The visually dramatic images he captures in Beauty of the Fight make it obvious documentary filmmaker John Urbano is a better photographer than storyteller, but, there’s no denying the sincere and spirited words spoken by his subjects.
For Fight, Urbano spent four emotionally demanding years filming the citizens of Barraza and El Chorrillo, two Panamanian neighborhoods nearly destroyed during Operation Just Cause, a U.S. military invasion that took place nearly 20 years ago. Then-President George H.W. Bush sent 24,000 troops into Panama to remove dictator Manuel Noriega from power and to “protect the integrity of the Panama Canal Treaty.”
The exact number of Panamanian causalities is still disputed, but the aftermath of the attack, which continues to affect the people of Barraza and El Chorrillo today, is unquestionable. Since the U.S. invasion in December 1989, the neighborhoods — now riddled with gangs, crime, and poverty — have never been the same.
Urbano visits these impoverished communities, he says, because “no one had ever really stopped to listen to these people.” Through picturesque interviews, Urbano gets some of them to recount the day they witnessed bombs falling from the sky. Others talk about their fear of the senseless murders occurring every day in Panama. In one of the film’s most striking moments, Urbano hits the documentarian jackpot by landing a phone interview with Noriega himself from his prison cell.
Between the footage of boxer Roinet “Moose” Caballero training for his next bout at the local gym to the cock fights (filmed in slow motion) that serve as the people’s primary entertainment, Urbano manipulates the film’s metaphors a bit too obviously and ends up unnecessarily spelling out his intended message.
Still, there’s something deeply affecting about staring at pristine shots of the neighborhoods’ fragile wooden homes and listening to old men talk about lost traditions, because, if it weren’t for Urbano, these oral histories, like the people of Panama, might too have been forgotten.