PANAMA CITY – Building on a milestone 3rd edition that saw audience support, quality industry presence and praise, public and plaudits for its two Panamanian world premieres, the Panama Intl. Film Festival (PIFF) will launch a Works in Progress showcase at its 2015 edition, festival director Pituka Ortega Heilbron announced at the end of this year’s event.

The pix-in-post competition forms part of the drive by Ortega, PIFF artistic director Diana Sanchez, the Toronto Fest programmer, and Panama Film Commissioner Arianne Benedetti – also general manager of a highly successful inaugural Meets co-production market – to turn Panama into a Central American movie hub and PIFF into the Central American film festival.

The first aim, just a few years back, would have seemed Quixotic, given the near total lack of a Central American film industry.

But governmental subsidies and tax breaks have fired up local industries in Panama and Costa Rica, plus Caribbean neighbors Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Cuba boasts an increasingly vibrant and international indie filmmaking scene.

“What’s happening in the region is quite extraordinary, and this week at the festival has been evidence of that,” Ortega said Thursday.

“There’s a reason for creating Works in Progress right now,” she added, suggesting eight Panamanian movies are currently in various stages of production.

“We believe there is not only an interest in Central American and Caribbean stories. It’s a cinema that has not been much out there, but there are extraordinary filmmakers coming out of this region and these countries have great stories to tell,” Ortega said.

Opening and closing nights were not only sold out but completely full. With a budget of $2.3 million, the Panama Festival enjoys support from Panama’s government and private-sector sponsorship: Panama’s Copa Airlines, Mastercard, and the American Trade Hotel.

“We want to be the Central American film festival, not because we think we’re great but because we have as a country we have that responsibility: This region needs the push and Panama can and should be the platform,” Ortega insisted.

“As a curator, you do want to find a niche and when you find a natural one, you have to go for it,” said Sanchez.

One strong reason for the international industry to attend the Panama Festival is to find the future films from Central America and the Caribbean.

Exact details of Panama’s Works in Progress are in development, Sanchez said.

PIFF will work with Cinergia, the Central America film fund launched over ten years ago and based out of San Jose, Central America, she added.

A key edition, Ortega said, the 3rd Panama Festival saw many of its events transferred to Panama City’s Casco Antiguo, its old quarter. Some of its parts, such as the American Trade Hotel that put up many festival guests, have been tastefully restored to their formal colonial glory. A promontory of higgledy-piggledy back streets, churches, squares, elegant restaurants and waterside boulevards, Panama’s old part is an example of urban restoration which gave festival guests an instant sense of Panama’s past, and one possible future if it is not overwhelmed by rampant modernization.

Another festival highlight, its two Panamanian docu-feature world premieres – Annie Canavaggio’s “Breaking the Wave” and Abner Benaim’s “Invasion” – also turned on contemporary Panama, its current state, challenges, and recent past.

History is normally told by its victors, but not in “Invasion.” Winner of the Mastercard Central America and Caribbean Audience Award and the Best Documentary Audience Award, “Invasion” narrates the U.S. 1989 invasion to oust General Manuel Noriega from the point-of-view of ordinary Panamanians.

Transfixing its local audience when it world premiered Sunday to a crowd which also included Claire Denis, who received a festival tribute, and Pablo Trapero, just about to be named president of Cannes Un Certain Regard, “Invasion” delivers telling anecdotes – including details of the incompetence and slaughter of women and children by the invaders –and captures the complexities of the past: Many Panamanians wanted Ortega out but opposed an invasion.

It also examines what appears to be near collective amnesia about exactly what happened. One example: Benaim receives no conclusive answer to such a simple question as how many Panamanians died in the invasion, a statistic which could embarrass the U.S. whose government presented the operation as a swift, clinical exercise in modern warfare.

Another Festival highlight was the Meets Latin American Co-Production Market.

Attended by 52 seemingly hand-picked producers, sales agents, distributors and festival programmers, Meets surprised by not only the quality of many projects but also the high caliber of its participants. The U.S. presence included talent agents William Choi at Management 360, UTA’s Charlie Ferraro and Keya Khayatian, Participant Media’s Erik Andreasen, Zero Gravity’s Tai Duncan, and “The Departed” producer Roy Lee.

The number of Meets projects will increase to 18 in 2015, five from Panama, three from Central America, 10 from the rest of Latin America, said Benedetti, also Meets general director.

Again, Central America and Latin America’s film industry at large justifies the build.

Having snagged commercial distribution in Panama for “Ghost Graduation” – in a development showing Panama’s multiplexes opening up to non Hollywood fare – Spaniard Javier Ruiz Caldera’s Venice player and Spanish B.O. hit “Three Many Weddings” won PIFF’s Copa Airlines Ibero-American Fiction Audience Award

The 4th Panama Intl. Film Festival will run April 9-15, 2015.