Melina Tupa explores Panamanian history in upcoming documentary series
Melina Tupa is a seasoned producer, with a true passion for documentaries. This love for the impactful genre was born when she watched the classic film Hoop Dreams, a story about two underprivileged African American teenagers from Chicago who had hopes of having a career in the NBA and helping their families out, and Tupa was instantly moved. As a trained journalist, she realized in that moment she too wanted to create pieces such as that, finding characters who are usually underrepresented in films, interviewing them, getting to know their lives and accurately telling their stories in a beautiful and cinematic way. Starting off her career as a journalist, she uses those techniques she learned in the field to accurately and fairly tell stories to the world that need to be shared.
“I realized that having journalism skills, as well as film training, I could create very powerful stories for the big screen. I see documentaries as a way of producing meaningful journalism. We use the same techniques a print or radio journalist would use: we investigate the story, nurture sources, interview them, and we make sure their stories are told accurately and effectively. But I realized that in the making of documentaries we had other key elements that help tell the story: beautifully shot images, scenes, music and cinematic techniques that enhanced every story to the next level,” says Tupa.
Originally from São Paulo, Brazil, Tupa has travelled the world doing what she does best, making powerful films. Her work on productions such as Trafficked in America, The Search and Harvest Season have garnered positive reviews from fans and critics alike, and she still has a lot to deliver. Audiences everywhere can look forward to one of her newest projects, Miss Panama, which is set to be available for streaming later this year.
In 1980, Gloria Karamañites became the first Black woman to be named Miss Panama. After her victory, pageant officials maneuvered to deny her the crown by demanding that she answer an additional obscure legal question. In 2017, Erika Parker became the most recent Black woman to win the title of Miss Panama. Hours before the end of her reign, officials announced that they were taking away her crown due to an unspecified "breach of contract". Miss Panama is a series of short documentaries exploring each woman's experience navigating racism and the actions that were taken by the Afro-Panamanian community to rally around the Queens and defend their efforts to represent the country. Through their stories, larger issues of race, national identity and the ripple effects of US imperialism come into view. Featuring a vibrant collage of archival, verité and personal testimony the series asks: Who gets to represent a nation?
“I wanted to work on this project because I wanted to learn more about Panamanian history, the disparities and racial tensions that the country faces, which sometimes mirrors the ones we have in the United States,” says Tupa. “Beyond the racist incidents depicted in the story, Miss Panama is also an examination of how Black communities support and defend each other and this pattern that transcends national boundaries.”
It was fundamental that the producer and editor of this documentary series was Spanish-speaking and Latin-American to have cultural competence on the subject matter. Born in Brazil and raised in Argentina, Tupa’s first language is Spanish, and she has a deep understanding of Latin-American culture.
“I liked that I had the opportunity to explore a very important matter such as racial tension and disparity in a country and that through this documentary series I could show this with very concrete examples. I was able to be extremely creative through the post-production phase,” says Tupa.
Tupa worked closely with Directors David Felix Sutcliffe, Lamar Bailey Karamañites and Pascale Boucicaut to get the story perfect for how they wanted it depicted on screen. They started by conducting extensive research on Panamanian history, Afro-culture in Panama, and the relationship between the US and Panama. Afterwards, they delved into the personal stories of Gloria Karamañites and Erika Parker who suffered first hand discrimination in the Miss Panama contest. Tupa’s many years of experience as a journalist was key in these stages, making sure to tell the stories in a detailed and accurate way.
Tupa ended up constructing the story for four episodes of the upcoming series, building them from the ground up. She made sure they had all the material that was needed for the episodes and found the most important parts of these women’s interviews as well as finding archival footage and photographs to illustrate the story.
“I like that the documentary series ended up being both super entertaining as well as informative of the racial disparities Panama has dealt with for years. It also explored the incidence of the United States in Panama since the Canal was built, as well as the US invasion in 1989. I believe it is important to revisit history to analyze it and not repeat the same mistakes over and over again,” she says.
Be on the watch for Miss Panama when it is released digitally later this year.