Panama’s first indigenous feature (recut after its 2008 Sundance début) is a proudly noble attempt at standing head-to-head with colleagues around the globe, yet the vital element of narrative cohesion coupled with sympathetic, supporting structure is largely absent in this tale of Kuna youth being lured into the assimilating quagmire of Panama City.
Not surprisingly, given the obvious passion for their culture by the creators, it’s the magical/mythical sequences that come across best: visually and aurally (music and dialogue).
The wisdom of elders—especially Ologwagdi as Great-Uncle Olo—being imparted to Machi (Benjamin Avila is a cinematic natural who ought to be given further opportunities to bewitch the camera and hone his acting skills) soars across the screen and into consciousness like the mighty spirit of Mother Ocean. The notion of appearing in several dresses daily, lapping the shores of Kuna Yala then wearing nothing but dark, drudge garments around the city works simultaneously on many levels: spiritual, emotional, ethical and environmental. Crafting many more of these moments into the next project (if only we could start with the second performance …) compellingly holds the promise of superior storytelling/point-making.
Offering to house Machi after moving to the metropolis and complete his education (incredibly beginning that journey in the same open bed of a pickup truck which carried Shi-shi Etko off to the horrors of Canadian residential schools just a few hours earlier—cross-reference below) are his wily uncle and hip cousin Igua (“We don’t say ‘Que paso’ here—it’s ‘Que sapo,’” advises the barfly, basketball-playing teen. (Note to writers: previously establishing Machi’s prowess sinking hoops then drawing him into a game with Igua’s buds moments after arriving in his new world but never allowing him to touch the ball is a classic set-up-no-payoff that more confuses than builds Machi’s persona as the muscular young man opts to sit out—just one of several examples where the film’s early potential sinks into the muck of too many scenes, not enough connection.)
The love interest is Rosy (Arosemena Algis). She’s a pretty girl—already living in the city—with ambitions of dating hunky Jonathan and becoming a supermodel only to have both dreams dashed at lightning speed that, again, doesn’t fulfill their dramatic possibilities. (What a tense moment it would be to have seen her made-up face splashed across the brochures urging her family and friends to abandon the land of their ancestors that the Latino real estate speculators—aided and abetted by token Kuna Marino, who is none other than the blushing beauty’s father.)
Thank goodness for the music (Christopher Anderson-Bazzoli). The film is happily awash in all manner of flutes, guitars, charangos and percussion, providing a sonic quilt that keeps the ear attentively engaged even as the somewhat disconnected vignettes flash across the screen.
When the artistic trust (director/writer Vero Bollow and the Igar Yala Collective) expunges the water from its collective mouth and finds its own language (“You have to do this on your own,” advises Olo to Machi) the possibility for a spectacular, multilayered result is palpable. On to the next, please. JWR