Guatemala is no stranger to the iconic symbol of North American transport – big, yellow school buses crowd the streets of tiny pueblos and carry thousands of chapines up and down the country every day. But how do these buses go from safe, law-abiding vehicles to garish, anything-goes camionetas?
Mark Kendall’s debut documentary, La Camioneta, sets out to answer that question – following a decommissioned school bus from the graveyard in a Pennsylvanian auction, to the afterlife in Guatemala.
The young U.S. filmmaker came across the idea for the documentary while riding on a camioneta during his first trip to Guatemala five years ago.
“I struck up a conversation with one of the drivers and my curiosity was piqued when he told me the camioneta we were on came from a school district in Tennessee, just 20 miles from where I was living at the time. I found myself thinking about the old school bus I used to ride to basketball games in high school,” says Kendall. “Where was it now? Driving around somewhere in Guatemala?”
The Brooklyn-based filmmaker started wondering about the people who buy and repair decommissioned U.S. school buses, how they bring them to Guatemala and why they spend so much time and energy decorating them. A year later, he decided to investigate.
Traveling over 3,000 miles, through three countries and across two borders, La Camioneta is a film about migration, connectedness and exchange between the Americas. The story centers on a former school bus: stripped of its uniform yellow paint, redesigned and ready to begin its new life in Guatemala.
Since Kendall and his team were committed to the journey of this one particular bus, they were not at liberty to make casting decisions or script alterations: whoever bought the bus was going to be the owner, whoever painted the bus was going to be the painter, whoever drove the bus was going to be the driver, and whatever each of these characters said was going to be the script.
La Camioneta never set out to be a film about violence, but the story quickly changed when the bus was enlisted by Rutas Quetzal, which operates on one of Guatemala’s most dangerous routes. Since 2006, more than 1,000 camioneta drivers and fare-collectors have been killed in Guatemala for failing to pay the extortion money demanded by local gangs.
Read more: Driving gangs off Guatemala City’s buses
“While we were in the field, many of our subjects were dealing with the deaths and shootings of their colleagues and the leadership within Rutas Quetzal itself was being indicted for being directly involved in the extortion ring. It was a sensitive time for everyone associated with Rutas Quetzal, and the high stakes made our subjects understandably reticent about discussing certain things on camera,” says Kendall.
However, La Camioneta manages to move beyond the bloodsoaked headlines, tracking the migration and resurrection of one former U.S. school bus and exploring the lives of the people involved with it as they fight to survive amidst the insecurity and impunity that surrounds them.
In 2012 the film had its world premiere at the prestigious South by Southwest (SXSW) music and film festival, in Austin, Texas. La Camioneta has since gone on to win Best Hispanic film at the Nashville Film Festival and was recently voted one of the Best Indie Films of 2013 by Indiewire’s Criticwire Network.