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Bitterly divided communities brought together by film festivals, workshops

June 18, 2018

Piriatí, Panama

The Guna, Emberá and cattle-ranching communities of eastern Panama share the same threatened landscape but have been divided for generations over territorial disputes. A series of filmmaking workshops and film festivals have brought some members of the community together in ways not previously considered possible.

As film screenings go, it was rather low-key.

There was no red carpet and the films were projected on a sheet in an open-air meeting place. The stars and producers sat in the audience inconspicuously and relaxed as if they were right at home. In fact, many of them were.

The collection of short films shown this evening were filmed and produced by the communities surrounding Panama’s Bayano Lake — the Emberá and Guna indigenous peoples and cattle-ranching Panamanians usually referred to as campesinos.

Only a few years earlier, an event involving members from all three groups would have been unheard of. Generations of territorial disputes and competition for declining resources have long kept these neighbors uncomfortably divided.

“This was something that never happened,” said Rodolfo Cunampio, the leader, or cacique, of the Emberá communities in Bayano. “Even though we are indigenous along with the Guna, we have a history that divides us.”

That history includes stories of war that may have happened hundreds of years ago. Both groups suffered under the Spanish Conquest. More recently, they've had disputes with “colonists” who moved from depleted landscapes in central Panama to clear land and raise cattle in eastern Panama.

The three groups were further antagonized by the construction of the Bayano Dam in the 1970s, which led to resettlements and reduction of available land.

Putting aside generations of rancor — at least for a few dozen members of the different groups — resulted in a beautiful collection of thoughtful films that celebrate life in the Bayano region. The films tackle complex issues such as deforestation, pollution and concerns with the central government. Pieces also celebrate music and traditions of the different groups. The common thread throughout is their shared, threatened natural environment.

“In the end, the result has been that the three players, independent of their vision or of their culture, were required to join forces to protect the Bayano watershed and protect our natural resources,” said Cunampio.

The festival and workshops were supported by Canada's Wapikoni Mobile which helps indigenous communities throughout the Americas develop filmmaking skills.

The project's success required special attention to local customs.

“Because how the indigenous villages are still living in communal ways, we very often make collective or co-creation work,” said François Laurent, a filmmaker and Wapikoni mentor for the project. “They are looking for a way to communicate and establish dialogues. We're trying to discover and build their own cinematic language.”

Next-generation pride

The screening earlier this year in the town of Piriatí was a homecoming celebration for the films. In the five years that the project ran in Bayano, the films were shown at festivals across the globe, making stops in Canada, Argentina, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, among others.

Isaac Dogirama, one of the young filmmakers who learned the trade in the workshops associated with the Bayano International Film Festival, said the experience was transformational. He collaborated in two outstanding pieces. One documented the discrimination that members of each group felt at the hands of others, but noted a general sentiment that relations were improving. The other documented the cultural differences in childbirth in Bayano's communities.

Learning the filmmaking skills wasn't Dogirama's only challenge. He needed to learn his native Emberá language as well. One elder he interviewed only spoke the tongue, which Dogirama hadn't bothered to learn very well, just like many of his peers. “From that point on, I've changed,” he said. “Today I speak it with my mother and it has helped me a lot with the language.”

Dogirama said that the cultural exchange started with the film workshops will continue.

“With the unity of the (film) group, we have started to interact and know one another better,” he said, adding that the workshop alumni now visit one another's communities “without fear.”

Research on impact

Students from Canada's McGill University regularly work in the Bayano area under the tutelage of Catherine Potvin, a McGill professor and long-time affiliated researcher with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. A group of students who participated in this year's McGill field semester in Panama surveyed film festival participants and community leaders to better understand the impact of the workshops and resulting films.

“What we found, by far, was that intercultural exchange was the most significant of the impacts,” said Carlos Alvarado, a STRI intern advised by Potvin. “Literally every single person that we interviewed said that this project facilitated intercultural exchange.”

Youth learning, women’s empowerment, indigenous empowerment, cinema as a tool for social change and inter-cultural exposure (knowledge that their cultures were transmitted via the films to audiences far removed from their territories) were other parameters for which McGill students also found positive results.

Alvarado emphasized an unexpected finding — that elders from Guna and Emberá communities were thankful to have these films as historic documentaries.

“They're worried that their culture is dying out,” said Alvarado. “They are very thankful to have these films as an archive.”

In the what-would-you-have-done-differently category, interviewees told McGill students that they would like to make films not for dissemination but to document traditions for future generations' reference. They would also like to have film workshop directors from their own community, instead of having to rely exclusively on outside mentorship.

That's definitely possible today. One student from the film festival workshops is now studying filmmaking in Panama City. He has also helped form a collective that now independently produces its own films in Bayano.

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