‘Invasion’ Occupies Panama’s Collective Consciousness

“Invasion,” Panama’s first entry in the foreign-language Oscar race, explores the impact of armed American intervention at a time when the U.S. is still reeling from its forays in the Middle East.

Set in 1989, Abner Benaim’s docu feature centers on a U.S. military bid to capture Panama’s dictator, Gen. Manuel Noriega.

Through a mosaic of reenactments, behind-the-scenes footage as well as talking head and person-on-the-street interviews, Benaim presents a collective memory of what was likely the single most traumatic event in Panama’s history.

In “Invasion,” memories are pried open through interviews with a motley group of Panamanians that includes journos, doctors, historians and soldiers, as well as people who had suffered injuries. But as one of his interviewees states at the end, “the invasion and its aftermath are being forgotten.”

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“Most Panamanians have chosen not lo look back at moments that define us, and prefer to move on without digesting what has taken place,” Benaim points out.

The doc triumphed at the Panama Intl. Film Festival in April when it won the documentary and audience awards.
“Invasion” has racked up a record 50,000 admissions and B.O. earnings of $217,745, not a paltry sum for a doc in a tiny Central American country of 3.9 million.

“None of my other films has made such an impact; people step out of the cinema and continue the discussion, relating their own personal recollections of the event,” he says.

“Invasion” is his third documentary. His first and only fiction feature to date, “Chance,” was a box office phenomenon in itself, clocking a record 140,000 admissions and B.O. earnings of nearly $500,000 in 2010.

Benaim is developing his next fiction pic, “Bien Cuidado,” which refers to the people who watch over parked vehicles for a fee, quite common in neighborhoods where car theft is rampant. While “Chance” touched, albeit humorously, on the tension between the haves and have-nots, “Bien Cuidado” dwells on the unlikely friendship between them, specifically between one watcher and a wealthy man.

“When I went to film school, I thought I would be making fiction films but I fell in love with documentaries since they’re easier to make and involve fewer people,” Benaim says. “But then I realized it’s not whether a film is fiction or nonfiction, it’s about telling stories. With ‘Invasion,’ I tried to break the boundaries between these two.”

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