sat down to watch it. Although the film starts a bit slowly, patient viewers will be rewarded with an emotionally moving visual and aural experience that “transports” the audience across two borders and (briefly) back again.

I was prepared for the story of the transformation of a bus. Last year I had a long conversation with a bus driver (during a 3-hour bus ride across the Altiplano) who described to me in great detail the physical transformation undergone by the hundreds of buses brought done to Guatemala every year. Most of them, he said, are overhauled at one of several body shops in Chimaltenango, that armpit of the Panamerican Highway. The bus company owners typically purchase a school bus for about $10,000 at a U.S. auction, put a few thousand dollars into transporting and licensing the bus, and then pump another $25,000 into the physical and mechanical transformation of the unit before putting it to work (typically under the care of the driver who has shown himself the most deserving of a “new” set of wheels). Among the most costly factors involved in such transformations are the elimination of about 10 feet of length — making the bus more amenable to getting around in the narrow streets of Santa Cruz or Chichicastenango — and the replacement of the front hood/cap with a Blue Bird or Harley Davidson hood/cap. This last, very expensive detail, I was told, is simply “pura vanidad” and has no practical payoff other than to make the driver and his ayudante beam the more proudly.

Interestingly however, La Camioneta follows a bus that is transformed by a much smaller outfit than the body shops of Chimaltenango. The film follows a bus that appears to have been purchased by a small-time entrepreneur who immediately sells it (on credit and with only a verbal contract by all appearances) to a young indigenous father from a neighboring rural village who is looking to improve his economic prospects with this very serious investment. Thus, this transformation will not be nearly as substantial nor expensive as that of the typical bus purchased by one of the major bus lines of the Western highlands. In this case the body shop does not slice off the last 20% of the bus, nor do they replace the hood with an expense chromed-out Harley hood. But the pay-off for following this bus rather than a “typical” bus is that we get to see a self-taught artist at work in his make-shift “studio.” The body shop is an open-air outfit on the edge of a corn field and everyone — from the importer, to the painter, to the the buyer are indigenous Mayan young men who have found a way to thrive in a very difficult labor market.

I was surprised and delighted to find that, although the film is ostensibly about buses and the lives of those whose living is tied up with them, the film treats the two major themes of my book with deft and sensitivity. The gangs are a constant concern of bus drivers. We see news footage of the awful bombing of a bus on the San Juan in 2009, and we hear bus drivers speaking worriedly about the dilemmas of their newly dangerous occupation. But we also hear them discussing with an air of matter-of-factness the extortion fees levied by the local gangs. Such matter-of-fact discussions do not diminish the dangers of not paying the gangs — although recently the gangs have reportedly renounced the tactic of killing bus drivers in order to ensure extortion payment — but they do provide hints that in some cases, inhabitants have come to regard the gangs as adolescent neighbors who are more of an annoyance than an insurmountable barrier to conducting business. (I conducted several of my interviews with former gang members in Ciudad Quetzal, the dusty satellite town where much of this documentary is filmed.)

The film also reveals the religious aspect of life in Guatemala and it treats this theme with an equally deft (and ecumenical) touch. In one scene, the purchaser of the bus invites his Pentecostal pastor — accompanied by the pastorawhose Bible and simultaneous prayers exhibit her own spiritual authority — to board the bus and prayerfully invoke God’s blessing on it’s future. In another scene, we see a Catholic priest blessing a parking lot full of decorated buses. And along the way, we see San Cristobal, patron saint of the bus drivers carrying a child on his shoulders. Dodging the opportunity to engage in another round of tired jokes about the irony of the many buses that carry religious symbols and sex symbols side-by-side, the film tries to see the lives of the bus drivers, importers, and body shop artists through the eyes of a curious, but humble outsider.

There is more to say about this gorgeous film. I am tempted to gush about the wisdom of the filmmakers in avoiding the rural versus urban, or the ladino versus indigenous tropes engaged in by too many ideological academics. But instead I can only beseech readers who have not yet seen the film to treat themselves to this film, which is both an outstanding piece of art, and an exceptionally faithful rendering of life in the Guatemala of the 2010s.