If this weekend's release of "Tangerines" proved anything, it's that we live in an interesting time for cinema. Anyone can make a film these days, with equipment as simple as an iPhone able to capture full-length feature films. For more ambitious projects however, the competitive marketplace has made it difficult for many indie filmmakers to find a footing. In young film industries especially, collaborations are sometimes necessary in order to secure the funding and resources needed to execute ideas that are bigger than a small Sundance project. One such example is "Panama Canal Stories", an anthology of short films from Panama that premiered in 2014. Directed by five different Panamanian directors, the film charts the history of Panama and its people in relation to the legacy of the Panama Canal.
The first story takes us back to the beginning, when the canal was just being built around the year 1913. Focused on an ill-fated romance between a young woman named Clarice (Lakisha May) and her fellow immigrant worker Phillip (Andre Morris), the setting establishes the themes of colonial oppression that would characterize the entire film. This segment is directed by Carolina Borrero and she shows a keen eye for strong visuals. The cinematography captures the scene beautifully, contrasting the expansive construction area with the more minimalist personal spaces of the workers. Though the generic Caribbean accents take you out of the film on occasion, Borrero's visual compositions produce memorable images.
The next short film is set in 1950 and is directed by Pinky Mon. This time period comes years after the completion of the canal, when the United States had established their own territory within Panama called the Panama Canal Zone. This story is told through the eyes of a young boy who grew up in the zone and explores the way his perceptions differ from those around him, including his mother. In the short, the boy's father - a prominent engineer - has just passed away and his mother is making preparations for them to return to the US. As we follow his final exploits in Panama, the most notable element is the film's production design, which convincingly recreates the era.
The story also gives intriguing insight into the complex identity of children in expatriate communities, as the boy struggles to understand the hostile atmosphere of segregation between the local Panamanians and those in the more privileged canal zone. There are hints at some interesting backstory among several other characters too (especially the boy's mother), giving the sense that an expanded plot would have worked better. The final scene is great but its impact would have likely been greater with deeper understanding of the characters and their history.
We then move to "1964" (directed by Luis Franco Brantley), a tumultuous time when tensions between the locals and citizens of the canal zone are at a breaking point. The story centers around a young man and woman from opposite sides of the divide, who strike up a friendship on the eve a violent protest that claimed the lives of 25 persons. Indeed, I use the word "friendship" instead of "romance" as the female love interest in this film is so off-putting that the romantic connection defies credibility. The actress' stilted acting and obvious prejudices (she's American, he's Panamanian) undo much of the goodwill generated by her more compelling co-star.
The next short takes us to 1977 and it's easily the highlight of the entire anthology. Superbly directed by Abner Benaim, it follows a Panamanian spy who poses as a chauffeur to gather intel on the Americans during the Torrijos-Carter (an agreement to give control of the canal back to Panama). The result is a rollicking lark that's reminiscent of the Coen brothers' work ("Burn After Reading" in particular). The lead - a first-time actor named Luis Manuel Barrios - is a real find, with perfect comic timing and charisma to spare.
The final segment brings us to 2013 and it links back to the events of the first film. The main character here is a successful singer living in the US, who is a descendant of Clarice from "1913" and is played by that same actress. After suffering an emotional crisis, she returns to Panama to reconnect with her roots, a family bond that had been broken over decades of struggle. The story offers a lovely coda to the entire historical journey, as she finds peace and redemption on the waters that her ancestors facilitated years ago.
In the end, this pleasant tour through Panamanian history can surely be deemed a success for all involved. "Panama Canal Stories" is a glossy production with interesting stories that showcase a strong core of talented storytellers within this developing national film industry. With the right support, you can see how Panamanian films may eventually rise to the level of those of their Latin American counterparts like Brazil and Mexico.