‘Panama Canal Stories’: A Milestone For a Young Industry

One century after the Panama Canal opened, “Panama Canal Stories” marks another milestone for Panama, this time in terms of its fledgling film industry. A five-part omnibus, it underscores the large ambitions, production energies and standards of Panama-based filmmakers.

The film weaves five tales of human destiny, spanning the century. In Carolina Herrero’s “1913,” a Jamaican canal worker kills his foreman and flees with his fiancée. In Pinky Mon’s “1950,” a young boy, the son of a just-deceased engineer, grows up in the Canal Zone, inheriting his dad’s love of Panama. The “1964” segment, directed by Luis Franco Bentley, concerns the passion between a young Panamanian photographer and a U.S. girl, against the background of university students’ protests at U.S. occupation.

While the first three are love stories, the last two are about entente. In Abner Benaim’s “1977,” a taxi driver (and self-appointed Panamanian spy) introduces two U.S. diplomats hammering out the Torrijos-Carter treaties to Panamanian nightlife. Pituka Ortega Heilbron’s “2013” tracks a singer as she visits Panama. It is a family’s tale of reconciliation, with one another and the past.

“Panama Canal Stories” plays the fourth IFF Panama. Variety talked to two of its producers. Ileana Novas and Pablo Schverdfinger, and posed one question apiece to three of its directors.

Like works by other Panama-based filmmakers, “Panama Canal Stories” taps into events that have forged Panama and audiences’ collective psyche by using stories that are easily relatable to tell this larger narrative. 

Pablo Schverdfinger: You are absolutely right. Panama is full of stories that have not been told. Cinematography in Panama is just starting, and there is a huge need of filmmakers to share these stories. I think there is an urge to start telling stories from the inside, stories that are representative of our idiosyncrasy. Maybe this is a natural process every national cinema has to go through. This film tries to catch a glimpse of the Panamanian soul.

In 2013, a granddaughter of Clarice Thomson, the cook who escapes with her fiancée after he’s accidentally killed his U.S. foreman, says Clarice wrote down her story so that nobody else wrote it for her. There’s a sense of this being stories of the Canal told from Panama’s point of view, though with a large sensitivity.

Schverdfinger: History has always had at least two sides. The aim was to shed some light on intimate and, maybe, representative experiences, of those who lived in Panama at those times. Some of them Panamanians and some of them Panamanians to be. It took a lot of research. Testimonies from those who were directly or indirectly involved were taken or read from documents, letters, books, articles or blogs on the Internet. Feelings and thoughts of all these people and their descendants were carefully considered while developing and writing the script.

Each story is different, but all present an overriding arc: humiliation and separation (1913), then again separation (1950), a romance that ends in confrontation; and then the tale of the diplomats that begins with confrontation and ends in friendship; and a reconciliation between a Panamanian family and their gringa relative. Is this an allegory of the Panamanian and U.S. people?

Schverdfinger: Panama has always had a complex relationship with the U.S. From the Panamanian point of view, there are lots of mixed feelings toward the U.S. The film tried to depict these feelings honestly, and the result might have been, as someone once said, that the film shows the birth, childhood, adolescence, and maturity of Panama toward its relationship with the U.S. It was not a planned allegory; I think it was more like an intrinsic result.

It seems like there was a huge production effort with the film, and high production levels. How was it financed? And what were the largest production challenges?

Ileana Novas: It was a really big film because the five different periods portrayed demanded multiple locations, talent, sets and wardrobe — almost the same effort as five separate feature films. As it was a big budget (by Latin American standards) and a quite short time period to raise funds, I could say developing and financing it was the biggest challenge. As soon as Pituka Ortega Heilbron (a really talented filmmaker and producer), Pablo Schverdfinger and I partnered, we immediately agreed on the approach and worked closely together conceiving a creative and stubborn team of producers/executive producers. We knocked lots of doors to fundraise the film and didn’t give up, although more than once things got really tough. Multiple complex finance structures were designed as the biggest percentage of financing had to come from local orgs and private enterprises. This is Panama’s second feature film in the last 60 years, so it was tough, but luckily for us, everybody took it as a national challenge and was so proud of participating that it proved possible. 

“Panama Canal Stories” was released in Panama in October. What was the reaction? Where has it been seen internationally? Will it be seen on a Panamanian TV – which is where it can really an impact?

Novas: The local reaction of the audience was beyond expectations. It stayed 10 weeks in local theaters. The international premiere was held at the 32nd Miami Festival with two full-house screenings that included heartfelt testimonies of the public in the after-screening Q&As. The release on national TV will probably be next year.

 Are there other projects in the pipeline, either among the filmmakers behind “Panama Canal Stories” or other Panama-based cineastes to deal with other parts of Panama’s history?

Novas: Together with Pituka and Pablo, we are developing three projects right now. Two of them portray part of Panama’s history: “Waga” (a 1925 drama set in the Darien Jungle, based on a true story), “Non Likely Partnership” (a documentary related to a national basketball team from the 1980s) and “Noctilucas” (a contemporary drama about an indigenous community). The other directors of “Panama Canal Stories” are developing contemporary fiction film projects.

In “Panama Canal Stories,” you feel the weight of historical research. Clarice Thompson’s story rings true. But was she a true-life figure, or a composite?

Carolina Herrero: From the very beginning we had a clear idea of Clarice’s character, and the history and context behind it. I did extensive formal research but, most importantly,
 I immersed myself in the Afro-Caribbean culture here in Panama through interactions with descendants of this heritage group.
 Philip’s character, and especially the relationship between the sisters, was conceived and nurtured by the oral family traditions they shared with me. In this process, I was taught some Congo and, therefore, the “cimarrón” character was born. Clarice’s character came to life through the snippets of untold stories, people’s lives, images and memories.

“1950” shows not only how the other half lives, but how it feels, in the story of a boy who inherits his dead father’s love of Panama. The film seems to suggest that just as U.S. zone residents failed to recognize the humanity of Panamanians, these failed to recognize the humanity of the “Zonians…”

Pinky Mon: It is a fact that generations of Panamanians have grown immersed in a speech of nationalism and the struggle for sovereignty. So much so, that hardly have we ever stopped to think about why these North Americans felt so deeply rooted in the Canal Zone; to the point of actually feeling that they had a legitimate right over a piece of land in a foreign country. The social and political systems that ruled the Canal Zone made up for very comfortable way of life for the “Zonians.” They made a very good life for themselves here; two generations of them were even born in the Panama Canal Zone. These added to the obvious importance of a United States-made enterprise like the Panama Canal, made up for enough justification for them to feel that they had a right to be and stay here. So yes, the politics of the time, not understanding each other, intolerance, and ignorance were the real fence that separated the Panamanians and the North American Zonians in those days. This is the bridge that, through its characters, this movie tries to cross. It was also one of the strongest things that drew me to this script; the story of the Panama Canal Zone, from the “Zonian” point of view, had never been told before.

“1964” is a love story but I believe a tribute both to the idealistic students who protested at U.S. occupation and the power of the image to capture the beloved, and change history…

Luis Franco Bentley: The Jan. 9 affair created the conditions that allowed serious negotiations between Panama and U.S., and eventually led to the transfer of the Canal. I was there. I saw it. This short film is a tribute to those brave students that defended the Panamanian sovereignty.

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