How interesting can the life of a bus be? Well, if that bus happens to be a decommissioned American school bus, then it’s life really begins long after the footballs teams, prom queens and Chachi and Joanie have finished warming the seats. Many of these vehicles head down to Central America, where they’re transformed into camionetas – the brightly coloured, vibrant buses that ferry most Guatemalans to work every day. And, as independent film La Camioneta: Journey of One America School Bus shows, life is never dull when you’re riding the buses in Guatemala, as violence (gangs have killed nearly 1,000 camioneta drivers and fare collectors since 2006), entertainment and commuting mix on a daily basis. We caught up with the film’s director, Mark Kendall, to see what he had to say about life on the buses.
Bowlegs: Where did the idea for La Camioneta first originate? How long did it take to put together?
MK: The inspiration for the film came from an exchange that I had in 2009. I had recently graduated from a Masters program in Latin American Studies and during my time there I was on a fellowship from the Department of Education to concentrate on Guatemalan Language and Culture. Typically, most students in that track go to Guatemala during their summer break in order to pursue a more intensive K’iche’ language study.
It was a pivotal moment for me because I was not intending to become a linguist and saw a lot of different possibilities for what I might do after school, so it felt like I should use my time during the summer to reflect the trajectory I wanted to take.
I had been interested in film throughout my time in college, but I never had the courage to actually try to make one. I was looking for a way to combine my background in anthropology and my background in competitive debate with my emerging interest in the visual arts, and this seemed like the perfect time to give it a try.
Because the Latin American Studies program was interdisciplinary, I decided to petition the department and ultimately the Dean of the University for permission to produce a short documentary film as my Masters thesis project. After getting their approval, I received a grant to attend the School for International Training’s Lens on Latin America documentary film program in Cochabamba, Bolivia. I had an incredible experience there and enjoyed the process so much that when I returned to Nashville I decided I was going to pursue it further.
I only mention that because when it came time for graduation the following year, I hadn’t yet been to Central America and I had this budding interest in somehow pursuing a future in documentary filmmaking. There were all these things I thought I knew about Central America, its politics, and its history – all these things I had been reading about and writing about and talking about – but I had never been there myself.
Six months after graduating, I decided to take a six-week bus trip from Costa Rica up to Austin, TX. During that time I passed through Guatemala for a week and my principal form of transportation there were the camionetas. As soon as saw them, I recognized them as old school buses and was really struck by them.
One day I struck up a conversation with one of the drivers and my curiosity was piqued when he told me that the camioneta we were riding on came from a school district in Tennessee, just 20 miles from where I was living at the time. He and his nephew had bought the bus and had driven it down to Guatemala themselves a few years ago.
I decided to make a film about it because I had a feeling that following the journey of one decommissioned school bus throughout this entire process would be a really interesting vehicle into the more personal stories of the people who make it all possible. So at the outset it struck me as a really interesting story about interconnectedness and exchange between the Americas.
I first went to the 422 Bus Auction in April 2010, so it’s been almost two years now that I’ve been working on this project.
Bowlegs: Riding on the buses in Guatemala can be a dangerous business – were there any times you thought this wasn’t such a great idea?
MK: We were careful to only ride on certain routes and to only ride during certain hours of the day. In general we didn’t have many problems riding the buses as a way of getting from one place to another, but there were a few times when we smelled trouble and had to be especially careful. Thankfully, we made it through production without incident, although for the second half of our time there we opted to use mainly taxis.
Filming on board the buses was another story. We spent a day on board one of the routes in Guatemala City in hopes that we could get some footage of passengers riding on buses, but we had to stop because of security concerns. We saw a group of young guys eyeing our camera equipment and had to quickly grab our things and get off the bus immediately.
It really wasn’t safe to have camera equipment visible on board the buses, so Rafael and I ended up asking for assistance from the Guatemalan National Civil Police to escort us on some of our shoots downtown. It took a while for us to arrange the meeting, but after we explained to them what we were doing and told them about the incident we had while filming on the bus, they agreed to help us out by providing us with two armed guards that would accompany us for a full day of shooting around the city.
Bowlegs: Despite the occasional threat of danger, riding on the camionetas in Guatemala – and Central America – can be a lot of fun. I once sat next to man on a bus in Nicaragua who had a shopping bag full of live chickens on his lap, and gleefully spent the journey showing them to me and talking about them. What were the best experiences you had?
MK: All kinds of things that happen on board the camionetas. One experience that stands out in my mind happened on my ride home to Guatemala City after filming a bit at Mario’s workshop in Chimaltenango. Two days earlier there had been a grenade attack against the bus from Rutas Quetzal, so it was one of the darker periods for all of us during production and had cast a bit of a dark cloud over what the future might hold. I was trying to rest a bit on the ride back because I hadn’t been sleeping much that week, and was fading in an out amidst the background noise of the rotating cast of vendors that would come on board for a mile or two to sell their newspapers, snacks, or plastic canisters of homeopathic medicine.
As we were driving down La Calzada Roosevelt from Mixco into Guatemala City, two teenagers jumped on board the bus dressed up as clowns. He stayed towards the front of the camioneta and she walked towards the back. For the next ten-minutes or so they performed their routine for the whole group – teasing the driver, making fun of the passengers, and flirting with the oldest and the youngest people on board. The duo had the whole camioneta laughing in stitches. It was fantastic!
Bowlegs: It’s obvious some people put a lot of effort into decorating their buses – and occasionally fitting them with ear-busting sound systems – is there a sense of competition between the drivers when it comes to customizing the buses?
MK: I think the competition is something that differs between companies and between individuals. There’s no one-size-fits-all description of camioneta culture, really. I certainly met some folks that would get offended if I didn’t agree with them that their bus was the coolest bus I’d ever seen. But there were also other folks who were less interested in the flashy cosmetics and were more concerned with making sure they took proper care of their bus and that they were providing a good service for their passengers. Others didn’t seem to care for their bus at all.
The public transportation business is a big business, though, so for routes that are in direct competition with each other and operate in the same territories the competition can actually get quite intense. Ultimately, behind all the flashy colours, it’s their jobs and their livelihoods that are on the line. Different folks have different reasons for putting a lot of time and effort into their work.
Bowlegs: What did you get out of making the film? Did it open your eyes to the realities of life in Guatemala?
MK: Absolutely. The process of doing the research, always asking questions, staying on top of the news, interacting with people on the ground every day – making documentaries is such a privileged way to learn about the world around you and I definitely learned a lot about Guatemala and about myself in making this film.
I think I’m still processing the whole experience, really, and I’m not sure if I’ll know exactly what I got out of the whole start-to-finish process of making the film until a little farther down the line, when I can look back and see how this experience has changed me. I’m looking forward to beginning the interactive process of sharing the film with audiences and seeing what kinds of conversations it opens up.
Bowlegs: Would you ever do a screening in a camioneta in Guatemala?
MK: We’re developing plans to screen the film in Guatemala and have actually been discussing that very idea, so that’s certainly something within the realm of possibility.
Bowlegs: What have you got lined up next? Any more projects on the go?
MK: I’m beginning to look into a few ideas for my next project and have one that stands out a bit from the others. At this point it’s really just a feeling and a curiosity about a place and a particular event that happens there each year that I find very interesting. I realize that’s all quite vague, but I haven’t sketched it out much more than that just yet, in part because I want to let it simmer for a while and see if I continue returning to it. We’ll see what happens.
-Interview By David Standen-