‘Box 25’ (‘Caja 25’): Film Review

Courtesy of Betesda Films
The human stories get lost in the big picture.

Panama’s second-ever Oscars submission is a documentary about the forgotten men who built the canal.

“What is memory made of? Why do we remember what we remember?” wonders a directorial voiceover near the start of Box 25. It’s the kind of question beloved of documentary-makers who want to distinguish their work from the docu pack by adding a little existential pizzazz. Box 25 then goes on to do little to address the subject other than to remind us of the truism that cultures, like people, remember only what they wish to remember: This is not a tale that reflects well on either Panama or the United States. But if you can get past the film’s faux-philosophy, it tells — somewhat patchily — a remarkable tale that makes a key contribution to the country’s ongoing evolution as a filmmaking nation.

The directors, Delfina Vidal and Mercedes Arias, both of whom have personal investment in the history of the canal, start from the practically unchallengeable assumption that the history of the canal is also the 20th-century history of Panama itself. Their source material is 114 letters written for a 1960s competition in which the men who’d built the canal were invited by a far-sighted woman called Ruth Stuhl to put their recollections on paper for a 50-dollar prize.

It’s a subject that has rarely been explored with any distinction, perhaps most notably by Frederick Wiseman in Canal Zone (1977) and in last year’s omnibus fiction, Panama Canal Stories. Both films seem more focused and impassioned than Box 25.

During the early days of the canal, Panama was effectively a U.S. state, and the people who were raised in the Canal Zone were to all intents and purposes Americans, despite having been born in Panama. Thus Panama was, and is, a fascinatingly hybrid place. Experts are brought in to tell us this, while descendants of the workers read extracts from the letters to camera.

The racism of the canal project is explored: many of the workers — men like Albert Peters, George Martin and Alfonso Suazo — were former slaves who could therefore be treated just ever so slightly better than slaves, while life in the Canal Zone was effectively like living under apartheid. It is a story of human and natural cruelty: an estimated 15,000 people died during the construction of the canal, many from disease. Footage, photos and — effectively if bizarrely — speed-replayed charcoal drawings bolster the words with images. The words are often cool, detached and academic but accessible, like an encyclopedia entry brought to life.

Box 25 is therefore an ambitious blend of history, politics, sociology, philosophy, personal testimony and visual poetry, so it’s hardly surprising that it ends up looking diffuse and scattergun — especially when, about half-way through, it suddenly jumps about 50 years forward to the 1977 Torrijos/Carter treaties, which handed the canal over to Panama. At this point, the workers whose words and lives gave rise to the film are temporarily forgotten, until the final few minutes at least. There’s the nagging sense that what must a rich source of original material — the 114 letters — is being ignored in the attempt to squeeze in the whole history. For example, strangely the man who archived the letters for the Library of Congress gets practically as much screen time as any of the men who wrote them. Perhaps the letters didn’t turn out to be quite as exciting as the filmmakers had hoped, despite one hair-raising recollection about workers being chased out of the jungle by lions.

Rightly or wrongly, Box 25 is as much about the fate of the letters as their content, and they are currently to be found in the titular box in Washington. Clearly that’s the wrong place for them, and perhaps this uneven but well-intentioned film will go some way towards guaranteeing that eventually they'll find their way back to their true home.

Production companies: Betesda Films, Jaguar Films, Dicine
Directors, producers: Delfina Vidal, Mercedes Arias
Screenwriter: Joaneska Grossl
Director of photography: Aaron Bromley
Editor: Carlos Revelo
Composer: Andres Carrizo
Casting director:
Sales: Betesda Films

No rating, 72 minutes

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