Cinders of La Invasion

Creator's Statement

In Abner Benaim Invasión, his 2014 documentary about the 1989 United States invasion of Panama, history gives way to historias as official archival footage is rejected for the sake of first-hand accounts that are unable to cohere into a singular and stable retelling of the attack. In effect, there is little material archive for Benaim to film: it was three days into the invasion when journalists were allowed entry into the key battle sites. During this time Panamanian newspapers, radio, and TV stations were overtaken, and at times bombed; witnesses say that American soldiers raided hospitals to steal medical records detailing the number of deaths. The surviving remnants easily cohered into an official U.S. archive that boasted the invasion as a humanitarian success, a triumph of democracy in the face of dictatorial injustice. In this official archive, civilian death tolls were obscured and invaders were recast as liberators.

It is as if two distinct events took place on December 20th, 1989; two uncanny realities recorded in contradictory archival forms. Using videographic criticism as a method of analysis, I posit that Benaim’s unorthodox documentarian logic—his reliance on reenactment and unvetted survivor testimonies—works to stir up the cinders of the invasion that still linger in present-day Panama. These cinders testify not to the official account of the invasion, but to the alternative history that the United States sought to obscure during those first three days of the invasion. Benaim’s rejection of authorized archival materials, and his use of reenactment as index for the invasion, critiques the violent consignation practice of the official archive and at once refuses to relegate this painful event to a forgotten past. The videographic form—and the affordance of dislocating and juxtaposing the audiovisual testimonies and reenactments that comprise Invasión—re-presents Benaim’s film as an open counter-archival space that confronts the closed official archive of the 1989 Invasion of Panama.

To this end, I manipulate the testimonies found in Invasión to further stress their function as a trace of a lost collective history. Audio from one survivor’s testimony is transposed unto the shot of another survivor’s account, highlighting the trauma shared by these survivors, trauma that although shared, largely goes unspoken. I also place multiple testimonies alongside each other to create a cacophony of voices, authorizing a heterogeneous conceptualization of the invasion. Lastly, Benaim’s reenactments are placed alongside footage of how they were realized onscreen to signal the fiction inherent in any historiographical work. In Archive Fever, Jacques Derrida writes that “archivization produces as much as it records the event,” arguing that the technological substrate of the archive, its mode of recording, directly acts upon what is recorded (17). Following Derrida’s conceptualization of the relationship between archive and event, this video piece questions the link between history and historiography, and more broadly positions documentary film as a space of resistance wherein ossified official narratives can be reimagined.

- Nike Nivar Ortiz

Works Cited

Derrida, Jacques. Cinders. Trans. Ned Lukacher. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014.

Several recent documentaries have confronted the lack of “documents” related to traumatic events: Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2013) and Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture (Cambodia, 2013) are particular landmarks in using film to fill in these gaps. In this hemisphere, the importance of having a cinematic document to preserve memory has been best examined through Patricio Guzman’s paired films: where the monumental The Battle of Chile (1977-79) documented the horrific fall of the Allende government as it happened, the even more interesting Chile, Obstinate Memory (1997) documented the first film’s return as it confronts its subjects, Chileans, who had no knowledge of the historia that had transpired, having been erased by the Pinochet regime.

Benaim’s film clearly works within this tradition, and Nike Nivar Ortiz’s essay brings welcome attention to both the events of La Invasión and to Benaim’s attempts to preserve its memory -– but the essay further highlights the alternative space that Benaim’s film must occupy. Nivar Ortiz emphasizes the artifice used in the film that must serve as the index for the missing Panamanian perspective by further manipulating Benaim’s images -– speeding up and slowing down action in one scene; and in another providing simultaneous perspectives through splitting the screen, first to show a controlled house fire and then providing the oral narrative of an uncontrolled fire during La Invasión.

For me, one of the most exciting aspects of this video essay is about how it plays with aspects of the English and Spanish language. English can be said to be the dominant mode in both cinema in general and film studies in particular. Nivar Ortiz confronts the uneasy relationship between English and Spanish early in the essay: how does history turn into historia, and vice versa? The trope here is beautiful. For one, the latter Spanish word has the dual translation of “history” and “story,” demonstrating how both concepts can be conflated in ways that Abner Benaim’s film makes clear. Such slippage between the two languages emphasizes that the very incident the film confronts has different terms: “Operation Just Cause” is simply not the same experience as “La invasion.” Here, Nivar Ortiz’s use of on-screen text over the images places them (perhaps for the first time) together, making the “ashes (cenizas)” of this newly filmed material (that must stand in for the missing perspective) confront the official (American, English-language) record of this event. The end of the voice-over quotes Derrida in French and then translates that material into English –- but Nivar Ortiz’s untranslated last line (porque donde hubo fuego, cenizas quedan) over a black screen forces the viewer into the previously unprivileged position of the Panamanian version of events. The subsequent cacophonous chorus of the split screen narratives bursting forth demonstrates the necessity of Benaim’s film as an important part of this tradition of documenting historias.

The videographic essay under consideration, Nike Nivar Ortiz's rendering of Abner Benaim's film La Invasion, in many ways highlights the theoretical issues surrounding the call for historical analysis in the medium of film, in particular the issue of reenactment. The original film, composed entirely of reenactments and the spoken memories of witnesses, is dedicated to the recovery of memory of a past invasion whose contemporary documentation was suppressed by the US Government, an event that is now disappearing from memory as well. The uncontested U.S. narrative of the invasion, which was constructed for public consumption as "Operation Just Cause," has heretofore served as the sole narrative of the incursion by the US military in 1989. The invasion has, in effect, been cast into near oblivion, seldom discussed, not taught in schools, and not given narrative or pictorial expression. With eye-witness memory now fading as well, the violence and destruction of the invasion has been covered over by layers of time, like leaves falling from trees in the autumn, as one interlocutor poetically describes it.

Paul Ricouer writes that reenactment is not the reliving of the past, but a rethinking: “re-enacting does not consist in re-living but in rethinking, and rethinking already contains the critical moment that forces us to take the detour by way of the historical imagination." Nike Nivar Ortiz's reaccenting of the film La Invasion illustrates, in my view, the productive "detour" of the historical imagination that Ricouer describes. A poetic meditation on the loss of history, of memory, and of the evanescence of events, the essay is an accomplished formal consideration of difficult themes, set forth through repetition, poetic monologue, and the highlighting of certain details of mise en scene. What emerges is a film dedicated not so much to the recovery and preservation of memory, but rather an exploration of the dissolution of historical memory, the fading from view not only of the past event, but of the emotional meaning of the event as well. The past seems to disappear almost under the camera's gaze.

Certain visual devices stand out for me -- the way the filmmaker isolates the last body bag to be painstakingly loaded onto a truck, fading and blurring the background in order to highlight the body bag, and then illuminating it with a soft glowing light. This motif is also employed in the street scene where we see a dozen bodies lying as if they were dead, until one body is isolated and given a spectral glow. Also, I responded powerfully to the repetition of the gesture of a man smoking as he seems to repeat a poetic refrain. Throughout the videographic essay, the musical accompaniment works well, it is sad and lovely. In these moments in particular, a kind of dream imagery emerges that gives the essay a surprising affective power.