Guatemala in focus: long journey from the bus to La Camioneta

La Camioneta follows the journey of a decommissioned American school bus to a new life as a public transportation vehicle in Guatemala. Produced by Follow Your Nose Films, the documentary tells the complex tale of how a mundane feature of American suburbia embodies the dreams and ambitions of five men in Guatemala. All of these men risk personal safety for the betterment of their families and their children’s prospects. The documentary will be screened on Tuesday, April 24 at 7:30 p.m. for its southeastern debut at the Nashville Film Festival.

La Camioneta Guatemala documentary Mark KendallJust as the camioneta must navigate the dangerous road through Guatemala every day, La Camioneta treads a sensitive path through the cultural differences that characterize North America. At the bus auction in the opening sequence, a representative of the auction company says that most of the buses are taken to Central America and Africa. He them remarks: “The buyers that buy them, they can’t believe we’re getting rid of something that’s in that good of shape.” While a simplistic approach to intercontinental relations might have lingered on a comparison of American wastefulness and Central America’s scant provision, director Mark Kendall chooses to focus the film’s gaze on the ingenuity and resourcefulness employed by the men in Guatemala to repurpose the discarded vehicle. The result of this choice is a splendid documentary that explores the difficulties of creating longterm personal and professional plans in the terrible uncertainty of organized crime and civic violence in Guatemala.

The primary drama of the film begins as we accompany Domingo Lastor as he brings the bus from American suburbia through Mexico to Guatemala. Driving sixteen hours a day, Domingo focuses on arriving at his literal destination in Guatemala and his figurative destination of financial security for his family. His journey also illustrates the difference in the everyday realities of life in the United States and its southern neighbor: “In the USA, if you behave yourself nothing will happen to you. But when I arrive at the Mexican border, everything changes.” Lastor’s comments reflect an important theme of La Camioneta, which is the financial, professional, and personal uncertainty that emerges from a state powerless to ensure order and stability for its citizens. In both Mexico and Guatemala, the citizenry suffers from the decay of crumbling civic institutions and the chaotic pursuit of self-interest in place of the public good.

Ermelindo emerges as the central character of La Camioneta because his dreams of economic freedom lead him to purchase the bus once it arrives in Guatemala. His life is caught between the greater forces at play in Guatemala and throughout Central America: the flight of rural peasants to urban centers and the United States, the inability of the government to ensure order, the increasing social and economic power of organized crime, and the economic disadvantage of the countryside. Ermelindo is enthusiastic about fulfilling his dream of owning a bus, but at the same time deals with fear for his drivers’ safety. At one point, he bluntly admits to paying the extortion demanded by gangs: “We pay so they don’t kill our drivers.”

La Camioneta Guatemala documentary Mark KendallAt the same time, La Camioneta plainly shows that the people la camioneta will serve in Guatemala really aren’t so different from the Americans who used to ride it. All of these men love their family, feel tension between present comfort and the future prosperity of their children, and do the best with the limited resources they have at their disposal. The exquisite final sequence of the film is a moment of clear cultural difference in which all of the bus owners and drivers gather at the local parish to have the priest bless them and their elaborately decorated buses. But beneath the surface, we clearly see that this gathering is a Guatemalan manifestation of a universal human condition: wishing our loved ones a safe, health, and happy future. La Camioneta is an astonishing success that educates us about a people and a way of life while simultaneously showing us how we are part of the same, beautiful fabric of humanity. The journey it takes us on to learn that lesson is well worth the price of the ticket.