Janaina Lopes Neves moved to Rio de Janeiro in 1996 to study administration at the city’s Catholic university. For the next four years, she took the number 174 bus daily from the university campus to her flat. The bus route leads past the majestic palm tree corridor of the Botanical Gardens and towards the city’s heart-shaped lagoon. It’s a short and pleasant hop through one of Rio’s most attractive middle-class neighbourhoods. Yet mid-afternoon on June 12 2000, Janaina embarked on the most traumatic bus journey of her life.
A few stops after she got on, a man ran in, followed by a policeman. The man had a gun and grabbed a passenger hostage. Armed muggings are a daily occurrence on Rio’s buses and, sensing trouble, the driver and the conductor immediately fled the vehicle. After failing to persuade the gunman to give himself up, the policeman also left the bus. All of a sudden, Lopes Neves realised that she and a dozen other passengers were trapped inside – hijacked by an extremely agitated, apparently drugged-up young man.
By the standards of Rio’s urban problems – where violence levels approach those of a country in civil war – the incident was unremarkable. Yet it took unforeseeable dimensions and became one of the defining moments in recent Brazilian history. The bus was parked metres away from the news centre of TV Globo, the main terrestrial channel; and as police reinforcements arrived so did TV crews. The media circus spiralled out of control and, for the next four hours, the hostage incident was broadcast live throughout Brazil, reaching an estimated audience of 35 million people.
One of the Brazilians glued in front of his screen was the documentary-maker José Padilha, who was later to turn the event into a film. He was on the treadmill at his gym when the TV in front of him started to broadcast the siege. There was no way he could go home, since the traffic was log jammed, so for the following three hours he stayed at the gym watching the events unfold.
Because the Brazilian police failed to isolate the area, cameras filmed everything that was going on inside the bus and all the police negotiations with the gunman. Thanks to the passengers’ mobile phones, the people in the bus knew they were on television. At one point, the gunman screamed through the window: “This is not an action movie.”
He was the protagonist in a much more gripping reality show and his behaviour became correspondingly theatrical. Viewers watched in horror as he marched Lopes Neves at gunpoint to the front of the bus and made her write with her lipstick on the windscreen: “He’ll kill us all at 6pm”.
It was immediately obvious to Padilha that the bus siege would make a great documentary. “I think it’s the best filmed hostage situation in history,” says Padilha, whose office is 200 yards from where the event took place. “Normally you never see the hostage-taker and the hostages. Here you see everything. And the bus 174 incident went on for so long.”
But there was another important factor that gave the event wider resonance. During the live broadcast, it became clear that the gunman was not an anonymous delinquent. “Didn’t you kill my friends at Candelaria?” he shouted at the police from the bus window. “I was there.”
The TV pundits covering the story knew instantly what this meant. In 1993, police opened fire on 72 street children sleeping by Candelaria church in the centre of Rio, killing seven. The massacre had international repercussions, bringing the plight of Rio’s street children to a global audience. The gunman, 21-year-old Sandro do Nascimento, was one of the survivors.
Padilha’s outstanding film Bus 174 is as much a bio-pic about Nascimento’s life as it is a true-crime documentary about the hold-up. “Nascimento took part in the two events of recent years that have most come to symbolise violence in Rio,” says Padilha. “How does someone who began at Candelaria end up on that bus? Where was the state?”
Nascimento lived on the margins of society. He had no personal documents and Padilha traces his life through police and prison reports. He discovered the newspaper article that describes how his mother was stabbed to death in front of him when he was six years old. To his surprise, Padilha discovered a remarkable amount of video footage of Nascimento, from newsreels and street child charitable organisations. Nascimento was not as invisible as all that.
When it turned 6pm on the bus, Nascimento covered Lopes Neves’s head in cloth and started counting down from 100. She crouched on the floor. He put the gun to the back of her neck and shot. To TV viewers, it appeared that she had been killed. In fact, he had whispered to her that he was not going to shoot her and told her to pretend it was for real. Lopes Neves, now 27 and still living in Rio, says that at first she was convinced she would die. Then she realised that Nascimento was not a killer. “I was more scared that the police would shoot than that he would shoot. I didn’t have that much fear that he would shoot at all.”
Such fears were well-founded. After she spent two hours as Nascimento’s hostage, he grabbed another girl, Geisa Gonçalves. With his gun pointed at her back, the two walked out of the bus. When they were on the pavement, a police marksman immediately jumped out from behind the bus. He shot Nascimento at point-blank range – but missed and hit Gonçalves. Nascimento instinctively pulled his trigger and shot her twice more. With two bullets in her back and one in her neck, Gonçalves died .
As a mob of hundreds of onlookers and cameramen broke through the cordons and surrounded the bus, Nascimento was lynched by police and suffocated to death. All live on prime-time TV. The bus 174 incident became emblematic of modern Brazil: it captured all the fears about urban violence and the authorities’ inability to deal with the problem. The documentary does not apportion blame, although it is largely sympathetic to Nascimento and the police are shown to have been incompetent.
Padilha left hardly a stone unturned in interviewing all the relevant people, although he did not interview the officer who shot the hostage. “I didn’t want to personalise [the tragedy] and blame the marksman. I wanted to do a film that institutionalised the error.”
To understand the police side, Padilha contacted Rodrigo Pimentel, a former captain of the Bope, Brazil’s elite Swat team. Shortly after the bus incident, Pimentel had gone on national television and criticised how the force handled it. He was imprisoned for 30 days, then sacked. Pimentel, who now works in a bank, eventually became Padilha’s co-producer.
He doesn’t blame the marksman for killing the hostage: “The man was up at 4.30am. He had spent the morning in an operation in a favela. He has been thinking all day, ‘Kill, kill, kill.’ You can’t expect him to change his mentality. The Bope should be about saving lives, but its raison d’être has been changed to killing bandits.”
Pimentel blames politicians for turning the police into an army that rewards the killing of criminals. He has further ire for the state governor, who refused to authorise snipers to shoot Nascimento when he was leaning out of the bus window. The governor, an evangelical Christian, did not want the political consequences from his flock of sanctioning a death on live television. “A shot from a sniper at the beginning was the best solution,” adds Pimentel. Padilha’s film was premiered in Rio shortly after City of God and both are attempts to portray the cycle of violence that has come to define urban Brazilian life. Padilha says that if there is a lesson in his film it is that “when you subject a person to such violence in their childhood, it is likely that he will become violent back”.