Poverty and Social Injustice in Bus 174, a Film by Jose Padilha and Felipe Lacerda

Table of Content

Documentaries have been made for different reasons throughout the history of film, including propaganda, exposing corruption, and providing information. However, they all share a common goal of influencing the audience’s perspective. Filmmakers typically establish a bias that viewers tend to align with, regardless of the specific purpose of the documentary. Despite using various techniques, each method effectively stimulates viewer reactions by either endorsing the film’s bias or shaping individual opinions.

The documentary Bus 174 (2002) employs the Participatory mode to delve into the issues of poverty and social injustice. It does so by centering around a publicly televised hostage situation that took place on a bus in Rio de Janeiro. In the year 2000, Sandro do Nascimento, a young man, seized control of a bus and kept hostages under his gun for four hours.

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Although Sandro do Nascimento went through several tragic events, including witnessing his mother’s stabbing death, the loss of friends to police violence in his childhood, and enduring torture and inhumane treatment while in prison, these experiences had a profound impact on him. Ultimately, they drove him to commit his final crime on June 12th, 2000. The televised coverage of this traumatic incident gained significant attention throughout Brazil.

Filmmaker José Padilha was inspired by this incident to create the documentary Bus 174. He uses elements of the participatory mode, such as interviews, news footage, and voice on past significant events, to shed light on the events leading up to the chaotic day on Bus 174. The use of the participatory mode in this documentary allows the audience to feel as though they are getting unbiased information and have the freedom to form their own opinions on the presented matters.

The interviews conducted for Bus 174 serve two purposes: to provide background information and to establish an emotional bond between Sandro do Nascimento and the audience. In his book Introduction to Documentary, author Nichols highlights the captivating nature of testimonial films, explaining that “the articulate and emotionally direct manner in which those who speak share their stories” contributes to their appeal (194, Nichols). Each interviewee in the film either had a personal connection with Sandro or had experienced the traumatic Bus 137 incident alongside him.

The testimonies from those interviewed elicit both personal emotions and real facts about Sandro’s tragic upbringing. The interviews with Sandro’s family members and childhood friends, in particular, evoke empathy by sharing personal experiences and highlighting his positive character. Conversely, interviews with the victims of Bus 174 and the police officers overlook Sandro’s character, allowing viewers to sympathize with them due to their firsthand accounts of the hardships caused by Nascimento. One could argue that Sandro was a troubled individual searching for his path in a harsh world, while others might perceive him as a menacing criminal driven by drugs and the street life.

Another quote in Introduction to Documentary, “I speak with them for us (me and you),” emphasizes how the filmmaker’s interactions provide a unique perspective on a specific part of our world (180, Nichols). Padilha achieves this by conducting interviews with the social actors, immersing the audience in an emotional journey. By hearing heartfelt accounts, viewers are able to form their own opinions about Sandro’s motives and actions. Notably, the film focuses solely on the personal recollections and experiences of the interviewees, omitting any inclusion of the guiding questions.

Padilha has made a deliberate choice to exclude the interviewing prompts and questions from the film. This decision creates a sense of direct communication between the social actors and the viewers, intensifying the personal connection to their narratives. The crucial element of these interviews lies in presenting both a sympathetic and humanized perspective of Sandro, as well as a depiction of him as a plain criminal. By incorporating personal memories from both sides, the film allows viewers to emotionally engage with both viewpoints and form their own individual opinions. Rather than steering the audience in a specific direction, the participatory mode employed evokes raw emotions from both perspectives, enabling viewers to connect with both attitudes towards Sandro.

The use of news footage in the documentary provides an immersive visual experience that adds to the authenticity of the situation. According to Introduction to Documentary, this technique involves incorporating news footage that highlights engaged participation, interactive negotiation, and emotionally charged encounters (182, Nichols). By including live news footage, viewers can witness the unfolding events as if they were watching a live broadcast from their own home. Sandro takes advantage of this chance to pursue a purpose that is uncertain both to viewers and himself. As he descends into chaos, he becomes disconnected from reality while the world watches.

The filmmaker pays close attention to television and its impact on society, especially in the case of Bus 174 (Villarejo). Despite the actual events, the television and the people involved create a sense of “dramatization that is portrayed as if it is being recorded” (Villarejo).

