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IFF Panama: Central America, Caribbean Display Talent, Energy, Breadth

Centerpiece Panama Fest section underscores quality of top-notch filmmaking from region

Welcome to the New Guatemalan Cinema, plus two exceptional actresses still at the height of their powers – Geraldine Chaplin, Cuba’s Alina Rodriguez – little known new talents – El Salvador’s Arturo Menendez, Costa Rica’s Patricia Velazquez, Dominican Guillermo Zouain.

Though only 10 titles, the Intl. Film Festival of Panama’s main Central American-Caribbean section packs large breadth, multiple riches and discoveries: Half are either world premieres – Velazquez’s “Two Waters,”; Panama’s “Box 25,” directed by Delfina Vidal and Mercedes Arias; Guatemalan Cesar Diez’s “Liberated Territory” – or at least Latin American preems: Zouain’s “On the Road, Somewhere” and “The Greatest House in the World,” from Ana Bojórquez and Lucía Carreras.

Rounding up the Central American-Caribbean section is “Naked Screen,” the latest from Nicaragua-based French director-actress Florence Jaguay (“La Yuma”). Playing out of section, two more Central American titles receive in Special Screenings: “Maikol Yordon,” Costa Rica’s first blockbuster; and five-part “Historias del Canal,” from five Panama-based directors, which uses story to tell history, here the human impact of the Panama Canal.

Three films from Guatemalan directors play in section: “Liberated Territory” weighs in as a very personal docu-feature by Cesar Diaz, chronicling his attempt to discover the identity of his biological father, whom his mother always claimed was a freedom fighter. The truth is somewhat more bathetic, though not without a social resonance.

“The Greatest House” was a 2015 Berlin Generation Kplus entry. Also screening in section, Jayro Bustamante’s triumphant “Ixcanul,” which won Berlinale’s Silver Bear Alfred Bauer Prize, then topped Guadalajara and Cartagena, Mexico and Colombia’s biggest fests respectively. Two more titles – “Wounded Man,” from Guatemalan-Mexican Julio Hernandez Cordon, and Sergio Ramirez “1991” – compete at the Panama Fest’s Primera Mirada pix-in-post competish.

Filmmakers, fest heads and journalists are beginning to talk about a New Guatemalan Cinema. Why it has come into being, without any Guatemalan state support at all, is another question.

“Guatemala has been a country of creators from Mayan times, citing writers such as Miguel Angel Asturias, and artists like Carlos Merida, and it is a small country with a lot of problems which are channeled into artistic expression.

For Bustamante, that need for expression is now an urgent.

“For a young generation of filmmakers that experienced Guatemala’s civil war in their childhood, there’s an urgent need to tackle subjects which were hidden from us, or which we were banned from talking about. Cinema is our way of lighting up our country.”

“Ixcanul” could be a case in point. Set in the extraordinary Guatemalan highlands of Bustamante’s childhood. It turns on María, a 17-year-old Mayan girl who is left pregnant by a fickle boyfriend. It’s when Maria is rushed to hospital, and finally makes contact with the modern world she dreamt so much about, that “Ixcanul” delivers its sucker punch about what Bustamante calls one driving theme of “Ixcanul”: The “impossibility of an underage woman, who is Mayan and lives far from a big city, to determine her own destiny.”

For Pilar Peredo, producer of “Ixcanul” and also “Liberated Territory,” the fact “there’s these days a group of young filmmakers making quality cinema with a worldwide reach” is also due to “a large solidarity between colleagues, who make a low-cost cinema without forgetting about its quality.

“Liberated Territory,” from Cesar Díaz, was co-produced by Bustamante and Hernandez. Diaz in turn edited “Ixcanul” and “1991.”

