“Bus 174” – A Brazilian Tragedy (Documentary)

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.

bus174pica hostage

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”.


Cartola – “The Samba Troubadour”

Dedicated to my dear friend Catarine Falcão and all African descendants in Brazil.

Paz e amor família!

Cartola (top hat) was born in 1908 in Rio de Janeiro, in a neighborhood called Catete. He got the nick name because he used a “coco hat” while working as a construction worker, so the cement did not dirty his hair. It was 1919 when Sebastião, Aida and their seven children arrived at the Buraco Quente, (Hot hole, a Mangueira’s hill district).

At 15 years old, his mother died and he lost the link between himself and his tyrannical father. Cartola abandoned school after completing junior high school, left home, and dedicated himself to Bohemianism and various part-time jobs. In April 28, 1928, he helped found the Samba School of Mangueira (a carioca hill over which the poor people established themselves) and was charged with being the school’s master of harmony. The school’s first parade, still in 1928, opened with the first samba composed by Cartola, “Chega de Demanda” (“Enough Fighting,” an appeal to the cessation of violence amongst rival sambistas and malandros of the hills).

At this point, percussive instruments used in samba already included the surdo, the tamborim, the pandeiro, and the cuíca. The first contest of samba of the city of Rio de Janeiro took place on January 20, 1929. It included the participation of the two Samba schools already existing, Mangueira and Portela, whose samba “Não Adianta Chorar,” by Heitor dos Prazeres, won. Mangueira presented “Beijos,” Cartola’s second samba, and “Eu Quero Nota,” by Arturzinho.

In 1932, he began a partnership with Noel Rosa with the Samba “Não Faz, Amor.” Noel began to frequent the Buraco Quente (Hot Hole), giving preference to Cartola. Even with the acknowledgment of critics and audience, money was always short. Cartola had to live by his wits, working as a fish, ice-cream, and cheese peddler, cambono de macumba (assistant for black magic rituals), and a mason. At the same time, though, he continued to perform functions of Mangueira’s master of harmony and to compose Sambas of Carnival and middle-year. In 1932 Mangueira was the champion with the samba “Pudesse meu Ideal,” by Cartola and Carlos Cachaça. In 1933, the scschool presented “Fita Meus Olhos,” by Cartola and Baiaco, which was recorded 45 years later by the author.

In 1934, Mangueira didn’t participate in the public contest, as it had won a specialized jury contest only one month before, and didn’t want to risk losing that title. In 1935, the acknowledgment of samba schools by the dominant class was finally given through their inclusion in the official Carnival schedule by mayor Pedro Ernesto Batista. Portela won the contest that year, but Cartola’s samba took second place, with the Samba “Brasil Terra Adorada,” with partnerships by Carlos Cachaça and Arturzinho. The prestige of Cartola and Mangueira was broadcast as far as Germany with the Hora do Brasil show on January 29, 1936. Among the songs, “Liberdade,” by Arlindo dos Santos and Cartola; “Pérolas para o Teu Colar,” by Maciste Carioca and Cartola; “Dama Abandonada,” by Cartola; “O destino Não Quis,” by Carlos Moreira de Castro and Cartola; and a selections of sambas de partido alto by Cartola.

Even after gaining extensive support by the press, journalists, politicians, and artists, his monetary prospects were still dim. “Sei Chorar” remained unpublished until 50 years later, and “Partiu,” a composition highly regarded by maestro Heitor Villa-Lobos, was unpublished. (The gold medal was pawned days after at the Caixa Econômica, due to his permanent financial difficulties.)

In 1940, as a consequence of F.D. Roosevelt’s good neighbor policy, which was stimulated by the intention of solidification of the relations between the U.S. and Latin America in face of the second World War, conductor Leopold Stokowski arrived in Brazil, accompanied by the musicians of the All-American Youth Orchestra, which he’d organized, as well as a group of sound and recording engineers from Columbia Records. Their mission was two-fold: to spread the culture of America via orchestral concerts, and to compile and record the musical production of each visited country for posterity. Stokowski looked for Brazil’s biggest erudite composer, Heitor Villa-Lobos, and asked him to choose the best carioca music. Villa-Lobos then gathered the town’s best composers and interpreters: Pixinguinha, Luís Americano, Jararaca, Ratinho, Donga, Zé com Fome, Zé Espinguela, Mauro César, and the young soloist Janir Martins, complete with the gang of Mangueira, all performing under the command of Cartola. Villa-Lobos was an admirer of Cartola’s music, and became a frequenter of his hut on the hill. He turned into a kind of godfather, introducing him to several opportunities, such as the movie Descobrimento do Brasil (1938).

