“The question is will I live? No one in the world loves me
I’m headed for danger, don’t trust strangers
Put one in the chamber whenever I'm feeling this anger
Don’t wanna make excuses, cause this is how it is
What’s the use? Unless we’re shooting no one notices the youth.”
-2Pac, Me Against the World
Even though 2Pac wrote those lines to describe his uniquely American experience, they nevertheless echoed in my head throughout José Padilha and Felipe Lacerda’s extraordinary 2003 documentary “Bus 174” because of how aptly 2Pac’s thoughts and feelings toward a society that willfully turned a blind eye toward people like him, and then blamed all the ills of the world on people like him anyway, matched up with the plight of 21 year old Sandro Rosa do Nascimento.
This is not in any way to suggest that Sandro was a hero. Far from it. “Bus 174” refers to the public transit vehicle the 21 year old Nascimento hopped on a June afternoon in 2000, intending to rob its passengers, only to have police descend, triggering a standoff between Sandro, the local cops and eventually BOPE, the Brazillian military police, that ended, expectedly, with Nascimento’s death and, tragically, with the death of one hostage, Geisa Firmo Gonçalves. And while Padilha and Lacerda necessarily and effectively give full weight to the agonizing hostage situation, their interest is tied less to what Sandro does on that bus then what brought him to that bus in the first place, and how what transpires aboard it becomes a product of the society that raised him, evinced in the breathtaking opening aerial shot that moves from the stacked-on-top-of-each-other slums to the city.
In his absence of an upbringing, where he hit the streets at an early age after witnessing his mother’s murder and never knowing his father, we are shown how Sandro belonged to an entire forgotten social group, one labeled “The Invisible Kids” by a sociologist interviewed. These are the many Brazilian children, we are told, whom society acts lie do not exist, so many of whom wind up on the streets, turn to crime, get placed in overcrowded jails where guards beat the inmates rather than offer any structural correctives, so that when they get out, or escape, they return to precisely the previous life they led. Padilha and Lacerda interview several of these kids, inside prison and out, and by examine their plight too, you are left with the idea it could have been anyone in that bus, that if someone else had been caught on a different bus at a different time of day, the same scenario would have unfolded.
The footage of Sandro’s standoff, all of which is culled from the copious local media that was on hand to document the event, provides what at first seems like an incredibly intimate examination. Until the hostages, interviewed after the fact, reveal they were instructed by Sandro to act as if they were under considerable duress when he had no intention of hurting them, an attempt to get the authorities to give him what he wanted so he could make an escape. In that way, and until the doubly tragic conclusion, it was all a show, one which Sandro seems determined to play to the hilt. Early on, he takes a towel from a hostage and wraps it around his face, concealing his identity, though he quickly lets that towel fall away. And though he occasionally re-wraps it around his face, he mostly dispenses with it, content to let the authorities see him, to let all of Brazil see him. It’s a cruel irony. He appears to recognize death is very close, and in recognizing that, he also appears to realize this is his one chance to be heard, and so he struts and frets upon that stage, full of sound and fury. And even if his actions, as one talking head notes, were “nothing but a desperate and impotent cry”, you can’t help but note that for a few hours, he wasn’t invisible.