La Camioneta: The Journey of One American School Bus follows the trajectory of one of many decommissioned school buses that leave this country for Guatemala every year. It’s there that they’re refurbished, redecorated, and re-signified into public-transportation vehicles, becoming both the pillars that guarantee the survival of the everyday family man, and moving targets for gangs (institutionalized ones included) trying to extort them. The yellow school bus, that icon of American safety and properly contained childhood “innocence,” has to go through a lot of miles over lawless terrain to become the only cash cow in sight for Guatemalans, and a fetish object of sorts, a prosthetic muse for the drivers who seem to spend way less time with their wives than they do with their vehicle and the army of peers who keep it rolling.
The film opens with an auction in the U.S., in which migrants seem to be the only ones betting on the school buses. This moment recalls the quotidian scene of migrant workers in this country lining up in parking lots hoping to get work for the day. Except here the workers are entrepreneurs who risk their lives driving 16 hours a day from the U.S. down to Guatemala (“Once you cross the Mexico border everything changes,” one of them warns), where a sophisticated economy is solidly established around the yellow bus, that guarantor for economic survival and social bonding. The film’s refusal to explain the legalities and technicalities of the Guatemalans’ comings and goings across borders highlights its commitment not to some pseudo-factual documentary tradition, but to a more engaging realist poesis.
Director Mark Kendall has come up with a very simple, delicate, and surprisingly gripping way of shedding light onto a very complex inter-connected economy by accepting the bus as star of the film itself, instead of worrying about the literality of hard facts, statistics, and the larger picture. We learn about the structures and the dynamics that support and drive the American school bus taken out of a solely American context as we ride along for its many road trips, where it can experience bribery requests, robberies, and explosions, but also become a temple for the drivers’ prayers, and even a float in a religious parade, filled with excited children and sporting carnival adornments. The film becomes less enthralling when the road trip ends and the bus settles into its new home in Guatemala, but it also evokes the pleasures of deceivingly simple form, like a Barthes Mythologies titled On the American School Bus.