Between 1941 and 1947, Mangueira was a vice-champion, always with Cartola as master of harmony and official composer. But the election of Hermes Rodrigues to the presidency of the school marked the beginning of a long period of ostracism for Cartola. Rodrigues who, interested in the commercial aspect of Carnival, hired a professor to judge the sambas in the school’s internal contest. With popular acceptance of his samba style declining, Cartola drowned himself in alcohol and disappeared from the artistic environment (he also barely survived a bout with meningitis and became even poorer and more miserable). His third wife, “Zica” (Euzébia Silva do Nascimento), a pastora who had been under his command at Mangueira, strived to make him return to artistic life, asking several artists and composers (Lan, Ari Barroso, Braguinha), to try to help, but ended up by failing due to their lack of interest of the old master.

He was washing cars in the humid dawn of Copacabana when he was encountered by a journalist, Sérgio Porto. With great effort and care, Porto brought Cartola to the Rádio Mayrink Veiga, for a short period; he also took him to other radio stations, made reporters interview him; and, in short, fought for his resurrection. At the end of the ’50s, Cartola worked for the second time in a movie, the famous Orfeu de Carnaval (“Black Orpheus”).

Soon after, he received permission to occupy a large house for free, the property of the city, where he created the idea of the restaurant and showroom ZiCartola, later established at the Rua da Carioca, 53. The ZiCartola was an enormous success from the start. It promoted cultural enthusiasm for samba and was an epochal event for spreading the hill’s music among the carioca middle class. But Cartola and Zica’s administrative amateurism made the enterprise a commercial failure, and the ZiCartola was sold to Jackson do Pandeiro in 1965.

In 1968, enjoying a more stable economic situation as a humble bureaucrat, Cartola received the donation of his lot, at rua Visconde de Niterói, 896, in Mangueira. With his own hands and old knowledge of masonry, he built his house with no help.

Cartola [O Mundo e um Moinho] Overall, between 1929 and 1952, 13 songs were issued by Cartola in 78 rpm records. From 1957 to 1974, 20 more appeared, besides other special appearances he made as a composer. But it wasn’t until 1974, at 65 years of age, that Angenor de Oliveira recorded his first LP, Cartola (Discos Marcos Pereira, 403.5007). Unanimously acclaimed by the critics and the public, the record wasn’t a commercial success, as the record company, specialized in historic documentation and didn’t have a competitive scheme of distribution.

In April, 1976, a second LP, Cartola (Discos Marcos Pereira, MPL 9.325) aroused even more enthusiasm in the press and presented the most successful of the Cartola’s compositions: “As Rosas Não Falam.” This record received the Golfinho de Ouro award from the Image and Sound Museum’s Council of Popular Music. Cartola, whose self-imposed absence from participating in the Mangueira contests since 1949, finally decided to return in 1977. He received countless invitations for shows and presentations, his music was included in broadly popular soap operas, and his figure was portrayed in several TV documentaries.

With close to 600 composed songs, and a tardy acknowledgment of his genius, Angenor de Oliveira the Cartola, died of cancer, November 30, 1980. His simple, authentic, and unpretentious way of being and writing can be admired in his testimony to the Movimento newspaper (Rio de Janeiro, November 16, 1978): “I have a profound love for the flowers and for the women who had pretended me. One doesn’t hit a woman even with a flower, and the flowers, one doesn’t give them to any woman at all.”

City of God – “If you run, the beast will get you. If you stay, the beast will eat you”

 This electrifying picture is part tender coming-of-age film and part gang-warfare epic from the Brazilian slum, or favela, told from the viewpoint of the children who manage to be both its underclass and its criminal overlords. It’s a movie with all the dials cranked up to 11, an overwhelming, intoxicating assault on the senses, and a thriller so tense that you might have the red seat plush in front of you – or even some unfortunate’s hair – gripped in both fists.

