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  • Bus 174 and the Living Present
  • Amy Villarejo

Jose Padilha's 2002 film Bus 174 brings the resources of vigilance and clarity to the medium of television. Focusing on the hijacking of a bus in Rio de Janeiro on June 12, 2000 (Valentine's Day in Brazil), Bus 174 sets into motion an analysis of the "incident" or "situation" as it was seen widely on live television in orderto understand its constellation of rage, fear, poverty, and despair: all among the [End Page 113] elements cut or occluded from television's frame. This is a film that makes a fierce argument against Anglo-American strains of individualism in documentary cinema (exemplified in subsequent years by the bad and the good, both Morgan Spurlock's indulgent Supersize Me [2004] and Jonathan Caouette's riveting Tarnation [2003]) and an argument in favor of a form capable of complicated social understanding. I therefore understand the film as a type of pedagogy: an essay on the future of cinema and on the limits of representation.

In what follows I put the film into conversation with the work of Jacques Derrida, whose passing in 2004 sent me to a book of his that television scholar Lynn Spigel had, in print at least, discouraged me from reading. Echographies of Television, more or less a series of transcripts of filmed interviews between Bernard Stiegler and Jacques Derrida, despite Spigel's warning about its discussion of the "waning of the TV object," helped me to think about the effects of television liveness alongside a number of themes that preoccupied Derrida in his writings over the past decade or so: justice (versus law or right), the archive, hospitality, democracy to come, and so on.1 I think his insights from those interviews about media and "on film," as it were, can guide a reading of Bus 174, a film that might be seen to invoke a number of these themes, if obliquely. Since Derrida's work on and around "visuality" remains, as Spigel rightly points out, largely untested in the domain of film and media studies, we have in Bus 174 an opportunity to explore this nexus. We inherit a beginning from Derrida, an archive (what Akira Lippit calls a "virtual archive on the subjects of visibility and invisibility") to build upon.2

Bus 174 investigates the production of hypervisibility. On that June day cameras swarmed into the Jardim Botânico neighborhood, where a public city bus had come to a stop after a hijacker's robbery attempt. The bus remained there for what would eventually total four and a half hours. VIVO (live) television feeds, date-stamped and time-coded, showed several different angles of the stationary bus from a relative long shot, while camera operators from newspapers and television approached the bus from virtually every possible trajectory on the ground. Glare from the windows of the bus prevented unmediated access to the events involving the hostages unfolding within. Racking their focus in order to frame events through partially opened windows, the television camera operators, later lodged directly adjacent to the bus, trained their lenses nonetheless on every part of the bus's anatomy: the number and destination on its front banner, the door (through which all transactions would take place), the driver's seat and steering wheel, the seats row by row. Amidst the crowds of the initially unsecured scene, the cameras offered complete spatial coverage and consistent orientation according to the broadcast ideals of transparency, reportage, and information. Throughout the bus-passenger hostage crisis the people of Brazil stopped to watch what was importantly a national drama, one that earned the highest television ratings of the year.

The film is aware of the borders and contours of the nation-state, contradictorily represented as a tourist oasis (the beaches of Copacabana) and as a coagulated favela (slum). It begins, in fact, with a beautiful (majestic, awe-inspiring) aerial shot of Rio that ultimately cedes to lower altitude visuals of the slums out of which come the street kids who speak the film's first words (an index of the esteem or care in which Padilha holds them). Bus 174 is a story, from its very first...


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