Cinders of La Invasion

Curator's Note

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.