That solidarity extends abroad. Mexico’s Interior XIII produced “Wounded Man” with Hernandez; Edgard Tenembaum’s Paris-based Tu Vas Voir (“The Motorcycle Diaries”) co-produced “Ixcanul”; Mexican Lucia Carreras, co-scribe on Michael Rowe’s Cannes Camera d’Or winner “Leap Year,” co-wrote “The Greatest House,” an indigenous children’s fable, turning on a young girl forced to tend her family’s herd.

Mixing fiction and a sense of documentary, “The Greatest House” draws on the Latin American tradition of hybrids, film that explore the borderlands between fiction and documentary. “The visual proposal, direction, is purely directed at adults. But the young protagonist, “the delight of the setting,” and storyline allow children to connect as well, Bojorquez told Terra.com. So “House’s” extended opening shots of Guatemala’s mist-shrouded highlands have the atmosphere of both fairy tale fable, while documenting the country’s stunning mountainscapes.

“Festivals have become integral meeting points for filmmakers, fostering community building and disseminating film knowledge,” said Sanchez.

“A good example of this is the exploration of the hybrid in Latin American cinema, which has largely emerged in a film festival context,” said Sanchez.

“Pedro Gonzalez Rubio (‘Alamar’) and Oscar Ruiz Navia (‘Crab Trap,’ ‘Los Hongos’) both cite Lisandro Alonso’s work, among others, as inspiration for the confidence to explore the hybrid. With the current state of distribution, today’s Latin American filmmakers are learning about the cinema in the region by attending film festivals.”

Beyond Guatemala, one highlight, indeed a highlight of the whole 2015 Festival look set to be lesbian drama “Sand Dollars,” the FiGa Films-sold fourth feature from Dominican Republic-based scribe-helmer tandem Israel Cardenas and Laura Amelia Guzman (“Cochochi,” “Juan Gentil,” “Carmita”). Geraldine Chaplin “riveting,” per Jay Weissberg’s Variety review, as a much older woman heads over heels in love with a 20-year-old girl, Noeli, whose company she pays to enjoy. A Toronto Fest breakout, “Sand Dollars” has also begun to chalk up sales, with Tucuman Films taking Brazil and now France.

“Sand Dollars was born from our wish to portray a world full of contradictions,” according to its directors. “Contradictions that go from parties and vacations, to love, betrayal, pleasure, morality and loneliness.” And it is all the more mature a film for that.

Chaplin will present “Sand Dollars” in person at Panama; Rodriguez, one of Cuba’s finest actresses (“Waiting List,” “Alice in Wondertown”), will also attend the Panama Fest to present “Behaviour” (“Conducta”), Cuba’s 2015 Oscar entry, a hometurf hit, and third feature from Cuba’s Ernesto Daranas (“Fallen Gods,”“¿La vida en rosa?”). A vision of the clash between old and new Cubas, it stars Alina Rodriguez as a spirited 70-year-old teacher fighting bureaucracy to keep a student from a broken-home out of correctional school.

”Behaviour” won best film at 2014’s Bogota and Havana Festivals; Rodriguez took best actress at the New York Havana Film Fest, the Puerto Rico Fine Arts Film Fest and the major Latin American Territory sidebar at Malaga, where it also scooped director, the audience award and best film. A fest fave, “Behaviour” has also seen some sales traction for Latido Films, its Madrid-based sales agent, closing eight territories, including Germany (Kairos Filmverleih) and Spain (Dreams Factory Europea).

World preeming at March’s Miami Festival, Zouian’s “On the Road, Somewhere” (“En un lugar”) sets three high-school friends’ summer road trip across the Dominican Republic within a wider journey: Their prescient passage into looming adulthood and separation. Zouain studied at Barcelona’s ESCAC, like Juan Antonio Bayona (“The Impossible”) and Kike Maillo (“Eva”). It shows. Few next shots are alike, in length, set-up cinematography and length, which “On the Road” strives for high craft values – “Sand Dollars” Cardenas worked as editor – making this one of the section’s most audience-friendly titles.

