Identity is evoked as a melancholic desire to belong in Ana Elena Tejera’s debut film Panquiaco (2020). Our guide into the opaque emotional waters surrounding identity is a Cebaldo, a fisherman in Portugal whose longing to return home to Panama is poised in his poignant gaze.
Looking out across the Atlantic, Cebaldo’s gaze is at once historical and timely: a nod to the gazes that guided conquistadores to “discovery” and a gaze searching for belonging in an unmoored world. The eponymous Panquiaco was the indigenous figure who guided Spanish colonizer Vasco Núñez de Balboa across the Isthmus of Panama to the Pacific Ocean; the epithet “discoverer of the South Sea” memorializes Balboa in Western history as it erases Panquiaco. On the day that Balboa reached the Pacific Ocean, “the sea wept and cried out: ‘Panquiaco, what have you done to me?’ Panquiaco, in his grief, let the tears of the sea wash him away. Ever since, his spirit wanders between the two seas” (Panquiaco, 2020). Panquiaco’s allegorical grief takes root in Cebaldo as the feeling of not belonging, and the antidote is not as simple as going home.
Tejera creates a film with long static shots that evoke endless waiting. Penumbra cloaks spaces with atmospheric melancholy. Solitude is palpable in Cebado’s prosaic room where he listens to messages from family members, blinking tears gently out of his eyes. Crumbs of information reveal an itinerant identity that spent time in Russia before arriving in Porto, Portugal. But not much more is revealed. At a bar, a man approaches a vacuous-looking Cebaldo, delivers a sermonic story about memory and identity and belonging, and leaves. Then Cebaldo is back in Panama, somewhere in the Gunallala comarca—autonomous land of the Guna indigenous peoples—and their lively traditions emphasize his identity estrangement. Though he is home, his sense of belonging, something entangled with memory, is not restored because he cannot remember—forgetting is treated as an illness by the Guna, remedied by herbal baths led by caciques (shamans). But rituals, collective chants, river swims, and cacique-guided baths do not resolve Cebaldo’s malaise. Moving between documentary and poetry, Panquiaco approaches identity as an elusive state grounded in the past but informed by the present. Writer Saidiya Hartman said, “If the past is another country, then I am its citizen.” But how does one access the part of identity mired in the past if not through memory? Panquiaco does not offer answers as the final shot, a static close-up of Cebaldo’s gaze, transfixed on nothing as he lays in a hammock, is of profound longing, anguish discreetly lingering in his silence.
My half of an invented interview with Panamanian artist and filmmaker Ana Elena Tejeras:
Critics have praised your filmmaking style, calling it unburdened by genre as Panquiaco moves between documentary and fiction. Can you elaborate on what qualities in your film put it in dialogue with documentary filmmaking and why a documentary-fiction hybrid was the aesthetic you chose for this story? Gabriel Garcia Marquez said, “It always amuses me that the biggest praise for my work comes for the imagination, while the truth is that there’s not a single line in all my work that does not have a basis in reality.” (Gabriel Garcia Marquez, The Paris Review) I wonder if you can reflect on that with regards to Panquiaco. Do you think Panquiaco’s fictitious elements enabled you to reveal something more real than had you only used a documentarian approach to narration?
After debuting at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, Panquiaco opened for “ICA’s film festival titled FRAMES of REPRESENTATION, featuring films that are part of ‘cinema of the real’ and which “explore the spaces between knowledge and participation through the act of viewing.” ICA selected films that challenged the notion that “to be a spectator is to be separated both from the capacity to know and the power to act” by embracing Ranciere’s concept of an emancipated spectator:
“Emancipation begins when we challenge the opposition between viewing and acting… The spectator also acts, like the pupil or the scholar. They observe, select, compare, interpret. They link what they see to a host of other things that they have seen on other stages, in other kinds of places. They compose their own poem with the element of the poem before them. (Rancière 2009: 13)
Could you talk about what makes Panquiaco an example of ‘cinema of the real,’ and in what ways do you think it prompts the spectator to leave a position of passivity and enter into one of emancipation?
Poet Monchoachi says, “it is not the poet who speaks. It is the language that speaks. Poet is someone or something that is initiated in the listening there, in the arising of his original place.” Monchoachi’s understanding of poetry is interesting to consider in relation to translation. Did the Dulegaya language, a language with polysemantic words like “camera,” which translates into “foreign hunter of souls,” initiate a different type of listening in you that affected how you think about identity and memory and history?
Panquiaco delves into questions of identity through a character that is Guna and Panamanian, the former preceding the latter culturally. Can you talk more about why you chose that perspective to think about identity and the elusive sentiment of simultaneously not belonging and belonging? Did you have reservations about filming into a culture that the Panamanian nation-state has systemically oppressed and marginalized?
My final question has to with auteurship and debt. Mexican writer Cristina Rivera Garza talks about writing—purportedly an individualistic practice—as something that is deeply communal. Regarding this topic, she says:
“Writing is a community-making practice. If we write, we write with others. Inescapably. If we write, we write about others, even when we write about ourselves in small diaries that remain hidden in locked drawers. Constantly borrowing from the language we share with entire and varied communities at once, when we write we acquire a debt—a real, material debt—with the practitioners of such languages. It’s an immense debt. It is, as Fred Moten and Stefano Harney argued in The Undercommons, a debt that is or will become unpayable. We cannot hide it or deny it. The only thing left to do is increase it.” (Cristina Rivera Garza, The Unusual: A Manifesto)
I think this idea is fascinating and wanted to end by asking who you are indebted to in Rivera’s definition of debt? Collaboration is enmeshed in the fabric of filmmaking, but who are thinkers, creatives, family members that shape your creative practice?
“ICA | FRAMES of REPRESENTATION 2020.” Www.ica.art, www.ica.art/films/for20#:~:text=FRAMES%20of%20REPRESENTATION%20is%20the. Accessed 13 Apr. 2021.
Monchoachi, and Kavita Ashana Singh. “Let Yourself Be Told.” Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism, vol. 18, no. 3, 1 Nov. 2014, pp. 107–114, 10.1215/07990537-2826488. Accessed 18 Dec. 2020.
“Rebel Methods: Activists, Historians, and the Needs of a Suffering World – ProQuest.” Search.proquest.com, search.proquest.com/openview/ca163176da509b2165c3387d9f7a649b/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=18750&diss=y. Accessed 13 Apr. 2021.
“The Unusual: A Manifesto.” PEN Transmissions, 17 May 2018, pentransmissions.com/2018/05/17/cristina-rivera-garza-2/. Accessed 13 Apr. 2021.