Days in the Life of a Brazilian Hijacker

Documentary maker José Padilha felt compelled to tell a hijacker's story because the Brazilian media wouldn't

by David Haviland

From Bus 174

From Bus 174

On June 12th 2000 Bus number 174 was hijacked in the centre of Rio. The subsequent siege became a nationally televised event, virtually bringing the country to a halt, but something was missing.

"There was an amazing amount of coverage from the press and television at the time, but the coverage focussed on the police and the Governor of Rio. They would say, 'This crazy man hijacked the bus,' as if that sentence would explain that person," says director José Padilha. The media's one-dimensional portrait of the hijacker Sandro do Nascimento was what fuelled Padilha's desire to make a film - Bus 174.

"I thought that Sandro was the most important person we needed to understand, and that perhaps by understanding his life story we would be able to understand a little bit about the origins of violence in a city like Rio, so I set out to make a film about him."

Intercutting siege footage with interviews with the participants and friends of Sandro, it examines the events that led to the hijack, and the deep-rooted problems in Brazilian society.

The Brazilian authorities and the State Governor were naturally hostile toward a film that would expose a shocking history of police incompetence and brutality. Police officers were banned from speaking to Padilha. The only policeman we see in the film wears a mask to protect his identity.

Doubts were cast about whether television companies would release their footage, a situation that was only resolved two months before the film's release. Padilha thought the film might attract more hostility on its release.

"I expected there to be arguments about it in the media. But there weren't any, because the film showed images that were proof of what it was stating. So my sense is that the police understood that. We say in Brazil that there are no arguments against facts, so the bottom line is that we didn't get any complaints from the police. Instead they pretended it didn't exist. For them it was better not to talk about it, not to create more discussion around the issue."

Perhaps the most shocking aspect of the film is its portrayal of the Brazilian street kids, a growing population of homeless, mostly black, children and teenagers who, in the absence of any state support, are forced to beg or turn to crime. Padilha argues that it is this neglect of the underprivileged that fuels Rio's problems with drugs and violence.

"I think what is true of Rio is also true of any big city in Brazil. In Brazil there is a huge social class difference. There are lots of very poor people, and a small amount of amazingly rich people, and there is no way one can go from being poor to being rich, and this creates a lot of social tension and makes the situation unmanageable. And that's not only true of Brazil, but I think Brazil is the worst case."

Of course, the fact that people will turn to crime rather than starve is hardly a revelation, but in the context of Sandro's specific motives for the bus hijack, and the deeper sense of social alienation that this generates.

Padilha argues that the hijack can only have been partly motivated by money, because street robbers rarely target bus travellers, focussing instead on more lucrative targets. Instead, the film makes a compelling case that the hijack was a more emotional act, designed to capture attention, a desperate demand to be seen and recognised, in a society in which the street kids are largely invisible.

"When I watched the stock footage I realised that Sandro, who was my main character, had a turning point, because at the beginning of the hijack he was hiding his face, and then all of a sudden he decided to show his face and order the cameras around. So I had to explain why he changed his mind. Because of the huge presence of the media, Sandro realised that he could overcome his invisibility, make the speeches that he wanted to make, because he was being heard and I think that's why he really went for it," says Padilha.

This theme of invisibility culminates in a startling section of the film shot in one of Rio's overcrowded juvenile prisons, in which the prisoners are shot in negative sepia, an effect which makes them look like ghosts, and removes all individuality. Padilha explained that this effect was initially borne of necessity, as the filmmakers had to disguise the children's faces for legal reasons, but that they quickly realised that the technique would also allow them to make an expressive comment on the children's situation.

"My initial idea was I would blur all the faces in the jail. But once I saw the stock footage with my editor, I thought maybe I should do a bigger effect so that I could convey the idea that we are entering a different world, so we tried different things, and eventually the negative sepia kind of thing was the one that I decided to use."

Finally, I wondered if Padilha had any theory as to why documentaries were generating so much interest of late.

"I think what opened the eyes of theatrical distribution companies was Bowling For Columbine. It made so much money, that distributors started to realise that they could buy documentary films that are quite cheap compared to fictional films, and still generate good audiences... A documentary has a way of conveying reality that is so much stronger than a fictional film. If someone dies in a fictional film it's an actor pretending; if someone dies in a documentary someone has actually died."

Padilha's next project will be a drama, which he is currently in the process of writing, looking at Brazil's violence and social divisions from the point of view of the police. Following the success of City Of God, and the narrative tension and visual flair of Bus 174, it should be a film to look forward to.

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