IFF Panama: Building Central America, the Caribbean

Fest director Pituka Ortega Heilbron analyzes the event’s role as a regional driver

Box 25 Caja 25
Courtesy of IFF Panama

Running April 9-15, and now celebrating its fourth edition, the International Film Festival of Panama reps one of the world’s most quickly consolidating festivals in two of its nascent but fast-growing film regions: Central America and the Caribbean.

There’s a relationship. Launched in 2012, PIFF has a mission, in industry and international terms, to serve as a platform for Central America and the closer Caribbean countries, and as a driver for further growth, said Pituka Ortega Heilbron, IFF Panama director, who runs the festival with Diana Sanchez, the Toronto Fest programmer for Latin America, Spain and Portugal, serving as its artistic director.

That is an exciting mission. Boosted by multiplex construction, Central America box office was $94.8 million in 2012 and soared 13% in two years to $107.2 million in 2014, per Luis Vargas, Rentrak managing director for Mexico, Central America, Caribbean, Colombia and Venezuela.

Central America’s 2014 top 10 was packed out exclusively by Hollywood family and action fare, he added.

That said, over the last half-decade, governments in Panama and Dominican Republic, the region’s fastest-flourishing countries – at 7% in 2015, Panama will see higher GDP growth than any other country in Latin America, per United Nations stats – have latched onto the cultural and economic payoff from film incentives for both domestic and foreign movies,

In Panama, an April 2012 film law created a $3 million annual national film fund, and 15%-of-spend rebates for foreign productions shooting in Panama. From 2007 to 2012, Panama produced three national films; since 2012, 13 features – fiction and documentaries — have been made, said Gabriel Padilla, the Panama Film Commission’s international project manager.

Following a November 2010 108-110 film incentive law, the budget at the Dominican Republic’s main DGCine film fund skyrocketed from RD$91.7 million ($2.05 million) in 2012 to RD$583.7 million ($13.1 million) in 2014. Eight Dominican films were produced in 2012, 14 in 2013, 20 in 2014, vs. an average of two per year from 1988-2010, per Boni Guerrero at DGCine.

Central America’s film build should also be about audiences, Ortega Heilbron argued.

“The festival’s trying to find a way to create the conditions for our cinema to grow, for the cinema of the whole region to grow, and that Panamanians want to see Guatemalan films, Costa Rican films, Nicaraguan and Salvadorian films, and vice versa. This is what we aim for.”

She added: “First of all we have to let people know it the Central American – and Caribbean cinema — exists. I’ve been going to radio shows and television shows, and when I talk about Central American cinema, people are like: ‘Really?!’ And I say: ‘Yes, it’s great. It’s extraordinary.’”

Two titles, both playing Panama’s centerpiece Central America-Caribbean Competition, have already merited plaudits of that caliber: “Sand Dollars,” a Toronto Fest breakout from the Dominican Republic-based scribe-helmer tandem Israel Cardenas and Laura Amelia Guzman (“Cochochi,“ “Juan Gentil”) and “Ixcanul,” Guatemalan Jayro Bustamante’s feature debut that won the Silver Bear Alfred Bauer Prize at 2015’s Berlin Festival — effectively its third most important plaudit.

Geraldine Chaplin’s riveting performance adds depth to this remarkably sensitive, nonjudgmental portrait of an unequal lesbian relationship,” Variety’s Jay Weissberg wrote in his review. “A transporting, hypnotically beautiful debut feature,” added his colleague, Scott Foundas, of “Ixcanul.”

“’Ixcanul,’ ‘Sand Dollars’ and ‘The Greatest House in the World’ are extraordinary pieces. Then you have other beautiful films which will be a little bit more under the radar and could get lost in big festivals unless they get a lot of press,” Ortega Heilbron pointed out. At Panama, they can focus attention much more.

Talent can, indeed, come from any part of Central America. One buzz title in the fest’s main competition is Arturo Menendez’s “The Crow’s Nest”(“Malacrianza”), from El Salvador; another, this time in Primer Mirada, the fest’s first-time pix-in-post competish, is “The Sound of Things,” directed by Costa Rica’s Ariel Escalante. One young but distinguished festival guest this year is Gabriel Serra, who was nominated for a Documentary Short Academy Award for “The Reaper,” about a slaughterhouse worker. He hails from Nicaragua.

Screening five films from Guatemala helmers, 2015’s IFF Panama could put in a claim to be the first festival, with this year’s Berlinale, which also selected “The Greatest House,” to zero in on what is being called the New Guatemalan Cinema.

Carrying a $25,000 cash prize — substantial in a region where Aldo Rey Valdarrama’s social drama-come-road movie “Dream About the City” pulled down a $700,000 production grant from Panama’s Fondcine last year, but other features can be budgeted at $120,000 or less, thanks to multiple deferrals — Primera Mirada is PIFF’s major industry innovation this year.

Another “mission, and the one that started this festival,” said Ortega Heilbron, is to bring the best of cinema, from Ibero-America and beyond, to Panamanian audiences.

“When we started the festival in 2012, nobody gave two pennies for it. But the audiences just flocked to the theaters. Panamanians just love cinema,” she added.

