September 11th 2004

  Buy Issue 2690

Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Battle lines drawn for October 9 Federal poll

EDITORIAL: Issues for the Federal Election

FAMILY: Better deal demanded for families

NOT SO DRY CONTINENT: Australia has water options

FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Taiwan faces continuing threats from Beijing

POPULATION: Falling birth-rates stir action in Taiwan, Singapore

INDIA: The economic test for India's new government

PEACE-KEEPING: Sudan and the progressive mind

OPINION: The case for new states in Australia

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Howard versus New Class Labor / Tap Tap. Who's there?

CINEMA: Bus 174 - A jolting, two-hour masterpiece

CLIMATE: Global warming - the sceptics have won

DEMOCRACY: Lay your hammer down

Labor's foot-soldiers (letter)

Mondragon: a rejoinder (letter)

The West and Islam (letter)

BOOKS: The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French defeat in Vietnam

BOOKS: 7 Myths of Working Mothers, by Suzanne Venker

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Bus 174 - A jolting, two-hour masterpiece

by R.J. Stove

News Weekly, September 11, 2004
Documentary movie-making is far too important to be left to Michael Moore, as we can see from Fahrenheit 9/11, so clumsy a diatribe that Moore really should be on Dubya's payroll.

For an example of serious documentary work, Brazil has lately exported Bus 174: the anatomy of a Rio hijacking (captured with terrible completeness on television) four years back. Having crept into art-house cinemas with no fanfare, Bus 174 may have already migrated to DVD - at least in Australia's larger cities - as you read this. Still, it deserves a much bigger and better audience than Moore's harangue warrants.

During much of the decade before he attained his own gigantic audience by commandeering a bus, 21-year-old Sandro do Nascimento had been one of Rio's half-million street kids. He had fled the family home shortly after witnessing, when only 10 years old, the particularly senseless murder of his mother. When not doing time in either a juvenile reformatory or an adult jail, Sandro slept out in the open with the rest of his gang (mostly male though with the occasional girl involved), wherever a bit of dry ground could be had.

Their choice of Rio's Candelária square as a shelter became, shortly after midnight on July 23, 1993, a fatal mistake. Policemen sprayed the kids with bullets, killing eight of them and briefly according Brazil international newspaper exposure. Survivors of this atrocity included Sandro, who thereafter lost whatever plot he had.

He dropped out of the capoeira martial-arts classes which he had joined, sniffed glue, took to cocaine, and ended up back in a shockingly overcrowded prison cell. From this torture-chamber he improbably escaped. A brief sojourn in a slum, with a foster-mother and the strange luxury of his own living quarters, proved abortive. The efforts of tireless social worker Yvonne de Mello availed equally little.

On June 12, 2000, Sandro took his revenge; and the mass media relayed it all, as he knew they would.

Bus 174's director José Padilha has painstakingly reconstructed footage from TV news networks and even from traffic cameras. This material he has interspersed with talking-head recollections by persons involved in the affair: Yvonne de Mello; the foster-mother; several journalists; members of Rio's SWAT team (one of whom, fearing identification, wears a balaclava throughout); some of Sandro's former companions on the street; some of the hostages who survived the hijacking and who could still talk (one survivor suffered a stroke which robbed her of all speech).

From these first-hand accounts it soon emerges that the SWAT team was, with a few courageous exceptions, of such ineptitude as to have scandalised Inspector Clouseau. Not only did it lack up-to-date training, it lacked basic equipment like walkie-talkies; its members had to communicate via hand-signals. Sandro's propensity for leaning out of bus windows and yelling insults gave half a dozen opportunities for any sniper to target him without hurting the captives. The SWAT commander took none of those opportunities.

Rio State's Governor had issued instructions to avoid, at any cost, shooting. He blended fear for his own political skin with understandable reluctance to give prime-time TV-watchers (the hijack drama had a nationwide television audience of 35 million) what one witness expressively called "half a kilo of brain tissue".

A movie review is no fit place to reveal the hijacking's later stages. Let it merely be said that these stages give a new meaning to the idea of reality TV, and do so in the spirit of Shakespeare's Coriolanus.

Greatly aided by composer João Nabuco's austere, implacable music - and by superb aerial photography of Rio's panoramas, "where every prospect pleases, and only man is vile" - Padilha has created a jolting, two-hour masterpiece. Forget the cartoonish violence of eternal pubescents like Tarantino: Bus 174, with scarcely any blood shown on-screen, is more genuinely frightening than any Kill-Bill-type gore-fest.

Clearly Padilha sympathises (as who would not?) with street kids, and with their mostly wretched existence. Yet equally clearly, Padilha has too Latinate a mind to go in for tedious Moore-style faux-prole moralising. Bus 174 balances the reminiscences of Sandro's long-suffering friends and his bitter foes with an almost inhuman fairness.

When a faint ray of optimism shines through - which happens seldom, this being a film made by adults for adults - it does so in the person of Yvonne de Mello, a kind of belated, hyperactive Dorothy Day in her enthusiasm and large-heartedness. Having been (with her innate decency) quite wasted on the sociopathic Sandro, she represents what fragmentary hope for a better future Brazil's underclass might have.

  • R.J. Stove

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