In 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed the Panama Canal Treaty, which promised to return control of the canal to the Panamanian government by 2000. Though Panama now controls the waterway, not all citizens benefit equally from the revenue it generates.
In “The Passage,” which screened at the recent Santa Barbara International Film Festival, director Alex Douglas examines the current state of the canal. When reached by phone for an interview, Douglas offered insights into the filming of his documentary and the recent canal expansion efforts.
“The Passage” knocks viewers out of their comfort zones. I always thought Carter’s signing of the Panama Canal Treaty was a good thing.
It’s interesting: wherever the U.S. has a presence, they leave a sort of lasting footprint. Obviously, there are a lot of benefits, but there are also a tremendous amount of challenges that come along with the canal. There’s no sort of black-or-white; there’s no sort of answer either. There’s a lot of people we spoke to from various points-of-view. They all have good intentions and motivations.
The canal obviously has to expand. It’s at a nice point where everybody takes a step back and sees where they are with the current canal and use this as an opportunity to see how they can really better the citizens of Panama. They can sort of prepare for this canal expansion and growth and see how it can benefit the citizens there.
Have they started the expansion yet?
They are almost completed. It is to be completed at the beginning of 2014, but they are a little behind. Actually, they are running out of the money that was allocated. They raised 6.5 million; that’s the number I recall. They’ve gone through all that investment and now they are sort of pointing fingers at each other to see who is supposed to pay for the rest.
When ownership of the canal transferred to Panama in 1999, why didn’t Colón, the second largest city, continue to benefit from the revenue?
We brought that up to show that not everything is black-and-white. It’s great that the canal is in the hands of the Panamanians; there’s a lot of money coming into the country. Actually, Colón being occupied and having all the military bases there brought a large influx of money and jobs and resources [to the city].
That’s where John Wayne had a house. There were all these really nice clubs; it was a really swanky area with all this Colonial architecture. Once the bases were handed over, there wasn’t the need for all these people to be there or putting money back into the economy.
Colón wasn’t really ready for its people to handle the canal on its own. You have these people who aren’t educated so they can benefit from the canal itself. Running the canal requires jobs with a technical backgrounds, so you end up bringing in all these people from Panama City, subcontractors from the U.S. Things like that.
It really marginalized the people in Colón, and they sat by the wayside. All this work was available, but no one in Colón actually benefited from it.
Going forward, does it look like that situation will change?
That’s sort of the interesting thing. When there was a referendum, the country actually had to vote for the canal to be expanded about 3 years ago. When they had the referendum, there were big media campaigns to sort of promote the canal.
A lot of the campaigns were about how it was going to bring all this wealth and everyone was going to benefit from the canal. It created a tough situation because it created this sort of “gold rush” mentality for a lot of the rural farmers in the country who want to move to Panama City. They don’t have the sort of technical skillsets to actually be functional in the city environment. They would end up living more impoverished than they were in the rural land.
When you look at Colón, it’s sort of the same thing. All it would take is setting up these kinds of skilled worker workshops for the local population. It’s just a minimal amount of investment and time to empower the people who live there.
You had a lot of unprecedented access to a areas in Panama as well as people. Was there any pushback from the Panamanian government about you and your crew going around to talk to people?
We were able to have this access and intimacy to a lot of higher-up people because we were very unassuming. It was a very small crew: it was just me and maybe I would have one other person there with me. We figured the lighter we were, the less of an impact [we would have] or the less we would be noticed.
As we interviewed one or two people who were kind of higher-up, they believed in what we were doing. They were really kind of pushing for us, vouching for us. Once we started getting access to these bigger-name interviews or gaining access to these locations, we ended up having a lot more people who had an interest in the final message that the film was going to send out.
When the film was completed, we showed it in the Presidential Palace in Panama. We were promoting the idea that we want to send it around to universities in the country to allow this sort of dialogue to happen.
That was sort of our intent, but when we showed the film, it wasn’t well-received. They were wanting this sort of ukulele tourist film where it’s sunsets and beaches and girls in bikinis in slo-motion. It was tough: we felt like we were really trying to offer something that could really help promote growth and dialogue and change.
I think it was a tough position for the government to be in at the time because they had just been awarded this huge amount of money. They were in a very vulnerable position where they were concerned about image.