BUS 174 directed by José Padilha and Felipe Lacerda, produced by Padilha and Marcos Prado. 120 minutes. A Zaren production. A Thinkfilm release. Opens Friday (November 7) at the Bloor. For times, see Rep Cinemas, page 102. Rating: NNNNN Rating: NNNNN
Is it utterly perverse to describe José Padilha's documentary Bus 174 as the most compulsively watchable thriller of the year? Constructed from aftermath interviews and a wealth of contemporary TV footage, it deals with the seizure of a Rio bus by a homeless ex-convict in 2000. The incident - an aftershock of the infamous 1993 Candelária massacre, when eight street kids were murdered by the police - led to a long hostage negotiation on the streets of Rio.
Working without voice-over narration (though the story has a couple of dozen narrators, including surviving hostages, friends of the perpetrator and members of the SWAT team), Padilha builds a powerful film out of the intimacy of the footage.
What's unbelievable isn't that the hostage-taking took place, but that the police were so lax in controlling the environment. No North American police force would let the TV cameras get in this close.
At the Toronto International Film Festival, the last leg of a promotional tour that began with Bus 174's North American premiere at Sundance, Padilha tells me he's heartened by the response to the film but a little puzzled at some of the questions he's asked.
"At Sundance, someone actually wanted to know how we did the recreations of the hostage event. Even if I were a better director than Coppola and Fellini, I couldn't have staged that. Reality is much stranger than fiction.
"In Brazilian cinema, we always deal with these issues from the point of view of the criminals: Pixote, City Of God, Carandiru. Ever since I saw this event on television - like everyone else in the country, I saw it live - I was fascinated by the police in these situations.
"You read about a police massacre like Candelária, but you don't have a clue why they do it. What was their relationship to the victims? A SWAT team is really just a death squad that operates in the sunlight."
Bus 174 uncovers the life of Sandro, who held the bus hostage.
"It came out that he was a survivor of Candelária and that he had been in jail, so he'd gone from being a victim to being a culprit. How he got there was the interesting question."
Padilha interviewed street kids and social workers, dug up documentary footage from 1993 (in effect, he constructs a second narrative around Candelária within his main narrative) and shows the inside of a Brazilian prison and the lives of contemporary Rio street kids.
It's a film about a culture that renders its victims invisible, which may have been the most shocking thing for Brazilians about the bus hijacking. It made the invisible very visible; it put the invisible on prime-time TV.
"The intervention of the media is one of the things that makes the story interesting. Usually, this kind of situation happens inside a house or in an embassy compound, and you can't see what's going on. So the television footage available here was unique from a documentary perspective.
"And it influenced everything that went on around it, especially the behaviour of the police. The sniper couldn't get approval to take the shot, because no one wanted responsibility if he missed. My one disappointment in the film was that I couldn't get the governor of Rio to be interviewed, though I left many messages and sent many e-mails. He wouldn't talk."
After the international success of Bus 174, Padilha is writing a script for a fiction feature about violence in Brazil from the point of view of the police.
"I'm working with eight cops and two shrinks to better understand the mentality."