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‘Panama Canal Stories’ – A Cannes Market Sleeper

'Panama Canal Stories’ - A Cannes Market Sleeper

Panama’s place in the panoply of Latin American cinema is growing with careful and conscious nurturing. The three films screening in the Cannes Marche 2015
were “Invasion,” which became Panama’s first foreign-language Oscar submission, “Te prometo anarquía” (“I Promise you Anarchy”) a Mexico-Panama-Guatemala coproduction from
Guatemalan director Julio Hernández-Cordón that won the IFF Panama’s 1st Primera Mirada for works-in-progress and “Panama Canal Stories” (“Historias del Canal”).

“Invasion,” “Panama Canal Stories,” along with “Breaking the Wave” (“Rompiendo la ola”) and “Reinas,” were the four local productions that made a mark
commercially at the Panamanian box office in 2014. Thirteen features have been produced in Panama since 2012, compared with just three local productions
completed between 2007 and 2012 and two between 2001 and 2007. Panama is growing in productivity as nations rush to invest their capital in the country in
anticipation of the enlarged canal which will permit the Chinese cargo ships passage to Latin American and U.S. ports.

Pituka Ortega-Heilbron
was one of the five directors of “Panama Canal Stories” whose international premiere in Cannes was an important event for those who knew of its debut. The
other directors of the film were Carolina Borrero,Pinky Mon, Luis Franco Brantley, and Abner Benaim, all relative newcomers to directing.

The importance of the film is three fold. For one, the unique history of the Panama Canal and its impact on Panama and the world has never been told. These
five Panamanian directors focus their attention on the lives of every day folk directly and from each particular story a universal issue and truth emerges,
all of which converge into “freedom”.

A second important aspect of the film is its showcasing new talent.

Carolina Barrero, one of the two female directors in this omnibus, is a talent to watch. Her story, “1913” unfolds with a scene that looks like a stunning
Salgado photograph. It then follows a romance which unfolds as the Panama Canal is under construction by a legion of foreigners who come to the site
searching for an opportunity of a better life. The majority came from the Antilles, aka West Indies: Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad + Tobago, Martinique with
some European and North Americans. To see the mix of people, most of whom were of African descent and to see how two connected in love was not only
interesting and touching, but also bears witness to the budding talent of Carolina Barrero and the star. When Clarice Thompson, played by Lakisha May, as the daughter of the pastor and the canal worker, Philip Clay, exchange a stone
inscribed with their names, they set off a violent incident whose violence is promulgated throughout this series of five vignettes and only comes to a full
resolution in the fifth sequence, directed by the second woman director, Pituka Ortega Heilbron.

Pituka Heilbron is also one of the three producers (Ileana Novas and Pablo Schverdfinger are the other two) and is the Director of the Panama International Film
Festival, an event now approaching its fourth year and gaining an important spot in the Latin American film business.

Another emerging talent to watch is Lakisha May who plays Clarice Thompson in “1913” and Clarice
Jones, her great grand daughter in the last segment “2013”, who rediscovers her great grandmother and finds her own voice.

Lakisha May is an actress based in the U.S. whose delicately beautiful Latino African looks and the fire in her acting mark her as an up and coming talent.
This Spellman University graduate who received her MFA in Acting from the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco in 2010 creates two distinct
personalities which are intriguing and attractive, leading the audience into wanting to know more about them, particularly in the final segment where she
plays a singer who is not able to perform because of a creative block which is only lifted when she comes to recognize her great grandmother’s legacy.

to “Panama Canal Stories”, the great grandmother wrote her memoirs and was also a correspondent for the great Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican political leader ,publisher, journalist, entrepreneur, and orator who was a staunch proponent of the Black Nationalism and Pan-Africanism movements and whose influence in the U.S. is still felt
today. And as a side note, check out Lakisha May’s short here. It shows her talent as a polemic filmmaker as

Pinky Mon’s story “1950” depicts the discovery of the Panama Canal Zone through the eyes of an American kid who lives with his mother who was recently
widowed and drowns her sorrow in alcohol. He witnesses the Anglo-Panamanian tensions first hand with his playmates, first the Anglo children of the Canal
Zone, which in the 1950s numbered some 65,000 people living in privileged conditions, and then with the Panamanian boys living on the outskirts of The Zone
which included the canal and an area extending five miles on every side of its center, excluding Panama City and Colón which were regarded as U.S.

