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Bocas CineLit opens

Thursday, April 20, 2017
Panama Canal’s West Indian workers remembered as
CineLit, part of the Bocas Lit Fest, is on from April 18-30.

“Our people broke up mountains to build the Canal” says a Caribbean voice about one of five vignettes in the 2014 film Panama Canal Stories (Historias del Canal), shown on April 18 on the first day of the NGC Bocas CineLit film festival. The film festival, which runs until April 30, is part of the Bocas Lit Fest, and features films from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Mexico, Panama, Peru, Spain and Venezuela.

After the screening of Tuesday’s film Historias Del Canal, a panel of four discussed some of the impacts of the Panama Canal on the people, politics and economics of the region. The panelists were Ambassador Carmen Gabriela Menendez Gonzalez of Panama; Ambassador Fernando Schmidt Ariztia of Chile; UWI Professor Emerita Barbara Lalla from Jamaica; and T&T moderator Marina Salandy-Brown, founder of the Bocas Lit Fest.

Digging through the continental divide and constructing the largest earth dam ever built took the effort of over 80,000 workers and saw the loss of some 25,000 - 30,000 lives, according to historians. Before the canal was built, people used to cross the Isthmus of Panama by sailboat, along the Chagres River, and then by riding mules the rest of the way. But, over a period of ten years, 51 miles of earth and hard granite were carved out to form the canal, which now allows 14,000 ships to conveniently pass through each year.

Prof Lalla said she learned about the West Indian contribution to the Canal mostly through the meticulously researched 2014 book by Olive Senior, called Dying to Better Themselves, in which Senior writes about the West Indians who provided the bulk of the workforce for the construction of the Panama railroad and canal projects. Between 1850 and 1914, many Caribbean people sacrificed their lives, limbs and mental faculties to the Panama projects. Many of them remained on to settle in Panama; others returned with savings; others launched themselves elsewhere in the Americas, following work opportunities. And these stories are largely untold.

Strong man exodus

Lalla spoke of the exodus of strong young men in Jamaica at the time: birth rates fell in some Jamaican villages, she said, and in some cases, women took over jobs, influencing changed concepts of manhood, gender, and success. She said some Jamaican emigrants almost starved themselves while working in Panama, sending most of their savings back home to family in Jamaica. Others died from malaria, yellow fever, or were even dragged off by crocodiles in the “Green Hell” of the Panama jungles which they cut though. Still, they went, said Lalla.

Some of those who returned, said Lalla, came back with goods for sale; some returned with new building skills; some came back with new attitudes, including xenophobia learned abroad. Some returned with guns, or gold teeth, or a gold watch, in lieu of savings. Some returned paupered, or maimed from horrible accidents on the job. Some returned to Jamaica radicalised from exposure to Latin American politics, she said.

Ambassador Carmen Gabriela Menendez Gonzalez of Panama spoke of the scale and economic importance of the Panama Canal project, which is currently in a third phase of growth with the Panama Canal Expansion programme, started in 2007 and ongoing. This programme aims to double the waterway’s capacity to service world maritime trade. The Canal connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and the current new phase of construction involves building a new 6.1 km Pacific Access Channel; the deepening and widening of the Canal entrances on both Pacific and Atlantic sides; and the design and construction of more locks – one on the Pacific and one on the Atlantic side. It’s an immense project that is set to allow much bigger ships to cross the continent, consolidating Panama’s role as the most important logistics and transportation centre in the Americas.

Impact of Canal

Ambassador Fernando Schmidt Ariztia of Chile spoke of some of the impacts of the Canal on his country, noting that today, Chile is the largest Latin American user of the Canal, with its economic security in fact depending largely on the Canal.

Lalla noted that knock-on effects of the current Panama Canal expansion can affect our islands in many ways, including the need for us to control our own port costs to become more competitive; and the need to deal with a range of infrastructural needs, including the need for bigger cranes to deal with cargoes from bigger ships.

CineLit events continue today at the UWI film unit. All screenings are free. For full schedule, see

This Cuban drama set in a 1956 village just outside Havana takes us into the home and dreams of teenage Larita (played wonderfully by Laura de la Uz), a lively, imaginative girl who hopes to study abroad despite her family’s poverty. Her family’s genial mockery of her dream to study Philosophy and Arts doesn’t faze her at all, as she covers her walls with photos of Elvis Presley, Tony Curtis and Ernest Hemmingway.

Larita lives with her aunt, uncle, granny and cousin in a poor but close-knit home in pre-revolutionary Cuba, in the last years of Fulgencio Batista’s rule. The famous American writer Ernest Hemmingway lives nearby in a white mansion, but his world is so separate from theirs that they never talk to him. As he drives by in a chauffeured car, they struggle to put food on the table. Yet there is no resentment; rather, Larita dreams of one day living a life like Hemmingway, and she works hard in high school to win a scholarship to study in America to better herself, encouraged by her biggest fan, her grandmother.

It’s fun seeing the teenage innocence, cheeky jokes and laughter between Larita and her bubbly, confident cousin in the early scenes of the film. The women in this family keep it together, laughing, cooking (even if it’s just rice and beans), and doing humble jobs, despite harsh circumstances, which later include the suffering of the breadwinner uncle, who loses his job and starts to fall apart in drunken despair.

There’s a teenage love story woven through here, too, as well as student demonstrations foreshadowing the later revolt against Batista. But the movie is not so much (overtly) political as personal. As Larita reads Hemmingway’s story Old Man and the Sea, the simple, eloquent story of an old man battling tremendous odds to catch his fish becomes symbolic of Larita’s own struggles for a higher education and a better life. She finds increasing meaning in the enduring lines of the story as a way of reflecting on her own challenges.

The director Fernando Perez beautifully interweaves complex moods in this charming yet sad portrayal of personal and social upheaval. It is a little film with a big heart, and it becomes a good character piece as well as a symbolic reflection on unfair opportunities and making one’s bittersweet peace with fate.