An IFF Panama world premiere, Costa Rican Patricia Velazquez’s lyrical tale “Two Waters” turns on two 12-year-old kids on Costa Rica’s stunning but dirt-poor and drug-trade-infested Caribbean coast. One dreams of becoming a soccer star; his brother is prepared to do anything to make his dreams come true. Seen in rough-cut at Miami Fest’s Encuentros last year, “‘Two Waters’ presents, subtly, almost as a subtext, the reality of a people hit by a political and social context, still affected by the vestiges of a racist society,” Velazquez said.

She added: “It reflects the strong people of the Caribbean, who learn early on to survive among snakes and unending rain, but who is happy, untiring because they have the privilege to live n one of the most beautiful places in the world. ”

Hitting IFF Panama with good word of mouth, , “The Crow’s Nest” (“Malacrianza”) from El Salvador’s Arturo Menendez, turns of a humble salesman, who sells piñatas – papier maché toy-filed containers, who is harassed by an extortionist. He fights back. Disastrously. Based on true events, and a portrait of everyday violence in El Salvador, “The Crows’ Nest” is backed by Itaca Films, a major part of Alex Garcia’s AG Studios U.S.-Latin America production powerhouse. Meridian, Canada’s Sivela Pictures and Unos Cuantos Perros co-produce. Set in a context of daily violence and extortion in El Salvador – though director Menendez insisted to BBC Worldwide that there is more to the film than this – “The Crow’s Nest” is shaping up as one of the IFF Panama’s finds, and proof that talent can come from any part of Central America – though it remains a huge challenge to make films in El Salvador.

Stories from Central America and the Caribbean also features “Naked Screen,” from Nicaragua, and Panamanian documentary “Box 25.”

The latest from Nicaragua-based French director-actress Florence Jaugey, who won a Berlin Silver Bear best short award for “Cinema Alcázar” in 1998, and is celebrated for 2009’s “La Yuma,” about a girl boxer, “Screen” taps into the contemporary zeitgeist with what is described as a portrait of modern-day intimacy turning on two 20-year-olds cell-phone recorded sex. When the cell phone is stolen, the video goes viral.

Another world premiere, “Box 25” (“Caja 25”), from Panama’s Delfina Vidal and Mercedes Arias, based on letters of laborers who built the Canal, written when they were old men, 50 years later, and now read by their grand or great-grandchildren. They describe the brutal work conditions, disease, discrimination, the workers’ dreams.

The letter readings “transmits a desire to preserve memory for future generations,” said “Box 25” co-director Delfina Vidal.

“Box 25” joins three other Panamanian films at the fourth IFF Panama: Fiction feature “Panama Canal Stories,” docu “Heroe Transparente” and, in pix-in-post showcase Primera Mirada, comedy “Kenke.”

A history of the human impact and toll of the Canal, “Panama Canal Stories,” the biggest collective achievement of Panama’s film industry to date, is told in five affecting fiction episodes by five of Panama-based directors: “1913,” by Carolina Borrero and “1950,” by Pinky Mon. Luis Bentley Brantley helms “1964,” Abner Benaim “1977,” and Pituka Ortega Heilbron “2013.”

Orgun Wagua’s fifty-minute docu “Heroe Transparente” records modern artists’ and writers’ attempts to portray Panamanian history.  An adolescent angst comedy, “Kenke” delights in its portrayal of contemporary stock types: The couch potato father, the censorious aunt.

Like “Invasion” and Annie Caravaggio’s “Breaking the Wave,” the two standout Panamanian movies at 2014’s Panama Fest, “Box 25” and omnibus “Panama Canal Stories,” and “Heroe Transparente” show a drive to get Panama, su historia and historias – its history and stories – up onto the big screen – and onto TV grids – in films which, however, will not alienate audiences. Films turning on the great Panamanian icon – the Panama Canal – may have international appeal.

As Panama ramps up its output, that drive looks like one of its young national cinema’s defining characteristics.

 

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