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Giving new life to old American school buses in Guatemala is subject of documentary premiering at SXSW

By Anna-Claire Bevan

GUATEMALA — The yellow school bus has long been an iconic symbol of North American culture, transporting hundreds of thousands of students to school each day across the length and breadth of the United States. But what happens to these distinct vehicles once they’re deemed unfit for service?

A worker strips the bus of its familiar lettering in the first step of a process to convert the bus into the popular mode of Guatemalan transportation.

Mark Kendall’s new documentary, La Camioneta, finds out – following a decommissioned school bus from the graveyard, a Pennsylvanian auction, to the afterlife, Guatemala. The film documents the transformation from safe, law-abiding means of transport, to garish, anything-goes camioneta (bus).

Having recently graduated from a Master’s program in Latin American studies, Kendall came across the idea for the documentary while riding on a camioneta during his first trip to Guatemala two years ago.

“I struck up a conversation with one of the drivers and my curiosity was piqued when he told me the camioneta we were on came from a school district in Tennessee, just 20 miles from where I was living at the time. He and his nephew had bought the bus and driven it down to Guatemala a few years ago,” says the young filmmaker.

Travelling over 3,000 miles, and across two borders, to the highlands of Guatemala, La Camioneta explores personal stories about migration, exchange and connectedness. Stripped of its uniform yellow paint and redesigned, the former school bus begins its new life transporting people around the Central American nation.

“This is a film about people in motion. The story centers around the journeys that each of the characters in the film are making in their lives, and how the camioneta is the place where all of these journeys intersect – for better or for worse,” says Kendall.

However, filming a documentary within Guatemala’s violent public transportation industry was never going to be easy. Each year hundreds of bus drivers and their assistants are murdered throughout the country for failing to pay the extortion tax demanded by gangs who control bus routes.

Just one of the many recycled American school buses put to good use in Guatemala. (Photo: Amaris Ketcham)

Since the route Kendall and his team were filming on, Rutas Quetzal, had refused to pay the Christmas bonus demanded by the gangs it consequently became the target of an unprecedented wave of violence – making the recording process even more dangerous.

“We knew cameras wouldn’t be welcome if they showed up in the wrong place without permission, and we wanted to be sure not to put anyone involved with the film at risk,” admits Kendall. “We made it clear [to the Rutas Quetzal leadership] that we were not there to investigate crimes or expose secrets, and I think that was a smart decision.”

Kendall’s first-ever documentary, La Camionetta, has its global premiere next month at one of the biggest film festivals in the world, the annual South by Southwest Film Conference and Music Festival, in Austin, Texas.

“I’m absolutely thrilled. South by Southwest will be a fantastic place to launch the film, and we’re all really excited to share it with audiences there in March,” says Kendall.

Anna-Claire Bevan is a Guatemala-based freelance correspondent for Latina Lista.

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