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Panama Canal stories both connect and divide

Thursday, April 20, 2017
A scene from the film Panama Canal Stories.

Historias del Canal, 2014, Panama, 1 hr 46 mins

Drama directed by Carolina Borrero (1913), Pinky Mon (1950), Luis Franco Brantley (1964), Abner Benaim (1977), and Pituga Ortega-Heilbron (2013).

The film Panama Canal Stories tells five separate but related tales in an ambitious film collation about Afro-Jamaican and other workers who laboured hard in the dangerous, sometimes deathly task of building the Panama Canal.

The script is based on the recovery of a true story of a Jamaican family who worked on the Canal. Along the way we get glimpses of Canal Zone white-American expat life, colourful Panama working class life outside of this Zone, mixed identities of those who straddle these worlds, and scenes of native resentment at what is perceived as neocolonial occupation (even though the Americans were paying for the Panama Canal construction during this period).

Not all the pieces work well. Some are marred by poor, wooden acting and cardboard characters rendered (unintentionally) unsympathetic due to the brevity of time the writer/cinematographer has to develop them. Yet there are short, convincing scenes scattered throughout the work, too — such as the carefree scenes of brazen Panamanian boys playing in the streets and by the riverside, or the intimacy of two sisters marvelling over the beauty of a white lacy wedding gown, a treasured gift from their Jamaican mother.

Taken all together, the five pieces tell an important story that was never told before this film was made: the story of the many lives impacted by the huge engineering feat of the Panama Canal construction. Each of the five different Panamanian directors tell one (of many) human truths about some of the people brought together (and sometimes divided) by this massive project.

The first episode, set in 1913, has beautiful set and costume design. Race and class prejudice of a white boss towards black workers is shown. But the romance portrayed between the Jamaican couple, Clarise and Philip, feels more like a charcoal sketch than an immersive experience.

The second piece, set in 1950, shows a slice of life from the “gringo” side, and has interesting exchanges between the Panamanian housekeeper and the little boy Jake. Jake’s mixed cultural identity – a white boy who grows up and limes with the locals – feels convincing, though his mother does not, because of her bad acting.

The third episode, set in 1964, gets more political, with citizen protests, cries of “Yankee go home”, and a brief physical affair between two young people on different sides of the “Zone”. This will be educational for many T&T people unfamiliar with this fairly recent part of Panama’s history.

The fourth episode, set in 1977, plays on the idea of the cold war, with an aspiring revolutionary, Silverio, acting as taxi driver for two US State Department executives during the negotiation of the Torrijos-Carter Treaty, while secretly taping their talk in his car. Parts of this are social commentary, and parts are comic, as Silverio’s revolutionary “Commander” pops up in surprising places – including a toilet stall.

The fifth episode, set in 2013, is about Clarisse Jones, a modern-day jazz singer in America who rediscovers her family ancestry (and her singing voice) through a trip to Panama to meet barely-known relatives there. She learns about the bravery of her great grandmother, the original Clarice Thompson, though an old box of letters. This story works, but to this viewer, the portrayals in this section felt a bit corny and anticlimactic. 


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