Cinéma du Réel 2022 review: Lago Gatún (Kevin Jerome Everson)

“Everson seems to question the limits of film: for a medium that depends on light, what can it do with darkness?”

Lago Gatún starts with a movement. From left and right darkness devours light, leaving only a sliver of light in the end, as if the screen in front of us was closing upon itself. The vertical line of light recalls Ólafur Eliasson’s “Contact”, an artwork that pondered the perception of space and that was used by Claire Denis in High Life to depict the paradoxically material and abstract concept of the black hole. In Lago Gatún this sliver of light enables another kind of journey through space-time, one that is not exploring the outer worlds but submerging itself in the depths of the Earth, in an archaeological dig to find the echoes of a colonial past that reverberate loud in the present.

Having worked extensively on the migration and labor of black communities in the United States, artist-filmmaker Kevin Jerome Everson now turns his camera to the Panama Canal. An enormous engineering project in which the American government used tens of thousands of workers from the Caribbean West Indies who were relocated to Panama, the canal employs two sets of canal locks at each end, one towards the Pacific Ocean and one towards the Atlantic Ocean, that allow the ships passing through to be lifted to the titular Gatún Lake, before being lowered again to sea level at the other end. The movement with which Lago Gatún starts, and that we repeatedly see throughout the film, is that of the canal locks closing, effectively barring the ocean from the lake.

Lago Gatún is composed of a set of such interconnected movements: the canal locks opening, the canal locks closing; the camera going upwards, the camera going downwards; a movement to submerge countered by a movement to reveal. When the camera goes upwards, we are able to stare at the industrial complex built in Panama, the materiality power is actually made of. A few images of men in helmets walking around make evident the unspoken: they are not the ones who built all of this; it was built by the thousands of bodies who are unheard and unseen, but nevertheless present through the shape their hands gave to these materials. This absence is further reinforced by the soundscape: the muffled voices that we hear are speaking in American-accented English, in a Spanish-speaking country with a history of migration from differently accented English speakers from the West Indies. The constant humming of a motor, an everlasting presence, mutes whatever other sound we might hear except for that of the water. There is no wildlife here, it was all displaced.

When the camera goes downwards, it feels like we’re pulled towards the depths of hell. The screen turns almost pitch-black. Movement is suggested by a few glimpses of reflections of light, but there is no clarity on what we are witnessing. Everson seems to question the limits of film: for a medium that depends on light, what can it do with darkness? These limits are also addressed through the composition of the film: it is made up almost entirely of footage from 16mm reels played for their whole duration — 10 minutes each. Another movement is presented: from the beginning to the end of each reel. Can film reveal in its ephemerality that which is hidden from its view at first sight?