Bus 174 (Ônibus 174)

Why do people do horrible things to each other? If you think you know the answer, join the club. José Padilha and Felipe Lacerda, the Brazilian directors of Bus 174, think they do. Or at least, in putting together their documentary about a bus hijacking in Rio de Janeiro three years ago, they are careful to provide, among the voices of those affected by the crime, one who is confident that he knows why the hijacker, a 22-year-old “street kid” named Sandro Rosa do Nascimento, also known as “Mancha,” did it.

Both Sandro, homeless almost since the time he saw his mother (he never had a father) murdered in front of him at the age of six, and one of his hostages were killed in a botched police operation to rescue the latter. Everybody in the film seems to take it for granted that nothing better could be expected of the police. Even the members of the highly-trained Rio S.W.A.T. team interviewed here make dark insinuations about the incompetence, corruption and brutality of their less-specialized police colleagues and of their political masters.

We hear Sandro himself in the file footage which, thanks to the presence en masse of the Brazilian media at the scene, makes up most of the film allude to a police massacre of homeless people at Candelaria, a church in Rio, when he was growing up and living among them there. The film-makers also take us inside one of the worst prisons in Rio, where Sandro did some time for drug-dealing, to show us why he might well prefer death to going back there. We know he was treated brutally there because everybody is treated brutally there.

Oh he had plenty of reasons for what he did, all right, but they are nicely generalized and intellectualized for us by a sociologist called Luiz Eduardo Soares, otherwise apparently unconnected with the tragedy, who solemnly assures us that it was all to do with the “social exclusion and racism” endured by Sandro and other street kids. “We are nothing if someone doesn’t look at us, acknowledge the worth of our existence,” says the professor. “These boys are hungry for social existence, hungry for recognition,” yet they feel “invisible” in their social milieu.

In hijacking the bus, therefore, Sandro became “the main character in a new narrative” and, indeed, “redefined the social narrative” itself. “The story that put him in a subordinate position was suddently changed into a tale where he had the leading role.” As a result he was able to “recover his visibility” and “affirm his social existence and his human existence” by means of “a process of self-invention mediated by violence.”

Well sure. Absolutely. And yet we are left to answer the question: If that’s why he did it, why don’t all the other street kids do the same? They suffer the same social invisibility, the same desire for recognition. There has to be some element of moral choice here, even if the others are just too wimpy to emulate the boy who, as the professor tells us, “exchanges his future, his life, his soul for an ephemeral and fiery moment of glory”?

And can we be quite sure that that was what he intended? Again and again, poor dead Sandro, still alive for the moment in these old tapes, shouts to anyone who will listen: “This ain’t no action movie. This is serious s***, bro” — as if he had to keep reminding himself of the fact. He is said to have been high on cocaine when he hijacked the bus — as he was most of the time when he could get it — and his grip on reality was not of the firmest.

The most articulate of the hostages, interviewed for the film, says she doesn’t think he intended to kill anybody. He just asked her and the others to act frightened and “cry to make things more dramatic than they really were.” Therefore, “I wasn’t taking it seriously that he would really shoot me,” she says. “But then realized he might. The fine line between pretending to suffer and really suffering was broken.” She turned to Sandro and begged, “Don’t kill me,” she says.

“Shut up or I really will kill you,” he replied menacingly.

“Don’t you want me to pretend?” she says she asked him. Then, “he must have realized there was something ambiguous in what he was doing: either he wanted us to put on an act or he really wanted to kill us. . .I don’t know if he was pretending or not, but I knew that even if he was nothing could guarantee that any unexpected move wouldn’t make the gun go off, so even if it wasn’t his intention to shoot me, it could happen.”

As it happens, it is just such a tragic mistake that ends the hijacking, yet no one thinks to question the professor’s “explanation” of it. The most you can say, it seems, is that social conditions set up the possibilities or probabilities of criminal acts, and the two great inscrutables, human will and fate take care of the rest.

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