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Logan Square Documentarians Hike Ancient, Unmapped Trail in Panama

By Mina Bloom | December 29, 2014 6:54am | Updated on December 29, 2014 9:53am
  In May, Logan Square roommates Emily Kinskey and Anica Wu hiked an unmapped footpath in western Panama to film a documentary on the indigenous people who travel the trail.
Logan Square Filmmakers
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LOGAN SQUARE — In early 2012, Emily Kinskey was staying in a remote area of Panama called Boquete when her electricity went out.

The generator was out of gas and getting more proved to be a problem.

That's because hundreds of indigenous people were standing in the middle of the Pan-American highway, blocking access to the only road in and out of the west side of the country.

Members of the Ngäbe-Buglé tribe were protesting the threat of mining expansion, which they had been doing on and off for years.

For Kinskey, one question remained: How did they all get there?

That question, among others, led Kinskey to partner with her longtime Logan Square roommate and filmmaker Anica Wu, 27, to film the independent documentary "So Close to the Sky."

 Filmmakers Anicu Wu (from l.) and Emily Kinskey have been friends for a decade. They teamed up to film the documentary "So Close to the Sky" about the indigenous people who travel an unmapped trail in western Panama.
Filmmakers Anicu Wu (from l.) and Emily Kinskey have been friends for a decade. They teamed up to film the documentary "So Close to the Sky" about the indigenous people who travel an unmapped trail in western Panama.
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"You look at a map and there's a huge swath of wilderness in between the big mountain town and the big ocean on either side," said Kinskey, 28, who was doing marketing for Amble Resorts at the time.

"You just have no idea what's there," she said.

In between work-related tasks like blogging, taking photos of the island and training staff, Kinskey made it her mission to find out how the tribe members seemed to appear out of nowhere.

She embarked on a "late-night research binge," digging through a book published in 1911 called "A Study of Chiriquian Antiquities" by George Grant MacCurdy that references texts written in the 1500s about voyages to western Panama.

What she found is that tribe members and rural farmers have been traveling through an unmapped footpath between the Caribbean and Pacific oceans long before Spanish explorers discovered the trail in the early 1500s.

"There is essentially no compiled history of these people, so finding a description of how they were in the 1500s was a huge breakthrough for me, and the trail was part of that," Kinskey said.

Today, more than 150,000 tribe members and rural farmers travel this route.

In May 2014, Kinskey and Wu flew to western Panama with camera equipment in tow to document the lives of those who travel the trail.

Of course, that meant having to hike the trail themselves, which was no small task, Kinskey said. In fact, she hadn't talked to anyone in Panama who had hiked the trail aside from those in the indigenous tribe.

After searching for a guide for a couple months, Wu and Kinskey eventually found one who led them on an eight-day hike, up and down 11,000 feet, where they hiked an average of eight hours per day — sometimes all uphill — through dense virgin jungle and rainforest.

Along the way, they stayed with local families who shared conversations and meals with them.

Wu, a documentary filmmaker and producer for Coin Operated Films, called the hike "the hardest thing she's ever done."

She said there were a lot of times when she doubted she could get through it, but recalls a moment at the end of the journey that put it into perspective. 

"A cowboy there was like 'I can't believe you two American girls would come here and walk this trail, this trail that I used to walk when I was a little child. I feel so lucky to have met you guys,'" Wu said. "I started crying because that brought everything together."

When they set out to film the documentary, Kinskey said they wanted to make a short film about the indigenous people they met, "about a side of Panama [they] didn't know existed."

Soon, they realized that they had a "much bigger story" to tell, so they decided to make the film feature length.

"Hundreds of years of history is all coming to a crossroads right now," Kinskey said. "With the people we were meeting, the last 10 years of their lives, everything has been upended. Our guide grew up with no electricity and now he's an entrepreneur and fluent in English. We just realized that in another 10 years, it's not going to be like the country we walked across."

The generational gap is strong there, said Kinskey, who recalls talking to a Ngäbe-Buglé teenager who told them that he taught himself to speak Spanish, and does not speak the native tribal language. 

"He was so proud to say 'no' that it hurt," Kinskey said. "We were just talking to his grandma and his mom, who were so proud to be cooking over a fire the way they always had."

It quickly became apparent that the trail meant so much to the indigenous people they met, that it held so many memories for them and their ancestors, Wu said.

Underneath the tribe's territory, known as their commarca, is the biggest deposit of copper in Panama, and arguably all of Central America. 

When the government threatened to mine their homeland for copper, gold and other minerals, tribe members responded by protesting in the streets, which has led to injuries and deaths.

In the teaser trailer, which they released in late September, one tribe member says, "We need our forests, our style. We don't need nice houses." 

But the government has stopped threatening to mine their native land for now, Kinskey said, adding that the documentary will not have a "doomsday" feel.

"We didn't want to go into one little village and create that lost tribe in the jungle film that's been done so many times," Kinskey said. "It's not like it's the indigenous people and everyone else. They're one big nation."

Kinskey and Wu are flying back to Panama in January to continue filming. This time, they'll focus on families and capture their in-depth stories with cameras that will allow for steadier shots.

Once they've gotten all of the footage they need, they'll focus on grant writing to fund the film and distribution. They're no strangers to independent documentary filmmaking. Their first film, "Tete on the Line," is in its final stages of production.

They're hoping to premiere a working version of "So Close to the Sky" at workshops and festivals in late 2015. And how do they hope people will react?

"If everyone who saw it got off a plane and thought about the destination a little bit differently, and thought about what isn't told to you in your guidebook ..." Kinskey said. "If we ever got comments like: It made me think this way about my own land, or another land I visited. That would be an ideal outcome."

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