For four and a half hours on June 12, 2000, a lone gunman moved from window to window inside a stopped Rio bus. His botched robbery had escalated into a hijack standoff with Rio police. Brazilians watched live on TV as he released some hostages, forced others to scrawl lipstick pleas on the panes, and shouted amid the mayhem: “This is not an action movie.” José Padilha, whose Bus 174 is currently at Film Forum, noted that this drug-racked captor, Sandro do Nascimento, identified himself as a survivor of Rio’s 1993 Candelaria massacre. In the hijacking’s aftermath, Padilha set about piecing together the former street child’s history.
“Nobody knew anything about him,” says Padilha of the perpetrator. “TV networks couldn’t locate his family.” Padilha hired a policeman to canvass stations, asking for any past records. When he obtained permission from favela drug dealers to interview the hijacker’s intimates, Padilha recalls, “they said, ‘Oh, I know someone who met Sandro.’ There were a lot of guys with guns. But they wanted to talk.” He traced events from the brutal murder of Sandro’s mother through the boy’s small-time criminal struggles. “It’s a very different life,” Padilha points out, from those of dealers portrayed in City of God. “A street kid will never make it to a drug-dealing business.” In Brazil, he adds, “the police have a bad relationship with street kids—to the point that they kill them.” Of the country’s subhuman prison conditions, he continues, “You do this with kids who have stolen a wallet and they become very violent individuals.”
In Bus 174, public indifference to hungry children weaving with squeegees through traffic is contrasted with Sandro’s media exposure. “In the first half-hour, Sandro didn’t want to be seen,” says Padilha, “then he opens the window and says, ‘OK, film me.’ ” Padilha worked off the captor’s cues. “Some of the cuts were made by Sandro. He would scream, ‘I was a survivor of Candelaria,’ and I would cut to Candelaria.” He adds, “Sandro tried to portray himself as more violent than he was, because that would get attention. This is not just a Brazilian thing. If you are a street kid in Brazil, if you are a terrorist in Israel—if you explode the bus, people will play your tape.”
J. Hoberman’s review of Bus 174