Abner Benaim’s “Invasion,” a docu-feature about the 1988 U.S. invasion of Panama that went on to become Panama’s first-ever Oscar entry, world premiered at 2014’s PIFF to a reception worthy of a major fest preem. Pablo Trapero and Claire Denis were among attendees. The movie sparked a lively post-screening debate, with Benaim pressed on a range of questions. There was a sense that the film, the moment, was an urgent one and could not be missed.

In a second 2015 innovation, adding to Primera Mirada, the festival will extend to two outlying cinemas in Panama City.

This year’s Panama Fest unspools just two months after Berlin, whose Latin presence consisted of 21 features in major sections — read movies from Latin America, Spain and Portugal — outranking Asia (20) and North America (15). The PIFF’s two Ibero-American sections – a Panorama and a six-pic showcase of feature debuts – promise multiple riches.

Other sections take in Special Presentations, an International Showcase, Family Corner, Documentaries and a Karim Ainouz retrospective.

Challenges do remain. One huge one is distribution in Panama for movies showcased at the festival. Spaniard Javier Ruiz Caldera, whose “Three Many Weddings” won PIFF’s Copa Airlines Ibero-American Fiction Audience Award last year, did snag commercial distribution in Panama for his prior “Ghost Graduation” — in a development showing Panama’s multiplexes opening up a little to non-Hollywood fare. This year’s IFF Panama will host the Panamanian premiere of Costa Rica’s “Maikol Yordan — De Viaje Perdido,” the highest-grossing Costa Rican film of all time, with a $3.5 million cume from a Dec. 18 bow, per Rentrak.

Central America movies rarely score screens in multiplexes, however. The big question is whether the broad comedy can connect with Panamanian audiences as well.

A long-term PIFF mission, said Ortega Heilbron, is “to begin a new approach to distribution. If we can connect here, bringing our stories, our films, our productions, we can most probably create the strategies for our countries to start seeing our own stories.”

That will not happen over night, she recognized. But changes to date have been dramatic. “I was looking at films 10 years ago from region. I can’t believe how the cinema has come on in leaps in bounds from the region,” she enthused.



The IFF Panama kicks off Thursday with Emilio Martinez Lazaro’s romcom “Spanish Affair” (“Ocho Apellidos Vascos”), which romped to an extraordinary €55.2 million ($59.6 million) in Spain, becoming the highest-grossing Spanish film of all time. Just why: It’s a well-crafted film that touched a national nerve and received a huge marketing push from TV network Mediaset España, which co-produced via film arm Telecinco España. Other national film industries – in Argentina, for instance — have taken note.


“We wanted the festival to consolidate itself as a funky, warm, edgy event: Our guests are different; we’re not looking for the star thing but interesting guests, guests who are primarily passionate about cinema and about their role in the film industry,” said director Pituka Ortega Heilbron.

One is Ainouz, who receives a retrospective. Still experimenting in his films, he is a member of a broad generation of Brazilian filmmakers who broke through at the turn of the millennium to early last decade – think Fernando Meirelles, Marcelo Gomes, Sergio Machado, Cal Hamburger — which is now helping to forge Brazil’s film and often TV future.


A century ago, Charles Chaplin toplined 1914’s “Kid Auto Races in Venice,” the first film to feature his Little Tramp character. One hundred years later, Geraldine Chaplin, his daughter, turned in a storming performance in “Sand Dollars.” She will now be on hand in Panama to present both films.


The Mexican director (“The Burning Plain”) and screenwriter (“Babel,” “21 Grams”) will also be present to present faith-themed omnibus “Words With Gods,” with shorts by directors if the caliber of Hector Babenco, Bahman Ghobadi and indeed Arriaga himself.


Other guests: Cuban actress Alina Rodriguez, one of the most respected of Cuban actresses (“Waiting List,” “Alice in Wondertown”), will present “Behaviour.” Photographer Sebastiao Salgado and son Juliano Robeiro Salgado, subject and director of “The Salt of the Earth,” will also be in town, as will be Spain’s Candela Peña for “Sidetracked” and Esteban Roel and Juanfer Andrés to talk audiences through horror meller “Shrew’s Nest” and host an Acting For Film workshop.


New this year, the pics-in-post showcase with a weighty $25,000 cash prize, and five entries which, for the industry, builds IFF Panama’s fresh film heft: comedy “Kenke,” from Panama’s Enrique Perez Him, which lampoons double standards; Puerto Rico woman’s drama “Angelica,” directed by Marisol Gomez-Mouakad; Costa Rican Ariel Escalante’s “The Sound of Things,” a portrait of deep emotional grief; Sergio Ramirez’s “1991,” a troubled rites-of-passage drama; and Julio Hernandez Cordon’s Mexico City-set love story “Te Prometo Anarquia.” It’s a selection underscoring the high standards of filmmakers from the region.


Over a roster of sections featuring films from outside Central America/Caribbean, the Fourth Panama Festival will screen some of the most talked-about films hitting screens in the last 12 months. A baker’s dozen: docus “The Look of Silence” and “Beats of Antonov,” Mexico’s “Gueros,” “Magical Girl” and “Marshland,” both from Spain; Argentina’s “Jauja” and “The Third Bank of the River”; from Korea, “A Hard Day”; Irish animated feature “Song of the Sea”; Israeli drama “Gett, The Trial of Viviane Anselem”; Chile’s “Voiceover”; and Colombia’s “Los Hongos.”

The fourth IFF Panama closes Wednesday evening with “Whiplash.”