IFF Panama: Opening the World’s Eyes to Central America

Festival consolidates its position as a regional leader

IFF Panama: Opening the World’s Eyes

PANAMA – Panama and Panamanians can stand proud. Not only did it and they host the historic Summit of the Americas, but in just its fourth edition the IFF Panama has consolidated itself as an important and influential gathering of Central American and Caribbean filmmakers who shared the screen and the streets of Panama City’s Casco Viejo, its old quarter, with international filmmakers, artists and industry executives. Panamanians also turned out in record numbers to fill screenings and support other festival activities, including some very active and lively post screening Q&As, workshops and master classes.

“Panamanian audiences reacted positively to the festival and came out to celebrate cinema. I thank them,” says IFF Panama executive director Pituka Ortega Heilbron, who has masterminded the 4-year-old event along with its artistic director, Diana Sanchez.

The fact the festival coincided with the Summit of the Americas was in the end seen as a positive. Other than the added pre-festival stress it brought to both the organziers and their teams, it did in the end create more interest in both Panama and the festival, and many of the international media in town for the summit filed festival-related stories.

Both Ortega Heilbron and Sanchez still regard the festival as a work in progress and say they are committed to keeping the friendly festival to a manageable size and length (just seven days) within the existing infrastructure of Panama City and the Casco Viejo.

“When we reach a point of perfection with the existing festival structure, then we can consider growing,” says Ortega Heilbron. “For now we wish to consolidate our position and build as a catalyst and a hub for the cinema of the region.”

Over seven days of glorious weather, IFF Panama screened a total of 73 films from 33 countries including the world premieres of Panama’s own “Caja 25,” directed by Mercedes Arias and Delfina Vidal, a film that picked up two of the festival’s prestigious audience awards; “Dos Aguas” from Costa Rica’s Patricia Velasquez; and “Territorio Liberado” from Guatemalan director César Díaz.

The festival also screened works from across Latin America, as well as a selection of international documentaries and features, including those suitable for younger audiences. There was as well a retrospective of the work of the Brazilian director Karim Ainouz, a man who quickly became a firm favorite with Panamanian audiences for the way he handled the Q&As and talked about his films.

As well as Ainouz, guests of the festival included actors, writers and filmmakers including Guillermo Arriaga, Candela Peña, Alec Whaite, Juanfer Andrés, Esteban Roel, Salvador del Solar, Alina Rodriguez, Álvaro Augustin, Elena Manrique, Renato Falcao, Mario Chacon and Geraldine Chaplin. There was also a solid turnout from industry executives, both regional and international, and the artist Michel Chevalier, who had installed the art installation at the city’s historic National Theater.

According to Sanchez, the guests can be every bit as important to the success of a festival as their films. “Guests must be curated as much as the films,” she laughs. “It was very cool to see all the filmmakers from the different countries dancing together at the boat party. A chance to let their hair down. It was a joyful moment.’

As a young festival, the organizers were to be congratulated on taking the risk of programming comedies amongst more typical, festival arthouse fare, films that played well to both festival audiences and the guests. Most notable were the Spanish comedies “Spanish Affair” and “Sidetracked,” and the Costa Rican box office phenomenon “Maikol Yordan,” which had its international premiere during the festival.

The impact of the festival with Panamanian audiences and the media was reflected in the choice of the closing night film, “Whiplash,” with 20th Century Fox Central America using the festival as the launch platform for the commercial release of the film in Panama and Costa Rica. That recognition, and the attendance of senior studio executives from the region, can only be positive for the further development of the festival.

Renato d’Angelo, general manager of 20th Century Fox Central America, told the closing night audience that he hoped “Whiplash” would be the first of many films the company could support at the festival in future years.

Introduced very successfully to the festival this year was a work-in-progress section, Primera Mirada, that had picked five films from 55 submitted from Central America and the Caribbean to be looked at in more detail. “Te prometo anarquía” by Guatemalan-Mexican film-maker Julio Hernández-Cordón was awarded a cash prize of $20,000, with a special mention and a $5,000 cash prize given to the film “The Sound of Things” by Costa Rican director Ariel Escalante.

The section was curated by artistic director Sanchez, who says she hopes that she will see the films of Primera Mirada back at the festival in their completed form. She also stressed that she wants the festival to continue to be a shop window of quality, but a festival primarily for the public of Panama City and beyond, the people that support the festival by watching the films. That includes the more than 5,000 who turned up for the free outdoor screenings.

Certainly all the senior government officials speaking at the closing of the festival spoke warmly about what the festival had achieved in just four years, an important vote of confidence given that the main financial support for the festival comes from the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, the Ministry of Tourism, DICINE, and the Mayor’s office. This has also been a transitional period for the Panamanian government, so the public expression of support for the festival can only be a very positive step for the consolidation of the event.

During the festival’s closing ceremony the Panamanian public appropriately had the last word and rewarded the best festival movies in three different categories. The Copa Airlines Award for best Iberoamerican film went to Venezuelan director Claudia Pinto’s “The Longest Distance” (“La Distancia Mas Larga”); while the MasterCard Award for the best film from Central America and the Caribbean and the Revista K Award for best documentary were both presented to Delfina Vidal and Mercedes Arias’ Panamanian documentary “Box 25” (“Caja 25”), which had its world premiere during the festival. The directors dedicated their prize to the people who had built the Panama Canal and whose letters are the soul of their documentary.

“Box 25” tells the story of the long and tense relationship between Panama and the U.S. and focuses on the letters that were written by the men who built the Panama Canal. The letters reveal and describe the brutal working conditions, the disease and discrimination, as well as the writers’ dreams and own stories.

“Our intention was to make a documentary film about men fighting against the odds, men measuring their forces with nature,” explain the Panamanian filmmakers. “Where men discover their reasons to confront death on a daily basis until reaching a point of view that is indifference. The documentary tries to rescue the historical memory of the building of the canal through the testimony of men of different races who came from all over world, from different cultures, many of them leaving their families behind to look for a better life.”

Claudia Pinto’s “The Longest Distance” is an ensemble drama that follows members of two very different Venezuelan families as they set out on journeys riddled with unexpected encounters.

With a fourth very successful festival behind them, Ortega Heilbron and Sanchez, along with Yasser Williams Arosemena, president of the IFF Panama Foundation, can now start planning for the fifth festival in 2016. Appropriately the Casco Veijo will remain at the heart of the festival,mwith screenings in the historic National and Anita Villalaz theaters.

There are many similarities between the festival and Panama City’s Casco Viejo old quarter. Both are a fascinating, charming and exciting work in progress. Both are already doing very well. The old and the new sit comfortably side-by-side. Some things are quirky, while some are funny. Some works are restored and some are cutting edge. And around every corner at IFF Panama or the Casco Viejo there is the opportunity to discover yet another delightful surprise.