‘Invasion’: Film Review

Courtesy of Apertura Films
An engrossing and beautifully crafted documentary

Panama’s first-ever Oscar nomination is an oral history of the 1989 US invasion of the country

In the on-screen words of its director Abner Benaim, who in 2009 released the first Panamanian feature film to appear in sixty years, the aim of Invasion is to “portray everyone’s truth, even if that truth is a lie”. This concise people’s history of the December 1989 US incursion into Panama to oust a newly out-of-favor General Manuel Noriega is about memories more than events, raising more questions than it answers, and representing a range of opinions which refuses to be broken down into simple propaganda, be it anti- or pro-US.

Rich in humanity and in ideas, and held together by the affable on-screen presence of Benaim himself, Invasion does full justice to the memories of a wide range of people of an event which for various reasons has been collectively swept under the Panamanian carpet. Festival appearances in politically-themed sidebars beckon for an accessible, exciting film which lays the ground, when Panama is ready, for further documentary enquiry.

According to Invasion, the events of late 1989 and early 1990 were a mixture of tragedy and farce that were good news for some and bad news for others, at many levels and at the same time. Right from the start, there are anecdotes about how the subsequent looting at least meant that people that year could enjoy a good Christmas dinner. At one point, like a director’s gift from heaven, an upper-class woman and a working-class man are caught on camera arguing in the street about whether the invasion was a good or bad thing: it is the man, not the woman, who walks away, aware that by discussing it in public, social protocol has been broken. One old-timer chides Benaim for not letting sleeping dogs lie.

The memories of the interviewees -- they include a couple of Panamanian heroes, like the boxer Roberto “Hands of Stone” Duran, who is especially entertaining, and the singer Ruben Blades -- bring with them moments of dark surrealism: in the way that locals living by the canal washed the tanks of the invaders, for example, or of how they helped soldiers who got stuck up to their waists in mud after landing. One man excitably claims to have shot down 25 Black Hawks single-handedly. All the while Benaim tests the plausibility of these memories, for example by asking locals to stand up to their waists in mud, in not always successful scenes which seem to be modishly borrowing from the staging methodology of The Act of Killing.

In choosing to simply record the memories of his more than forty interviewees and let audiences make up their own minds about what they’re seeing, Benaim has foregone the opportunity to delve too far beneath the surface. Indeed, what actually happened may be lost for all time in the atmosphere of surmise, false memory and mythology which the film accurately renders: a radio presenter, for example, blithely confesses to broadcasting lies. But when, for example, the film establishes that the documents listing the numbers of those killed by the invasion mysteriously went missing, there’s a tantalizing glimpse of the investigative which suggests there’s much more waiting to be unearthed.

The film also devotes necessary time to the heartbreaking human cost of those few days, as in the interview with a mother whose daughter was left blind and disabled after throwing herself from a window. As he proceeds, Benaim moves higher up the power chain, interviewing Benjamin Colamarco, the head of Noriega’s ramshackle civilian defense force, the Dignity Battalions, who weeps for his dead comrades but who was clearly no angel.

Benaim ends with a brief snippet of the elderly Noriega himself, interviewed in the Panamanian jail where he is still being held. Noriega reminds us that the invasion and its aftermath are long forgotten, and that there’s a new generation which doesn’t know what it’s about. It is not taught in schools, and there is no day of remembrance. Which is the whole point of Invasion, one of those films whose very existence is just as significant as anything it might have to say.

Production company: Apertura Films, Ajimolido Films
Director: Abner Benaim
Executive producer: Alejandro Israel
Director of photography: Guideo de Paula
Editor: Andres Tambornino
Composer: Ulises Conti
Sales: Cinephil
No rating
94 minutes

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