A “duh” moment

It hit me on the head the other day like a great beanbag from the heavens… the idea to make a documentary while I am here. It’s so obvious! I don’t know how I didn’t think of it before… Documentary filmmaking is, after all, what I want to do as a career. And here I am, with three months to do the task. The thing about documentary making is that you have to be partially immersed into your subject matter to even have a grasp on the story you want to tell. You may have an idea of the story you want to tell from the outside, but it is not until you are on the inside that the reality of this very much alive, oscillating organism reveals itself to you and you realize that it does not completely coincide with your impression. And that it has a life of its own, and rites. And that it, given a pad and paper, would write its own autonomous script- forge its way through the rock like the Colorado River to render the Grand Canyon. It is also necessary, when making a documentary to gain the confidence of your subjects, as they will be on display and their personal lives objectified in a sense. And this trust-building takes time. And here I am, two months in, friendships solidified. They are also an extremely interesting subject for sociological examination… as I said, their population is only about four generations old. They are relatively new yet they are changing rapidly. The installations of solar panels (and a telephone and internet chord), the school (with its nationally standardized teaching methods), the police, tourism, and the hospital have brought with them the influences of the Latino culture, and technology upon their system of agriculture. Whereas as a boy Riquard harvested crops with a machete, made the voyage to neighboring towns in a canoe on the open ocean, and grew by his own hand all food he ate, now he uses a chainsaw to cut planks of wood to build houses, the gente travels regularly to nearby towns by motorboats, and the store provides canned goods and plastic-wrapped cookies and brand-name sodas. The teachers were sent from outside Playa Muerto by the ministry of education, and thus they are not Embera, and teach in Spanish. Anyone below the age of about thirty may understand the Embera dialect, but they do not speak it. And there have been several governmental interventions, implementing laws or regulations that compromised their cultural traditions. Regulations regarding the age of marriage (no longer could the men wed twelve year old girls,) regarding how many wives the men were allowed to have, regarding the septic system (no longer would they defecate in the rivers). The houses that are currently being built, funded by the national governmet have a different layout than the traditional embera home. Whereas the traditional homes have one big room in which all family members (including those of different generations) sleep together, the kids baring witness to the sexual activities of their parents, the new houses have three or four rooms. The houses themselves are box-like structures with slate roofs, whereas the traditional hand-built ranchos have a leaf roof . Also, when Raquel was bearing children, she did so in the traditional Embera way: at home, without medicine, and with only a tia (“aunt” experienced with delivering babies… men were never resent because although women wear their breasts out, the vagina is believed to be very private). But recently a law was passed prohibiting women from having at home births, for the risk of the mother or baby dying from complications. But this means that they don’t necessarily have an Embera doctor, or a female doctor. Also, the hospital (funded by the American and Panamanian government both) will use western technology and medicine. Making this documentary will also demand that I forge some new relationships, push myself into the personal space of various people… into their kitchen, their living room. I am very excited about this undertaking. When I first got here, I was treated like a tourist… brought filets of freshly caught river fish to the front door of my cabin, I never washed a dish, Riquard installed a hammoc in my room… but gradually, as I worked my way into the soil of this community like a worm burrowing itself, and there wasn’t a pivitol moment of initiation, when everything fell in to place and I was instantly loved and, rather it happened so invisibly gradually. Now walking down the street I am flooded with an insatiable desire to smother every child I pass with a boquet of kisses, and people becon my name, summoning me into their house to eat… but just today, two and a half weeks from departure, I was thinking about how I hardly remember that first month. I think I was paralyzed by culture shock or fear. Fear of not havig a niche. Anyway, as I burrowed my way into the lumber, I started eating meals at Riquard and Raquel’s house, at the same time as them and the same food as them. I found myself sitting on the floor of their kitchen area helping heir grandson with is math homework and swinging with another grandchild perched on my stomach in a hammock. But also, now on the inside of the veil, began to realize how poor this community really is. There are nights when dinner is no more than French fries, or crackers… breakfast when there is nothing more than tortillas, coffee being a luxury, condensed milk for the coffee being an occasion for Christmas. The first time I set foot into the living portion of the house, I was stunned to discover their sleeping conditions: people (including two newly married couples, five children under the age of eight, and one set of grandparents sleeping on a floor space no larger than forty square feet… and not on beds, or even mattresses, but cardboard boxes, wads of clothes, and hammocks. Sure the land is lush with natural food resources including corn, rice, mangoes, oranges, potatoes, yuka, papaya, cacao, zapote, and platano, I’m realizing how much maintenance is required to tend to land that can feed ten stomachs… especially when only four of the ten are old/ young enough to work. Riquard is sixty years old and every day he leaves at about 7:30 to work in the field, returns briefly for lunch, but returns for good at bout 6pm… the entire time immersed work ranging from… he balances tending to his crops with work that will earn him money from the hospital construction project. Some days he will work in the field, other days he will cut tall thick trees into planks of wood deep in the forest, send them floating down the river to be picked up by his son in law downstream and hauled to the construction site. His wife will balance going out in their fields to pick crops like stalks of corn, going out into the unmarked land to forage for berries, and staying home to work on her artesania which, the tourists who land from the cruise ships in the dry season, will buy for about forty bucks a pop (but each basket takes about three weeks to complete). Their daughter takes care of the majority of household responsibilities and my heart aches for her, twenty five years old and ball and chained to a life of washing the clothes of ten people on a washboard, shucking corn, kneading tortilla dough, and prodding the wood burning fire to keep it aflame throughout the day. The daughter in law is a good spear fisher and will do that from time to time to bring home for the family, she will also haul cement from the ship that passes once a week to the construction site for “plata” (which literally means silver but also refers to physical money). Hauling cement is usually a two day long project, at five hours a day, and ninety pounds a bag. And all of these adult responsibilities interspersed with taking care of five children. Other responsibilities include going out to collect the palms of the cocobolo tree to peel into strips, dry in the sun, die in the shaving of foraged roots that yield a … I feel like the baby bird chirping incessantly for the distribution of a worm from its mother… the bounty devoured so instantaneously it feels like a negative net gain.

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