“Over the weekend the vultures got into the Presidential Palace by pecking through the screens on the balcony windows, and the flapping of their wings stirred up the stagnant time inside, and at dawn on Monday the city awoke out of its lethargy of centuries with the warm, soft breeze of a great man dead and rotting grandeur. Only then did we dare go in without attacking the crumbling walls of reinforced stone, as the more resolute had wished, and without using oxbows to knock the main door off its hinges, as others had proposed, because all that was needed was for someone to give a push and the great armored doors that had resisted the lombards of William Dampier during the building’s heroic days gave way. It was like entering the atmosphere of another age, because the air was thinner in the rubble pits of the vast lair of power, and the silence was more ancient, and things were hard to see in the decrepit light. All across the first courtyard, where the paving stones had given way to the underground thrust of weeds, we saw the disorder of the quarters of the guard who had fled, the weapons abandoned in their racks, the big, long rough-planked tables with plates containing the leftovers of the Sunday lunch that had been interrupted by panic…”
- The Autumn of the Patriarch opening paragraph by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
It took Gabriel Garcia Marquez ten years of researching Latin American dictators before writing The Autumn of the Patriarch. The fictitious patriarch was a collage of dictators that governed Central and South American countries during the twentieth century. It would be an incomplete picture to conjure the archetypical Latin American dictator without one of its creators: the United States. Training, aiding, and supporting murderous despots to usurp power from democratically elected presidents—as was the case with Chile—was a foreign policy the United Stated adopted to combat communism. Between communism and regimes of terror, the United States favored the latter. And Jose Manuel Noriega’s dictatorship in Panama incarnated the zeitgeist of shadow politics pulsing through the Americas. The United States backed Noriega, ignoring his antics for twenty-two years, until they didn’t. The US invasion of Panama was not a gesture of benevolence meant to topple a dictatorship and instill democracy. It was a flex of power that punctuated the US’s occupation of Panama.
In the same way that I inserted an ellipsis in the middle of the first paragraph of The Autumn of The Patriarch, my rushed description above is picking up from an ellipsis preceded by a long and tangled history between Panama and the United States. And Panamanian director Abner Benaim gives memory and recollection wings in his 2014 documentary Invasion to stir the stagnant time that settled around the United States invasion of Panama in 1989. Facts do not belong to anyone and can be disappeared; lived experiences are what people can share. Benaim collects these in a documentary that approaches history through a collective memory that is neither one nor unified but a multiplicity of perceptions and observations and feelings. What emerges is a dimensional history that cannot be rendered right or wrong, true or false.
Invasion documents the process of creating the documentary itself—of gathering peoples’ stories to tell a Panamanian history. Abner Benaim often appears in the frame as he is filming an interview. The filming crew appears and disappears in the documentary as they move from location to location, speaking with people who recount how they lived through the bombings and shootings and the tanks that drove down the main avenues of Panama City. Some memories focus on Noriega and the United States, the historical context. Others, on the physicality of near-death experiences and destruction and chaos. But almost all remember the piercing sounds and carnage. The documentary places the estimate of deaths between forty-three to seven thousand—the official morgue count disappeared. While investigative efforts are being made to gather the names of the murdered, it’s the memory of bodies strewn down the streets of Panama and disposed of in mass graves that surface throughout the documentary.
Maps, photographs, videos, official documents are phantasmagorical elements as they never appear. Interviewee names do not show on the screen as these speak. Location names are only disclosed through recounting. It very much feels like a documentary made by a Panamanian for Panamanians without being exclusive. Raconteurs seldomly appear more than once, yet anecdotes gradually begin to aggregate into a cohesive narrative that gains dimensionality through dissenting opinions and vastly different experiences. Invasion elides recreating the invasion vis-à-vis historical documents and is more interested in documenting the oral history. Throughout the film, there are overt scenes where Benaim stages a particular moment in what can only be described as gestural recreation. We watch as he directs a group of people to lay in the street as if they were dead. But there is no use of props of blood, there isn’t an attempt to create a war aesthetic through costumes or sound. In another moment, a man walks out into the Bay of Panama during low tide when the ocean has retreated, leaving a field of mud. Mired in the mud, the man becomes all the US paratroopers that got stuck in low tide on the night of December the 20th, 1989, requiring the help of Panamanians to get out. An interviewee walks the viewer through the modern ruins of Noriega’s house. And much like the description in The Autumn of The Patriarch, what was once the opulent palace housing a powerful man, is now a cement carcass with trees bursting through its foundation and graffiti scrimshawed on its walls.
The resembling of narratives assembles a documentary where stories close in on Noriega like concentric circles—the last voice in the documentary is Noriega’s. Vietnamese-American filmmaker Trinh Mi-ha elaborates on avoiding “objective documentation” in documentaries by reassembling an event by speaking nearby. Of speaking nearby, she says, “When you decide to speak nearby, rather than speak about, the first thing you need to do is to acknowledge the possible gap between you and those who populate your film: in other words, to leave the space of representation open so that, although you’re very close to your subject, you’re also committed to not speaking on their behalf, in their place or on top of them.” The collection of people who speak about the invasion embodies a documentary where Abner Benaim speaks nearby a significant moment in Panamanian history, collective trauma, and geopolitical frailty by giving a platform to memory. This documentary is not about the United States’ power and its international reach—it is about listening to the people who stir time by breathing life into the invasion through their stories.
- Invasion can be streamed on Prime Video.
Balsom, Erika. “‘There Is No Such Thing as Documentary’: An Interview with Trinh T. Minh-Ha | Frieze.” Frieze, 1 Sept. 2018, http://www.frieze.com/article/there-no-such-thing-documentary-interview-trinh-t-minh-ha.
Graham, David A. “The Death of Noriega—and U.S Intervention in Latin America.” The Atlantic, The Atlantic, 30 May 2017, http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/05/manuel-noriega-obituary-monroe-doctrine/518982/.
Jon Lee Anderson. “Manuel Noriega, a Thug of a Different Era.” The New Yorker, 2017, http://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/manuel-noriega-a-thug-of-a-different-era.
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Stone, Interviewed by Peter. “Gabriel García Márquez, the Art of Fiction No. 69.” Www.theparisreview.org, 1981, http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/3196/the-art-of-fiction-no-69-gabriel-garcia-marquez.