PANAMA CITY — The 7th IFF Panama includes a record number of Panamanian films – over 10% of all films screening at the event.
On Saturday night the red carpet was rolled out for Enrique Castro Rios’ “Diciembres,” (“Decembers,” formerly “Sultan”), about the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama and its aftermath, which screened in the fest’s 2016 “Primera Mirada” pix-in-post sidebar, and won a $5,000 grant for post-production.
The film is set in December, 1989, during the U.S. invasion, and 10 years later, in December, 1999 when the ghost of a photo-journalist, who died during the invasion, returns to try to heal rifts in his own family.
“Diciembres” blends together archive footage and fictional scenes – using a poetic style that viscerally recreates moments from the invasion. The audience at the world premiere, including several people who experienced the invasion first hand, were visibly moved by the film. Some had tears in their eyes when the lights came up.
Several participants in the Q&A said this is the first film on this subject that they have truly identified with, since it recreated their childhood memories and transported them back to that time.
One survivor said that he identified with the film because his own mother, like the mother in the film, went to the area of conflict and, in his case, saved his life.
The pic is is a co-production between Sultan el Film (Panama) and Milagros Producciones (Colombia) and was the first feature to be supported by the Ministry of Commerce and Industry’s national Film Fund, in 2013, with a $700,000 grant. The project was supported from Ibermedia and Colombia’s ProImagenes Film Fund (FDC), and also involved Panama’s Medcom media corporation, and Ciudad Saber.
Castro Rios’ previous credits include the short film, “Wata,” which screened at the Icarus Film Festival in Guatemala in 2010. Castro Rios said his film is ultimately about Panamanian identity, and the implicit caste system, which is based on race.
“The American continent, from North to South, has been built on two atrocities – genocide and slavery. In Panama, this has led to an informal caste system based on skin color – the whiter you are, the higher up you are in the social ladder.”
He says that the story was primarily inspired by his own family, while tracing links to the true-life story of Spanish journalist Juantxu Rodríguez, who was killed during the 1989 invasion.
The director’s grandmother came from humble rural origins and married “whiter,” as part of her mindset to “improve” the family’s social standing. In the film, the son marries a girl of West Indian descent, which the grandmother sees as a “backward” step, thus leading to tension within the family.
In addition to this racial theme, Castro Rios adopted a poetic approach for the film. The returning ghost of the dead photo-journalist marks his presence in the film via the voiceover which is read by Castro Rios, and questions the meaning of the cinematic image and of memory.
The helmer says that he drew inspiration from filmmakers such as Mike Leigh and the late Chris Marker, who directed films such as “Letters from Siberia.” “Decembers” reveals an ambiguous reaction to the U.S. invasion, because although the Panamanian people at the time were opposed to the invading forces they also thought it was a solution to the dictatorship of General Manuel Noriega.
Castro Rios, who studied Art and Semiotics at Brown University, and Screenwriting at Bergen University in Norway, says that he understands the ambiguous attitude towards American culture and the difficulties in affirming a clear Panamanian national identity.
“I love Panama for things that many people in the country despise. The human, ecological, cultural and language diversity, including at least seven indigenous languages,” he said.
He added: “The fact that we have more species of birds and trees here than in all of Europe and the U.S. combined. But many people in Panama see the jungle and say it’s unhygienic, let’s concrete it over, let’s eradicate the variety of skin colors. They want to encourage us to speak English.We have been invaded psychologically since time immemorial.”
The pic includes archive footage of U.S. soldiers committing atrocities during the invasion, that was originally collected by Barbara Trent for “The Panama Deception,” which won a 1993 Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary.
Castro Rios says although the archive footage is horrific, it reveals a certain “grotesque innocence,” in that although shocking, the associated mindset is all too human.
“You see the invasion from the soldiers’ point-of-view. It’s weird. You start to build a relationship with the soldiers. They are like puppets, but the true puppet-masters are elsewhere.”
The sense of perversion is further intensified because Castro Rios says that Panamanians secretly dream about being Americans and reject many aspects of their native culture and therefore secretly empathize with the invader.
The director considers that it was both historically significant, and of significance for the film, that the main districts devastated during the U.S. invasion, such as the Chorillo neighborhood, located next to the historic centre, have a high black population.
He says that this theme is extremely topical at the moment, in terms of the politicizing of immigration and ostracizing “the other” in order to forge a sense of group or national identity.
“I hope that the film promotes discussion,” he says, “about our own role and why have we forgotten who died. Was it because they were people of color? Would we have remembered if they were whites? Why do we keep rejecting who we are?”