Let It Bleed

'Bus 174' rolls up a news vehicle of white bronco proportions

On July 12, 2000, a man boarded a bus in downtown Rio de Janeiro, whipped out a pistol containing four bullets, and took 11 passengers hostage. News crews arrived on the scene, cameras blazing from every angle, and the ensuing spectacle essentially hijacked the Brazilian airwaves right up to the grim resolution--which is captured in a gripping new documentary called Bus 174. Had the story been covered by print media alone, the gunman--and the crime--might have vanished forever into the dark folds of the world's back pages.

And yet, had the story been covered by print media alone, there likely wouldn't be a story--and not just because the voracious cameras ratcheted up an already tense situation. As a peek at any newscast in the country will confirm, footage determines newsworthiness: A camcorder shot of a single crashing car has the edge over a year of vehicular-homicide stats. The raw material of the Bus 174 standoff is a CNN wet dream--snipers, scopes, screaming innocents, and, at center stage, a gunman who taunts, "This ain't no action movie," even as he promises live executions at six.

Stage, material...how easy it is to think of people's lives and potential deaths as entertainment when they're captured on camera. To its great credit, Bus 174 sees a bigger, better story than the one that unfolded live. The opening minutes set the tone: A helicopter shot scans the hillsides that ring Rio, gazing down into terraced swimming pools and slums of absurd proximity to one another. On the soundtrack, disembodied voices form a chorus of simmering urban resentment, describing life on the streets and the widening gulf between rich and poor. "When we grow up," murmurs a street dweller, "we're enraged."

The Bus 174 attack, then, is less late-breaking news than the bomb at the end of a slow-burning fuse. The perp, Sandro Rosa do Nascimento, had his fate sealed at age six. That was when he watched his mother being butchered by robbers in the Rato Molhado slum. The boy disappeared, becoming what a sociologist terms an "invisible kid"--one of myriad Rio street children who hustle, perform, and steal in packs to stay alive. By the time he was 21, Sandro, like many an invisible American kid, had a record and a dire history, failed by thug-factory rehab centers and warped by hellhole prisons.

Even if Sandro's crime weren't inevitable, its disastrous unraveling was. The outcome might have been foretold in stone, given the convergence of mutual animosity, fear, and flat-out incompetence that director José Padilha details. Police had sanctioned the massacre of street kids, including Sandro's friends, at a church that served as a makeshift shelter. That made the largely uneducated, ill-prepared cops the enemy on sight. Because of political concerns about an on-air bloodbath, snipers were ordered to stand down--a decision that cost dearly later.

Padilha lays out the story with a crusader's fury while remaining careful not to slight the testimony or the suffering of Sandro's hostages. As a group, other than the sociologists or social workers who offer background, they're the only ones whose faces aren't obscured. Police and thieves appear masked like ninjas on camera. At one point Padilha ventures inside a Brazilian prison, and the photo-negative camerawork turns the livid, cramped inmates into raving x-rays, scarcely recognizable as men. Even Sandro himself tries to hide his face in a scarf, like the invisible kid he is. As the cameras roll, though, it falls away. When he angrily leans out the bus window, exposing himself to the impotent snipers, he rails like a man demanding to be seen for the first time.

Bus 174 caps a year of documentaries that have shamed indie features in entertainment value as well as content and activist zeal. But am I right to be worried about the ways in which current docs bend and shape people's lives into compelling narratives, however complex? When the crisis finally explodes, Bus 174 avails itself of the footage from every conceivable news-crew angle, and it's all too obviously meant as a dramatic climax. It's also not terribly different from Faces of Death sensationalism. The cutting and replaying has a kind of snuff-film prurience, as if Padilha were culling a cache of Zapruder films for the grisliest shots.

It must be said, though, that Bus 174 often stands prurient curiosity on its head, trading on blood-thriller intensity to appeal to our social consciences. In this it resembles the flashy Brazilian drama City of God, which gambled that lowdown genre-movie excitement would alert a great many people more rapidly to the brutal inequities of Rio's favelas. Would the saga of Bus 174 have inspired a second thought three years after the fact, halfway around the world, had it not gone down as reality TV? Probably not. But it's fascinating, and sometimes troubling, to watch this absorbing true-crime doc use its arsenal of caught-on-tape gotchas to advance its true agenda. It bleeds, and it leads.

 
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