B R I E F   S Y N O P S I S
Bus 174 is a gripping dissection of an actual headline-grabbing event that occurred in Rio de Janeiro on Valentine's Day in 2000: the hijacking of a commuter bus by a desperate young man. This spontaneous act triggered major media coverage and the resulting footage is alarmingly up close and personal. Along with interviews with hostages, law enforcement officers, journalists, and friends and family of the hijacker, director José Padilha uses this footage to create a prismatic analysis of how one man's personal crisis became a national news phenomenon.
  Bus 174

The main difference between a documentary director and a fiction director is that the fiction director starts the shoot with a screenplay in place, whereas the documentary filmmaker must find his story as the shoot goes on. Thus, much of the success of a documentary rests on the ability of its director to guess where reality is taking him, and to shoot accordingly. The actual shoot is important, but the decisions made before it are decisive.

Scientists try to devise theories of nature with whatever data they have. If experiments show their theories to be wrong, they change them in order to match the new information. They do that until they feel they have a good representation of reality. It's the same with a documentary. I usually start with a working hypothesis about the film. Then I check the footage and the research material I have to see if my hypothesis is correct. If so, I go ahead with the plan. If not, I guess again and change the plan. I do this until I feel I have captured a true story.

I was at the local gym when the television started to show live images of a bus surrounded by cops. That was on June 12, 2000. A bus had been hijacked in a street next to where I lived, and because the police blocked it I couldn't go back home. So I stayed and watched the live coverage. The images were so compelling that the whole city stopped. Hijacks usually happen inside banks or embassies where one can't film what's going on. A bus, on the other hand, has windows. The TV cameras were actually showing the hijacker with a gun to the head of the victims as the snipers were taking their positions to shoot him down. It felt like an action movie, only it was real. After it was over, the press devoted enormous coverage to the incident and bus 174 became, as the Candelária massacre of street kids had in 1993, a symbol of Rio's violence.

Amazingly enough the press uncovered that Sandro, the perpetrator of bus 174, had survived the Candelária massacre. Thus, a single person had lived through two of the most tragic stories of urban violence in Brazil. This was my starting point, and my aim was to tell the life story of the hijacker parallel to the story of the bus hijack. My working hypothesis was that these two stories would show why abused street kids become violent individuals.

I first had to convince the networks to allow me to view all of their twenty-six plus hours of footage (the hijack lasted only five hours). I realized then that bus 174 was probably the most well documented hijack in the history of television. That was in February 2001. A month later I managed to get VHS copies of the footage, but not the rights.

I watched the tapes over and over again. The first thing I noticed was that some of the best images had never made it on TV, as the networks preferred to show their reporters on location rather than direct images of the bus. Because of that, they missed the fact that Sandro was making important speeches out of the bus window. It was amazing: they had missed the gist of the story, and misconstrued Sandro as a lunatic, something that he was clearly not. I realized then that I also needed the film to address the media, and the way it influenced Sandro's behavior.

Because street kids have no documents and family, it took me eighteen months to understand Sandro's story. I researched with the help of a professional detective, who also worked for the Rio de Janeiro police, and a lawyer. Together they collected one hundred and eighty-seven pages of legal documents and police files about Sandro. The data led me to pinpoint some of the social workers who had met him. This led me to a VHS tape shot by social workers at Candelária the night before the massacre. I found Sandro on the video, and also some of his former friends. I called the prosecutor of the Candelária trial to see if she knew where some of those kids were, and I managed to locate one of them. From there on I found many people who had met Sandro. I assumed there was no way to find Sandro's family since the press, who had many more resources than I, failed to do so.

It was an odd situation, because Marcos Prado (the producer) and I were personally financing the shooting even though we had no guarantees that we would get the TV stock footage rights. Also, the governor of Rio de Janeiro had forbidden all police officers to talk about bus 174, and everyone was afraid to give us interviews. During production we received a couple of strange phone calls that led us to take security precautions such as installing electronic alarms to protect the editing room and checking our phone lines for taps. I guess we got sort of paranoid. The film is very critical of the Rio de Janeiro state police and some of our policemen are very violent so I guess it made sense to be a bit paranoid after all.

At the end of editing I got some additional research material from the detective. To my surprise, one of the documents included a reference to Sandro's family and an address for his aunt. I had assumed that Sandro had no contact with his family because all the newspapers had said so. But what if they were wrong? So I drove all the way to the aunt's house (outside of Rio) rang the bell, and there she was!

It turned out Sandro's family had been hiding from the press due to its misrepresentation of him. When I explained that one of the reasons I was making the film was to correct the wrong things the press had said about him, his aunt decided to help. The next day I returned with a very small crew: Marcos and a soundman. After we had lunch together she finally agreed to give an interview, and we shot it right then. Her courage to do so changed the film.

Documentary filmmakers must live with the knowledge that the truth may elude them up to the last moment, and even beyond that. In terms of the previous analogy: scientists can never know when they have a true theory, documentary filmmakers can never know when they have
a true story!

After Bus 174 premiered at the Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival the film's story dominated the Brazilian press, only this time Sandro was portrayed as a symbol of how Brazil mishandles its street kids and minor delinquents. That was what we hoped for.

–Rio de Janeiro 2003


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