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Review: ‘La Camioneta’

El Camino To Guatemala

Guest blogger Rebecca Romani recommends following a typical American yellow school bus as it travels down to Guatemala to start its new life in "La Camioneta," back for an encore screening at the Digital Gym.

When I was young, the big, lumbering yellow school bus was a major part of my day. Because we lived on a rural route, I would ride the bus to and from school, sliding on its green seats in winter, sticking to the same seats in June, watched over by a gruff but caring bus driver and usually greeted by the cat when I got off the bus to walk the driveway back to the house.

Those buses no longer rumble past our house, but they are still a major part of my memories and I used to wonder what happened to them.

My bus, or something like it, got a second, more colorful chance at life in Guatemala, as the award-winning documentary, “La Camioneta” shows in an intimate exploration of how the buses get from the US to public transportation work in Central America.

Mark Kendall’s leisurely but intriguing debut feature documentary is back after making quite a splash at this year’s San Diego Latino Film Festival. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should. It’s a gentle, yet detailed slice of life in which courage and creativity help people rise above the violence of the Central American countryside.

“La Camioneta “ follows a decommissioned school bus from Virginia as it makes its way from the auction yard to a new life in Guatemala. Buyer Domingo Lastor from Guatemala is excited with his new purchase and has big plans for the yellow and black bus in its new life as Central American public transport.

But first, Lastor has to make the dangerous drive down to Guatemala through Mexico where federales and gangs lurk, looking to pick up some extra bribe money, or worse, hold the driver for ransom.

Once Lastor makes it down to Guatemala, the bus is ready for its makeover. Scrubbed of its distinctive US school-associated markings, the bus gets new chrome, new paint and a cheerful red and blue design of birds and stars.

As the bus is undergoing its shift, it becomes a stand-in for something deeper. Says Lastor, the buses are like the Guatemalan people- the buses migrate down for a new life, and the people migrate up.

And you can see why. Hundreds of poor Guatemalan men have gone north for a better life, leaving their families to ride the buses to and from work, and, if they’re lucky, to and from school.

The bus is destined for small, Quetzal City, a poor region where bus drivers take their lives into their hands when they take up their keys. According to the documentary, over 130 bus drivers have been killed or kidnapped in the region by local gangs, often run by corrupt police.

At one point, local bus drivers and their representatives appeal to local legislators to assist the families of the slain bus drivers.

Despite the dangers, it’s work the bus drivers love. Lastor is delighted with his new bus- a now stunning piece of rolling folk art.

It’s great, he says. And driving the buses allows him to meet new people, share their lives, and the buses become a part of life, part of the same journey, the journey of life.

You can follow the journey at the Digital Gym on EL Cajon Boulevard through July 7, 2013.

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