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Filmmaker Jose Padilha reveals the process of making a film that changed his whole country’s perception about a lonely, drugged young street kid who hijacked a bus in the middle of Rio de Janeiro. And why it will change your mind, too.

I was running at a gym when the Bus 174 hijack episode took place. The television started to show live images of a bus surrounded by police. Since the hijack was taking place in a street next to where I lived I could not head back home, I stayed and watched the whole event on the TV. It was as if the city had stopped: everyone was glued to the TV set, wanting to find out how the hijack would end. 

Incidentally, the Bus 174 news broadcast garnered the highest television ratings of the year in Brazil. The Rio de Janeiro population is very critical toward its regular police, but used to trust the local SWAT team. So everyone had mixed feelings about how it would end, except for one thing: no one cared about the drugged hijacker, as Sandro was characterised by the news broadcast. Then, after it was all over, the press did immense amounts of coverage of the event, and Bus 174 became, together with the Candelaria street kid massacre, an event that symbolises violence in Rio de Janeiro.

Amazingly enough, one of the things the press found out was that Sandro, the perpetrator of Bus 174, was also one of the street kids who had survived the Candelaria massacre. A single person had lived through the two of the most tragic stories of urban violence in Brazil! That caught my attention, so I decided to check the raw footage the TV networks had recorded. It took me a couple of weeks and a lot of talk to convince them to show it to me, but when I finally managed it was well worth it: together they had more than 24 hours of footage of a hijack that lasted for only five hours! I realized then that Bus 174 was possibly the most well documented hijack in the history of world broadcast television! 

"reconstruct Sandro's life"

That was in February 2001. A month latter I managed to get VHS copies of all the footage the TV had made by telling them I was researching the event, and from that day I spent 18 months trying to reconstruct Sandro's life, while simultaneously shooting and editing the film. It was an odd situation, because Marcos, BUS 174' s producer, and I were personally financing the film even though we had no guarantees that the Brazilian television stations would in the end give us the final rights for the footage and let us copy their original analog beta stocks! We worked with a five-person crew, and shot the film using two DV cameras (one DSR 500 and one PD 250) and one AATON super 16mm camera for the aerials. Research was conducted with the help of a professional detective, who also worked for the Rio de Janeiro Police, and a lawyer. They managed to collect 187 pages of legal documents and police files about Sandro's life. It then took me a month to organize them into a map of Sandro's life. 

The map led us to locate Sandro's real family for the first time, as well as some of his former friends. It was also the base for the narrative structure of the film, which intercuts from the BUS story to Sandro story in a way that builds a dialog about something that transcends them both: urban violence in developing countries.

It was a delicate film to make because the Rio de Janeiro governor had forbidden the police to talk about the incident, and people were afraid to talk about it on camera. During the production of the film we received a couple of strange phone calls that led us to take security precautions such as installing electronic alarms to protect the editing room and checking our phone lines for taps. I guess we became a bit paranoid since we never had proof that the threats were legitimate. In any case, not only was the film was very critical of the Rio de Janeiro state police, but it also involved interviews with some of Sandro's friends, one of whom happened to be a Rio de Janeiro drug dealer and cop killer! 

That particular interview took place because my assistant director decided, without consulting me, to let the drug dealer know our home addresses in case something happened to him because of the interview. I found that out from a remark he made while I was questioning him about a subject he did not want included in the film! It was a good thing: if I had known before I would have never shot that interview!

"my hometown"

After the film was edited I thought a premiere at the Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival would be ideal. After all, Rio was the city where the event took place and is my hometown. It was also a good place to try the film, as the Rio de Janeiro audience would be the most difficult one to convince since one of the things we were hoping to accomplish in the film was to create a portrait of Sandro as a human being, someone whose a life story was integral to those hoping to understand the origins of urban violence in developing countries.

We managed to get the first print completed just one day before the festival began! BUS 174 won both the critics and the public awards at the festival, which gave us a sense of safety. We were then delighted when the film was released theatrically as it brought the BUS 174 affair back to the attention of the major Brazilian newspapers, not only in the art sections, but also in the political and national affairs sections. And this time Sandro, who had initially been characterised as merely a crazy bandit, was then more properly understood in the context of the way Brazil mishandles its street kids and juvenile delinquents, which is what we had been hoping for with BUS 174.

Published April 15, 2004

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