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Box 25: Historic Voices

By  Ana Teresa Benjamín
Phtos: Cortesía Betesda Films

The history of the Panama Canal is kaleidoscopic. Shake the dark, apparently untouched past and the grandiloquent face of this engineering feat and a battle with the tropics and its mosquitoes peeks out… Shake it again and you’ll see the political and economic intrigues that made its construction possible, the Hay-Bunau Varilla Treaty, unfavorable working conditions, the struggle to recover the Canal and its land, and segregation, which became a way of life in the Canal Zone.

Panamanian filmmakers Mercedes Arias and Delfina Vidal shake the kaleidoscope in their new film: unwittingly, they gained access to an old kaleidoscope that, once shaken, displayed less-than-kind yet very powerful colors. In Vidal’s words: “I was working on other research and happened upon these letters…I photocopied them because I knew I’d want to do something with them.”

The letters to which Vidal refers were in the library at the Ascanio Arosemena Balboa Center in Panama City. The center was a Zonian school ––a school attended by those born in the Canal Zone, also called ‘Zonians’— now home to several offices of the Panama Canal Authority, the entity in charge of canal operations. Although the library holds a large number of documents related to the history and administration of the waterway, a substantial part, if not all of these items are copies. The bulk of the original files (maps, photographs, correspondence, studies) ended up in the Library Congress of the United States following the process of devolution of land and buildings in the Canal Zone to the Panamanian government.

Vidal kept the copies she made of the letters and a few years later she met up with Arias, who also knew about the documents. “We realized that we both had them, and eventually they brought us together,” Vidal explains.

It turns out that in 1963, a Zonian named Ruth C. Stuhl, a member of the Isthmus Historical Society, decided to organize a competition to help recover the collective memory of the men who participated in the construction of the Panama Canal. A total of 114 letters containing stories were submitted, and all of them told tales of the difficult experiences of the thousands of workers who came to the isthmus with “a dream in their suitcase,” says Vidal.

This documentary provides a first-person account, featuring interviews and readings from several manuscripts, of the fraught relationship —glorious at times, painful at others— between Panama and the United States. Among the stories read aloud, for example, is one that contains details of a huge explosion that ripped many of the workers to shreds and left their remains hanging from trees. Another tells how, when faced with labor injustice, the workers chose to remain silent because “around here, the white boss thinks he’s god.” Writer and sociologist Gerardo Maloney, among those interviewed for the documentary, explained that the silence of these men should be understood in context: they came from the West Indies, with slavery in their past, so perhaps the working conditions and the segregation established by the Americans didn’t seem so unusual or offensive since they received payment for their work.

These testimonies are interspersed with highlights of the relations between Panama and the United States —archival footage of the negotiation process leading up to the Torrijos-Carter treaties, for example— and skillful use is made of old drawings and photographs to bring action to the documentary and show the real working and living conditions in the Canal Zone.

The documentary rescues seldom heard voices and presents a stark reality, about which little has been officially revealed. The content of these letters is perhaps not surprising to older generations of Panamanians who lived through the time of the Zone, or to the children or grandchildren of the Canal workers, but younger generations and non-Panamanians will find the material in the film quite startling. Its main value lies precisely in making people aware of the existence of these stories-on-paper, the experiences chronicled by the men who dug the trench that would once again unite the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

The documentary also questions the sad plight of Panama’s historical documents, at one time considered so useless that thousands were thrown into the sea to guard against vermin and mold. Things have improved a bit, but not much. In general, Panamanian history has been scattered, precariously filed, or hidden.

“Panamanians suffer from historical lacunae because our educational system doesn’t delve deep enough,” reflects Vidal, “and these films seek to fill those gaps. Documentaries serve as an opportunity to research, develop, and recreate the past, a past still unclear to us.”

Caja 25 ends with the discovery of the original manuscripts in a box labeled “Box 25″ at the Library of Congress, an encounter that gave the film its final title, replacing the working title, “Canal Diaries.” Arias confirms that finding the originals was an emotional jolt: “The letters created a feeling of holding living history in my hands… seeing the shaky handwriting, which gave you a real idea of the age of these people… Nothing prepared me for this.”

An epistolary contest

In 1963, Ruth C. Stuhl organized an epistolary contest for former non-American workers involved in the construction of the Canal. A total of 114 people responded to the call, although there were only prizes for the top three letters: fifty dollars went to Albert Peters, thirty to George Martin, and twenty to Alfonso Suazo.

The idea behind the contest was to obtain and preserve the historical memory of the workers who came by the thousands from several European countries and what were then British colonies in the Caribbean. It is estimated that at least 15,000 workers died during the ten-year construction process (1904-1914).

Caja 25 contributes to the recovery of yet another missing link in Panamanian history by uncovering the existence of documents that, before now, were unknown.

Around the world

In April 2015, Caja 25 won two awards at the Panama International Film Festival: Best Documentary and Best Picture from Central America and the Caribbean.

The film screened in October at the Marbella International Film Festival in Spain, where it was among the top ten documentaries selected from a total of 250 films. At the Milan International Film Festival in Italy in November, it was nominated for Best Foreign Language Documentary, Best Director, and Best Editing (Carlos Revello).

Caja 25 is also scheduled to screen in the Latin American Perspectives section of the 37th Havana International Festival of New Latin American Cinema in Cuba, to be held December 3-13. Although screening in a non-competitive section, the film will still be eligible for many of the awards given at the Festival.