Additionally, the film’s plot unfolds with escalating tension between Sandro and the police. The voiceovers, coupled with the visuals, narrate the on-screen events and provide a framework for Sandro’s story. Through interviews with family members and other street children, glimpses into Sandro’s past shed light on how his life led him to that fateful day on the bus. As viewers witness the chaotic Bus 174 incident, they concurrently trace the timeline of Sandro’s life.

The film effectively interprets both the ordinary and extraordinary occurrences of life through its informative approach. It tells the story of “street children” through one individual, Binkowski. The seamless integration of personal interviews and live news footage with the events of the hostage situation adds depth to the narrative. As we learn about Sandro’s traumatic experiences and his desire to escape a life of crime, his desperation on the bus becomes apparent. It is evident that he does not intend to harm the hostages but simply wants to break free from his difficult circumstances. By the end of the film, we realize the significance of media coverage in documenting this situation and shedding light on a world unfamiliar to us.

In conclusion, the voice of the film plays a crucial role in guiding the narrative. While Padilha himself is rarely heard, his interview questions and topics elicit personal responses from individuals familiar with Sandro. Padilha successfully captures these responses and interviews, resulting in a unique portrayal of the Brazilian social, criminal, and prison system through Sandro’s story. Through the use of film, Padilha effectively constructs a social fact.

According to Padilha’s documentary, it is implied that Sandro’s actions were more political than criminal, as the guiding questions he didn’t ask Sandro’s family and friends suggest. Throughout the film, Padilha emphasizes the theme that individuals like Sandro, who grow up in challenging circumstances, possess a “destructive potential” and are disregarded by the Brazilian government and mistreated by the police and criminal justice system (Binkowski). By portraying this perspective consistently in the film, it becomes evident to the audience that Sandro didn’t have concrete plans but rather wanted to represent the overlooked youth of Brazil.

The film raises the question of whether acts of violence like this can be considered “justified as justice against a confluent character of innumerable wounds of Brazilian society” and emphasizes the voices that long to be heard (Binkowski). The entire social system perpetuates a cycle of crime and violence for the lower class, street kids, and those living in poverty, leading them in and out of jail. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert describes how prisoners are seen as the lowest members of society, reflecting society’s treatment of them and revealing its true regard for human beings (Ebert).

The conclusion of the documentary emphasizes the tragedy faced by the neglected lower class in Brazil. After Sandro leaves the bus, he is killed by the police, and the only person who attends his funeral is the mother he had adopted. Padilha’s decision to end the film on a somber tone suggests that the ordeal had not resulted in any positive change. The situation for these marginalized Brazilians, who are living in extreme poverty, remains unchanged and society continues to disregard them as fellow humans.

Padilha’s Bus 174 is a participatory documentary that effectively explores the social system and street kids of Rio De Janeiro. It achieves this through the use of personal interviews, live news clips, and the voice of film. These elements combine to tell the heartbreaking story of Sandro do Nascimento and other street kids. The interviews deeply engage viewers, while also depicting the tragic consequences of Sandro’s desperate plan on the bus.

Padilha’s voice of film accompanies the audience, reminding them that the harsh reality of Brazil’s forgotten underclass remains unchanged and is actually worsening. Furthermore, Bus 174 employs the participatory mode extensively, as it intentionally leaves Sandro’s characters and motives ambiguous, allowing the audience to interpret and decide for themselves.

Works Cited

  • Binkowski, Gabriel Inticher. “A Nibus 174: Leitura Sobre Uma Certa ‘Mancha’.” Psicologia & Sociedade, vol. 22, no. 1, 2010, pp. 78-83., doi:10.1590/s0102-71822010000100010.
  • Ebert, Roger. “Bus 174 Movie Review & Film Summary (2003) | Roger Ebert.
  • ” RogerEbert.com, Leonard Goldberg, 24 Oct. 2003, www.rogerebert.com/reviews/bus-174-2003.
  • Lacerda, Felipe. Bus 174. 2002.
  • Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary. Indiana University Press, 2017.
  • Villarejo, Amy. “Bus 174 and the Living Present.” Cinema Journal, vol. 46, no. 1, 2006, pp. 113-118., doi:10.1353/cj.2007.0006.

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Poverty and Social Injustice in Bus 174, a Film by Jose Padilha and Felipe Lacerda. (2022, Dec 29). Retrieved from


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