Amores Perros – increasingly the touchstone of the Latin new wave – began with a car chase and a dead animal. Director Fernando Meirelles’s City of God, co-produced under the aegis of Walter Salles, has something similar, but invests his images with more overtly mythic qualities, irresistibly potent from the very beginning. A swaggering gangster is about to slaughter a chicken in the middle of the favela; it escapes, and there is a hilarious but still oddly gripping chase sequence as the bird makes its bid for freedom.

As it exits an alley and scampers into the nearest the place has to a main thoroughfare, the chicken, with a hundred bullets and cleavers with its name on it, finds itself face to face with the movie’s leading character, 18-year-old Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), who has every reason to think he is going to be murdered. Behind Rocket appear a number of law-enforcement officers in armoured vehicles making one of their periodic terrified and ineffective forays into the ‘hood; in front of him, the gangster and his courtiers all produce weapons. A wacky, black-comic interlude has morphed with appalling speed into a potential bloodbath.

The sacrificial purpose of the chicken conveys with the force of a blunt instrument how cheap life has come to be in the ghetto, and how victimhood and aggression have become fused together. The wiseguys, their cowering subordinates, their stoic womenfolk and the dead bodies around them are all chickens – and they are mostly all children.

Never before have criminals looked so young: pre-pubescent, in fact. The City of God is like one vast, dysfunctional family, neighbours from hell with no neighbours, with no parents or concerned adults. It is a cross between an orphanage and an abattoir.

The movie tells the story of this slum, a grim housing project for the poor, from the late 1960s to the early 1980s; it tracks the story of both Rocket, a would-be press photographer (and a character whose purpose is probably to ventriloquise the sensibility of Paulo Lins, on whose novel the film is based), and Li’l Dice, who follows his gangster vocation with the passionate severity of a monk – the latter renaming himself, having notionally grown to man’s estate, as Li’l Ze (Leandro Firmino da Hora).

Crime and football are traditionally the ways out of the ghetto, and Meirelles raises this second option only to obliterate it. A bunch of kids gather round to play keepy-uppy; but this is abandoned when three hoodlums rush on to the pitch, seeking refuge from the police – and football, the commodity in which Brazil is an unquestioned superpower, is never mentioned again. What is left is the great game of violence, of intimidation and rape, of abject gang loyalty for children for whom the ties of family, church or nationhood are meaningless jokes: seething with rage, resentment and collectively enacting one continuous, unending scattered act of pre-emptive revenge.

The favela known as the City of God has been described as the film’s chief “character”, and as a location it looks unglamorously real in a way that cannot be approximated by set design. There are some scenes at the beach, but the familiar world of Rio is light years away. At first glance, the dreary rows of jerry-built sheds in the middle of nowhere look very much like sheds for factory-farmed animals, or an encampment for refugees or prisoners of war. It is seen in broad daylight, at night, and at one stage in a glowing crimson sunset. But nothing alleviates its grimness and inhumanity – at the very best it resembles a purpose-built suburb of poverty.


Crime has, in a nauseous reversal of liberal social thinking, almost been “designed into” the City of God, but any foreseeable conventional breakdown of law and order has evolved one or two steps further into the corruption and degradation of children. Li’l Dice, a tiny kid, plans a staggeringly audacious hold-up of a brothel, but in a fit of pique at being relegated to the status of lookout by his older comrades, returns to the scene of the crime to murder every single innocent customer and employee of the “motel” – it is a truly chilling moment of unalloyed evil.

Meirelles’s storytelling rushes forward at a full, breathless tilt, swerving, accelerating, doubling back on itself, amplifying the roles and experiences of incidental characters. A bravura narrative moment reveals itself when he discloses the history of one single apartment, showing how it becomes degraded and denatured as it ceases to be a family home and becomes a drug-dealer’s den. Meirelles’s film flashes and sweeps around you, dizzying, disorientating, intoxicating.

His mastery of his material consists not merely in the adaptation of Paulo Lins’s novel, but a direct engagement with the ghetto itself, and his triumphant recruitment of a veritable army of non-professionals is the result of an almost military raid on this dangerous territory. This is something that combines film-making with oral history. It is a compelling piece of work.