The separateness and colonial nature of this setup antagonized the Panamanians. In the short time allotted to this segment of the movie,
director Pinky Mon captures a feeling of time and space which is recognizable but which depicts an event we have never actually considered before. If the
audience is like me, as a U.S. citizen I am so used to Panama being a satellite of the U.S. and while I recall U.S. taking down Noriega (who we put there
in the first place) for his corruption, I know very little about Panama itself. The child and his mother eventually return to her hometown in the U.S. and
he feels as so many did, that he will always miss this “lost paradise”.

Luis Franco Brantley’s story “1964” takes place in the midst of a fatal protest that took place on January 9th, as it is filtered through the eyes of two
young people who belong to opposite sides of the fight. The tension it portrays which in reality resulted in the shooting death of 24 Panamanians and the
government of Panama’s breaking diplomatic relations with the U.S., the first time a Latin American country took such a measure, is flawed by the story
itself and the acting of Hannah Schöbitz in her first role, as an American white girl who has a
brief affair with a young Panamanian photographer played by Ivan González.

Abner Benaim’s story “1977” portrays the life of a taxi cab driver hired by the U.S. to act as chauffeur for two U.S. State Department executives and who
is a spy for the Panamanian government during the negotiation of the Torrijos–Carter Treaty. Again, previously unknown views of the conflicts U.S. faced in
its colonization of Latin America makes an interesting backdrop to what unfolds. The problem of this segment is the inconsistencies in the story itself.

The good fellowship between the driver and his two Americans and the relationship with his Panamanian “boss” are both so ambiguous that the story often
seems more like a comedy played with a heavy hand rather than a suspenseful spy story. It affect is confusing. The two actors I would like to see more of
however are the extremely handsome Luis Manuel Barrios who is the driver and his “boss” who
obviously thinks he is a total fool, José Angel Murillo. Both seemed out of their element in this
story but both have a magnetism on the screen which holds up throughout this odd story.

Pituka Ortega Heilbron’s closing story examines the Panama Canal in 2013 and its expansion project (also called the Third Set of Locks Project) which will
double the capabilities of the Canal by 2016. Clarice Thompson of “1913” returns here as Clarice Jones who in discovering her heritage finds her voice in a
literal sense. “2013” is metaphoric; not only does Clarisse finds her voice– a nation finds its voice,” Producer Heilbron says. “It was the hardest story
to come up with of the five stories.” “2013” completes the circle begun in “1913” and nicely rounds out the 100 year history of Panama and the Panama

Somewhat conventional filmmaking is offset by stories which are unique and even riveting as they uncover a history of the Panama Canal which expands beyond
what little we may know of the country’s history. Under the stewardship first of the French and then of the North Americans intent on building a canal
which cost many lives, 25,000 of the 75,000 working on the Canal died from malaria, Yellow Fever (Remember our own history lessons about Dr. Walter Reed
discovering the cause of Yellow Fever?), landslides, explosions and horrid living conditions.

The third point of importance for this film telling stories that are particular to a segment of society we have not seen on screen before is the
universality of their stories. The people who were there building the Canal enlighten us about what personal conflicts they themselves were experiencing.
The audience of industry professionals left the screening room with feelings of surprise and pleasure for “discovering” this film. While this privately
financed $2.5 million film is not an “art film” nor is it a “popular”, that is “studio” film, it will appeal most to the educated and middle class
audiences who delight in new stories as they pertain to U.S. and its policies. This includes segments of the white arthouse audience as well as the African
diaspora wherever it may be and to the Latino audiences sharing such interests. If it is aimed for audiences in the U.S. I would estimate a box office
success at $500,000 – $1,000,000 with proper marketing via trailers in theaters and online along with wide social networking. The beauty of the place and
actors might even surprise us with higher grosses. Having stated this, I await news on its distribution.

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