PANAMA – “This is the story of a marriage and a divorce,” says a voice at the beginning of “Box 25” (“Caja 25”), a new documentary from the Panamanian filmmakers Delfina Vidal and Mercedes Arias. The film is one of three world premieres taking place during the festival.
Just as the U.S. and Cuba are flirting with a new relationship following this weekend’s Summit of the Americas in Panama City, the unhappy couple in question in “Box 25” are Panama and the U.S. A marriage that lasted the best part of a century.
“Box 25” tells the story of the long and tense relationship between the two countries, and focuses on recently discovered letters that were written by the men who built the Panama Canal. The letters reveal and describe the brutal working conditions, the disease and discrimination, as well as the writers’ dreams and own stories.
“Our intention was to make a documentary film about men fighting against the odds, men measuring their forces with nature,” explain the filmmakers. “Where men discover their reasons to confront death on a daily basis until reaching a point of view that is indifference. The documentary tries to rescue the historical memory of the building of the canal through the testimony of men of different races who came from all over world, from different cultures, many of them leaving their families behind to look for a better life.”
spoke to Delfina Vidal, one the film’s two directors, prior to the world premiere at the Panama Film Festival
How did you come to discover and read the letters? And how quickly did you realize they could be the basis for a film?
I was looking for documents for another project in 2000 when I found the letters in the library of the Canal Authority. Immediately when I read them, I felt it was an important story that should be told through a documentary film.
At the start you say this is the story of a marriage and a divorce. Is it an acrimonious divorce or do you think time will mend the relationship between the U.S. and Panama?
It has been a long and very difficult divorce. The struggle of many generations of Panamanians has been to achieve our sovereignty, which should be the happy ending of the divorce process. The film will help a new generation to understand what happened in the history of Panama over nearly a century when we had a state operating within a state. The documentary can help make Panamanians feel more Panamanian and less North American, and help them recognize that we have the right to our official documents, and must fight to maintain and preserve our history here in Panama.
Has the centenary of the construction of the Panama Canal helped the country rediscover its History?
The centenary helped us to reflect on the living history represented by the lives of the workers who came from all over the world to build the canal, beyond the simple commercial significance of the construction of the canal.
There is a large Spanish-speaking audience in the U.S. How do you think they will view the film?
I think they will receive it very well because they will be able to recognize themselves in the history of the workers who helped to form the basis of current Panamanian society, while as immigrants living in the U.S. they can see and think about how their ancestors also contributed to the construction of American society.
Has the fact that “Invasion” was put forward for the Academy Awards helped documentary makers in Panama and the local film industry?
I think so, because it has broadened the visibility of movies made and produced here in Panama and Central America.