I am writing from Panama where I am in pre-production for the first feature film made by and about the Kuna, an autonomous indigenous people who inhabit an archipelago of 365 islands along the Caribbean coast of Panama and Colombia.
On the islands, life is, what some might call traditional. Villagers fish in small handmade boats, harvest plantains and coconuts, and live in chozas (traditional houses). There are no cars, no roads, and less than a handful of communities use electricity.
These days, about a third of the total Kuna population lives in Panama city. There many choose to maintain their traditional dress, language, and general cultural practices. However, life in the city is not without its challenges: the Kuna population is amongst urban Panama’s poorest, and youth, in particular, find themselves with few economic opportunities.
Last winter, I held a digital storytelling workshop for a group of Kuna youth in Panama City. The workshop resulted in the production of a 20-minute video in which participants connected traditional Kuna mythology with stories from their lives in the city.
After witnessing the success of this within the community, I began organizing a larger project that has now taken the form of a year-long program in which students will produce a full length fiction film.
For me, the magic in this kind of work comes from the collaborative creative process that can arise across and within cultures around questions of representation.
Every day, the youth group gathers to write the screenplay. Each scene, character, or plot point is based on group members’ personal experiences. Amidst the lively discussions that surround each creative decision, I find myself witnessing a new potential for authorship. Because the story of a culture exists as much between individuals as within, we find that we are able to most effectively generate narrative elements as a group.
The result of these dialogues is a cultural representation that challenges an understanding of itself: A fictional work that is also a documentary.
In September, I started the process of asking permission from Kuna authorities to film on the islands. The Kuna are famous for asking tourists to put their cameras away, charging fees for photographs, and requiring anthropologists and journalists to seek official approval for their endeavors within the communities.
While many filmmakers see this as an impediment to their projects, I was excited to have the opportunity to work with a culture that wishes to have a say in the way in which it is represented across media. The meetings with the elder sailas (leaders) were quite rich. I appreciated hearing their view that the “cultural content” of a photograph belongs to the community in which it was taken and thus cannot be “sold” by the photographer. This is particularly meaningful when we consider that while the majority of Kuna people do not have access to a camera, few international visitors would consider taking a trip to an exotic island community without one. So this tension around access and cultural representation becomes a political issue.
I am happy to report that the project was approved enthusiastically by the sailas. And when we’re done, we’ll leave our film equipment behind for the community’s continued use.