On June 12, 2000, a homeless man named Sandro Rosa do Nascimento boarded a public bus in Jardim Botânico, Rio de Janeiro with the intention of robbing its passengers. Armed with a .38 caliber revolver, Sandro found himself in the middle of a hostage situation when one of the passengers managed to signal the Brazilian military police. What followed was a media circus as reporters swarmed the bus, transmitting the entire crisis on Brazilian television. As the day turned to night, Sandro became irritated and began to threaten the lives of his ten hostages. Finally, at 6:50 PM, Sandro exited the bus using one of his hostages, a pregnant schoolteacher named Geisa Firmo Gonçalves, as a human shield. Tragically, a bungled effort by local special ops to disarm Sandro led to Gonçalves being shot several times. As Gonçalves died in the street, the police forced Sandro into the back of a police vehicle where he died of asphyxiation. The entire event was a monumental disaster. Stubborn higher-ups in the police force insisted on taking Sandro alive, resulting in multiple missed opportunities to neutral him with a sniper. The law enforcement acted indecisively as a result of the local media coverage, not wanting to lose face by taking him in on live television. Miscommunication between the various law enforcement branches led to the disastrous attempt to subdue Sandro when he exited the bus, directly leading to Gonçalves’ death. And finally, it is rumored that the police murdered Sandro in the back of the police vehicle as revenge for humiliating the entire department on national television. The officers who took Sandro into custody were tried in court and found not guilty.
The entire affair was later documented and partially recreated in the superb Brazilian documentary Bus 174, named after the specific route advertised on the bus that Sandro unintentionally hijacked (in November 2001 it was renamed as route 158). It creates a visceral and devastating examination of Brazilian law enforcement, media politics, life for homeless orphans, and street crime. But at its heart is Sandro: his life, his struggles, and his unintentional martyrdom. Yes, martyrdom is the right word to use. For Sandro used the event to cry out against social injustices. Screaming at the video cameras that surrounded him, Sandro struck back at the criminal elements that led to his mother being murdered in front of his eyes, the system that prosecutes and mistreats young street orphans, and the apathetic public who, when polled, revealed that they were in favor of killing the orphans in order to clean the city up. Some may say that the death of Gonçalves nullifies all chances of him being a martyr. But let me point out that Gonçalves was shot four times and three of those bullets came from the police officers who were supposed to rescue her.
Directors Padilha and Felipe Lacerda recognized that the Bus 174 incident was a symptom of a much more devastating illness. So they spend much of the film exploring the criminal element of Brazilian society. What we find is a torturous portrait of young children forced to live and steal on the streets. These children, it is explained, are literally invisible to passersby who ignore them as they go about their daily routines. Their lives are worth less than nothing, as they are rounded up, thrown in jails with subhuman conditions, and literally left to rot. Sandro himself was a survivor of legendary Candelaria church massacre of July 23, 1993 where Brazilian policeman murdered seven homeless children and injured several others. We meet a bevy of experts and psychologists who postulate that Sandro was psychologically scarred by the event and may have led to his holding up Bus 174.
As Padilha and Felipe Lacerda dive deeper and deeper into the social ills of Brazilian society, disturbing trend begins to appear. As can be expected, there are several convicted criminals and street orphans who are interviewed. They all mask their identities, either out of fear of losing street cred or facing retribution for squealing. But soon the police officers and law officials that they interview begin to wear masks and disguise their voices as well. One would think that they would have nothing to fear from testifying about a public police action. But it slowly becomes apparent that these men have as much to fear as the street criminals that they attack. Clearly, they face prospects of retribution from inside their own departments. After all, the Bus 174 was a colossal embarrassment for the local law enforcement. In one of the most corrupt police departments in the developing world, is it any surprise that those who remind them of one of their greatest failures would be in danger for their lives?
After all, we are talking about a police department that not only allows, but in a sense depends on corruption and graft to survive. My mother used to work as a missionary in Brazil. She explained to me one day that most Brazilian policemen are severely underpaid by the government. In order to feed their families, officers are literally forced to survive on what they can manage to extort from the public. Bogus traffic violations, spurious parking tickets, and other illegal methods of extortion are the name of the game. When I asked why people didn’t stand up to them, she explained that such a reaction would lead to being put in jail. And the last thing you want, according to my mother, is to end up in a Brazilian jail.
In addition to being forced to operate in a system that requires corruption, Bus 174 explains that many, if not most, policemen are critically under-trained. Experts in the film explain that the mentality among most police officers is that they exist to enforce the law and kill those who stand in their way. Most of the time, it is the homeless who find themselves in such predicaments. In hindsight, it is a miracle that only two people were killed as a result of the standoff.
To watch Bus 174 is to witness a sad implosion of Brazilian society. The end, when it comes, is tragic, but we ultimately don’t expect anything else. What else could happen in such a situation? But Bus 174’s greatest strength is not in what it says, but in what is doesn’t say. A lesser documentary would chastise the local law enforcement and the complacent public that allowed such a tragedy to happen. A lesser documentary would grandstand itself and demand social change. Bus 174 doesn’t. It regards its material with a sad sense of resignation. It bestows Sandro with a sense of dignity and understanding that he probably never received in his life. Ultimately, Bus 174 presents a system in desperate need of change. One can only light a candle for orphans like Sandro, so mistreated, so exploited, so destined for tragedy.
Out of respect for my Brazilian readers, I have removed some lines from this review that may be misconstrued as hurtful or insensitive. As one of my readers pointed out, many of these social ills discussed in this review are being diligently resolved. For that I am extremely thankful.
Part 1/12 of Bus 174