Something that I've always found fascinating about the documentary Gimme Shelter is the way it seems - whether true or not - to define a very real moment in history, when the innocence of one era died and gave way to the darkness of the next. Of course, history isn't ever that neat but there appears to be a dividing line in the very real violence that Gimme Shelter's cameras capture and replay endlessly. Filmmakers Felipe Lacerda and José Padilha undoubtedly were influenced by the almost fetishistic way that Gimme Shelter dissects the moment of death, but at the same time their film is much larger in scope. That's because the culture of violence and oppression in Rio de Janeiro did not begin on June 12th, 2000, when the events their film depicts took place. And they didn't end there either.
Bus 174 is an extremely well-constructed look at the desperation and despair of one of the world's greatest contradictions: An enormous city of millions that's home both to tremendous wealth and metropolitan culture as well as truly crushing poverty. The violence and street culture of the 2002 film City of God is proved absolutely, viscerally real in Bus 174. But the documentary doesn't present this world through some preachy propaganda piece or exotic travelogue. Instead it focuses on one event that took place over the span of a few hours, that just provided so many of the culture's conflicts a public forum for their inevitable bloodletting.
Kidnappings and robberies are apparently commonplace among Rio's stressed out population, which includes a very visible underground of lost boys who, homeless from childhood, grow up on the streets hustling for everything from food to glue for sniffing. On June 12th, 2000, one grown product of this underground named Sandro attempted a broad-daylight robbery of a city bus full of passengers. When things didn't go as planned he took the bus hostage and, in front of a growing throng of gawkers and media hounds, spurred on one of the least productive negotiation sessions imaginable. What's really incredible is the variety of camera sources available to the filmmakers. Brazilian news stations shot the bus and the police and SWAT actions from every conceivable angle, providing the filmmakers with an eerily cinematic set of editing options.
In addition, the film includes interviews with many of the hostages, witnesses and security personnel as well as some of Sandro's fellow hustlers. With all these points of view on board, Bus 174 presents an amazingly complete view of the events and the social climate that led up to it: At key moments during the standoff the film flashes back to broader social history or to Sandro's tragic past. Voices from his childhood fill in the details (mother brutally murdered before his eyes, homeless at six years old, institutionalized and abused...) Thrown into this stylistic mix is a series of tremendously powerful bird's-eye shots of Rio, really emphasizing the insane sprawl of a city built into such lush nature. The camera soars over a green mountain to reveal numbingly dense ghettos bordering luxurious estates and country clubs.
The film also traces much of the seemingly obscure rhetoric he spouts from the bus windows. Sandro yells about the killing of his friends, something that the audience won't understand until the film flashes back to the notorious 1993 Candelária mass killing of many of Sandro's fellow street kids. The film, again seeming omnipresent, offers footage of the kids from the night before, including a young Sandro. Like everything in Bus 174, the event becomes painfully real through the treatment of the filmmakers and their expert editing and interviews.
The entire film builds to the conflict of the hostage situation and this is where the Gimme Shelter comparison comes in. While the film does try to understand the events that helped lead Sandro to taking innocent civilians hostage, it doesn't completely let him off without any criticism. Still, there is a definite sense that the underfunded, undertrained police force and the scrutiny of media cameras (that were broadcasting the events live on Brazilian TV, causing the police to form their responses around how they would look to the public) helped cause the escalation. Audiences may be expecting an out-and-out bloodbath and, while that doesn't happen, what finally takes place is so useless and so wasteful that you can't help but feel hollowed-out. A routine hostage situation that was allowed to drag out for far too long finally ends in a poorly planned out, completely disastrous police maneuver. The filmmakers take the various shots of the final moments and slow them down, play them and replay them until they become almost hypnotic. It's hard to watch but the impact is tremendous. It's hard to know exactly how to react to what happens but you just know it's so wrong. There's no beginning and no middle and, despite the finality of the showdown, there is no end for a society with problems so insurmountable that few even seem to care. All that's missing is Mick Jagger's ineffectual and resigned Gimme Shelter epitaph: "Well, that's it, isn't it?"