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Enrique Castro and His Commitment to a Reflective Cinema

By  Winnie T. Sittón
Photos: Winnie T. Sittón y Cortesía Sultán El Filme

Enrique Castro’s early experiences with the seventh art included working as a projectionist for film theory classes while getting his degree in art and semiotics at Brown University in the United States. The experience allowed him to discover a universe populated by the films of great filmmakers such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, and Akira Kurosawa, to name just a few. From then on, there was no turning back; he was hopelessly caught up in the need to tell stories with images in a very specific way: with total freedom and no genre limitations.

His filmography is a testament to this constant experimentation with resources, forms, and ideas. Memorias del hijo del viejo (Memories of the Old Man’s Son) (2002), for example, is a video documentary that includes poetic reflections on his own family, drawing a parallel between his father’s illness and subsequent death and the end of the regime of Panamanian General Manuel Antonio Noriega. The film also addresses the director’s relationship with his mother and his homeland, Panama. Shortly after came ¡Eso es el agua! (That’s Water!), a short video conceived, as he explains, to inspire discussions about water, using “poetic games, on-screen text, and other elements to break a bit with routine”.

It’s no wonder then, that in Diciembres (Decembers), his first feature film, this filmmaker once again mixes things up to address a topic that has troubled him for thirty years: the U.S. military invasion of Panama in December 1989. Free of genre-related limitations, the film intertwines a fictional story that takes place ten years after the bombing —about a family that lost one of its members the night the attack began— with archival images filmed by U.S. troops to document the operation. 

“I didn’t want to limit myself by saying, ‘this is fiction, or this is documentary,’ which is why I mixed the two genres that, as a friend of mine once said, sometimes contradict each other, sometimes support each other, and sometimes question each other. But I think this leads to something that enriches the discussion on the subject of the invasion.”

Castro obtained the footage through the American production company The Empowerment Project, which produced The Panama Deception (1992), a documentary by Barbara Trent that won an Oscar for Best Documentary. In 1990, the company requested declassification of the archival material and the United States Department of Defense agreed, a response that Enrique Castro sees as “naïve,” given the forcefulness of the facts revealed by these images. “This kind of footage would never be declassified nowadays.”

Even the fictional plot running through the film was inspired by very tragic real events, including the huge number of civilians who lost their lives in the invasion. For example, one of the characters in the film is based on Spanish photographer Juantxu Rodríguez, who decided to document what was happening as he was passing through Panama; he was killed by shots fired by an American soldier. “Thanks to him, we have extremely shocking and painful images that help us in this process of reflecting on the invasion.”

The idea of making the film arose the instant that the invasion of Panama occurred. At the time, Castro was a 22-year-old student in Rhode Island. Desperate to see his family and his country, he convinced a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist employed at a local newspaper to take him to Panama as his translator and guide. They only managed to enter the country on December 29, nine days after the first bombing, when the invasion was no longer news. “Everything was over. I wasn’t able to come up with any solid interviews or sources that this journalist considered reliable. And the critical articles he had promised to write turned out to be patriotic pieces about a Colombian-American gunner from the state where we lived, who died from an accidental shot fired by one of the other soldiers in his tank group. I realized that I’d have to produce something on my own terms.”

Diciembres (Decembers) premiered at the seventh International Film Festival of Panama and later screened at the 2018 International Independent Film Festival in Rome, where the script was awarded an honorable mention from the jury, and at the Istanbul International Film Festival, where it won the Eurimages Award for Human Rights in Cinema. The film is available on the IFF Panama Channel, as part of the Copa Airlines in-flight entertainment system.