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IFF Panama: Central American and Caribbean Cinema on a Roll

Regional cinema displays energy, color and a sense of urgency

Zachrisson Poster

PANAMA CITY — The new subject matters, territories and cinematic forms revealed in recent films by filmmakers from Central America and the Caribbean have sparked major interest in film festivals around the world and are attracting an increasing number of spectators at the local box offices.

“2015 was amazing for Central American cinema,” says Argentinian producer Gema Juárez Allen, who co-produced 2014 Panamanian documentary “Invasion” directed by her husband Abner Benaim, and will be attending this year’s edition of IFF Panama with her latest film “Road to La Paz.”

“There are so many interesting voices appearing in the region. I know of three festivals that are planning Central American retrospectives. For example, Biarritz is going to do one. The region is finally breaking out and telling us that we have to support their local film industries.”

Festivals in the region, led by the IFF Panama, have played a vital role in this process, since they bring a major media spotlight to local filmmakers.

For example, Panama’s Primera Mirada pix-at-roughcut sidebar – exclusively dedicated to films from the region, and now in its second edition – has also stimulated the appearance of new voices, and serves to forge industry contacts that can be used to generate vital post-production finance.

The number of Panamanian films has mushroomed since IFF Panama was launched in 2012. This year the fest is screening an unprecedented seven new titles: “Salsipuedes”, “Drifting Away”, “El Cheque”, “The Route” and “Time to Love – A Backstage Tale,” plus “Sultan,” in the Primera Mirada rough-cut sidebar, and Abner Benaim’s documentary “Zachrisson.” Enrique Pérez Him’s “Kenke” will also screen in a special presentation.

“This year we have a much bigger Panamanian program,” explains the fest’s artistic director, Diana Sanchez. “The fest has become a real platform to launch these films to international audience, since we have guests from all around the world, including festival programmers and industry buyers. When we started four years ago, we had zero local premieres in our program. Now we have five.”

Sanchez explains that when the fest was launched in 2012, one of the key goals harbored by fest director Pituka Ortega Heilbron and herself was to nurture the nascent local industry and offer a new window for films from the region.

“We have become a launch pad for the extraordinary cinema that is emerging in the region, including in own country,” says Ortega Heilbron. “It’s time for Central American and Caribbean cinema to have its moment in its sun.”

She highlights the fact that given the lack of state support in many of countries, the region’s filmmakers need a lot of grit and guts to get their projects going, making it almost an “obligation” to create a showcase for their films.

“It’s a very exciting time, a bit like the situation in Asian cinema a few years ago,” she suggests. “Film is a form of expression and of protest. It’s such a powerful medium. When a population is presented on the screen, it suddenly exists.”

IFF Panama has forged links with sister festivals and initiatives in the region, such as the Costa Rica International Film Festival, the Encuentros Cinergia in Costa Rica, and Guatemala’s Icaro Film Festival.

Sanchez believes that these events play a particularly important role, not only as showcases, but as educational forums, given that there is no established film school in the region.

She cites the example of this year’s four-day documentary workshop at IFF Panama with Chilean documentary filmmaker Patricio Guzmán.

Notwithstanding the current scandal associated to the massive leak of documents from Mossack Fonseca law firm, Panama stands out in the region as an economic powerhouse, due also to its privileged geographical position, sophisticated business and technical infrastructure and strong GDP growth – forecast to be 6% in 2016.

It has been precisely this strong economic performance that led the Panamanian government to support initiatives such as the IFF Panama and introduce film incentives for both domestic and foreign films.

An April 2012 film law created a $3 million annual national film fund, and 15%-of-spend rebates for foreign productions shooting in Panama.

Similar measures have been introduced in the Dominican Republic via the 108-110 film incentive law, enacted in 2010, that led to a 633% hike in the budget of the main DGCine film fund – from RD$91.7 million ($2.05 million) in 2012 to RD$583.7 million ($13.1 million) in 2014.

However, in several Central American countries there is still no established support structure, which means that local filmmakers have to rely on a mixture of cost-cutting ingenuity, co-production funding and support from trans-national funds such as Ibermedia, the all-important funding mechanisms for countries across Latin America, Spain and Portugal, and Cinergia (Central America Audiovisual Fund).

“The creation of film funds in the Dominican Republic and Panama has been a key step forward,” says Juarez Allen. “In Central America having enough money for the filmmaker to make a film from development to distribution is a privilege. The situation in most of the countries in the region – from Costa Rica to Guatemala – is terrible. Maybe there should be a single global support institution for Central America and the Caribbean because they share so many common elements.”

2015 was a very strong year for Central American films in terms of festival exposure, including titles such as Toronto-breakout “Sand Dollars,” from the Dominican Republic’s Israel Cardenas and Laura Amelia Guzman, Guatemalan Jayro Bustamante’s feature debut, “Ixcanul,”  that won the 2015 Berlinale’s Silver Bear Alfred Bauer Prize and proved an excellent sales title for sales agent Film Factory, Arturo Menendez’s “The Crow’s Nest”(“Malacrianza”), from El Salvador, and the Guatemala-Mexico c-oproduction “The Greatest House in the World,” by Ana V. Bojorquez & Lucia Carreras.

“For most people in Latin America, Central America has so many problems – in terms of crime, state-perpetrated violence, emigration, and with many tragedies, in countries such as El Salvador and Honduras,” says Juarez Allen. “But for me what’s interesting about their cinema is they bring up such fresh stories. I didn’t have a picture of what life was like there. Like what ‘Ixcanul’ showed us – it’s such an amazingly crafted film.”

Given the relatively small number of films produced from the region, it is difficult to identify general characteristics or trends – rather than a mosaic of individual voices – but there are certain recurrent themes.

“I normally don’t like to generalize, but films from Central America and the Caribbean almost have a different rhythm, a different cadence to their films,” suggests Sanchez. “There’s something very vibrant in terms of the human energies, textures and colors. Something warmer – even when faced by very harsh realities. There’s also a visceralness, unlike films from other parts of Latin America. For example, I really like the way that bodies are filmed, through dance and movement in general.”

“Even when local films aim to be lighter or romantic, they have such grit and depth,” adds Ortega Heilbron. “The filmmakers may sometimes explore an existing genre or borrow a bit of a formula, but when they add in the reality of their own country and culture, the films look like something we’ve never seen before.”

“Everything in Panama involves contrast and color,” says local helmer Abner Benaim. “There’s a lot of joyous noise and vitality. There’s a musicality to the way that people speak and move. You feel that on the screen.”

Sanchez believes that what distinguishes the new voices is their mixture of energy and playfulness. “There’s a heat to it and a playfulness.”

Notwithstanding this vibrant energy, films from the region are keen to explore pressing social issues, such as the health care disaster portrayed in “Drifting Away.”

Sanchez considers that films from the region reflect the wider trend in Latin American cinema of hybrid forms that mix documentary and fiction.

When IFF Panama was launched in 2012, almost all the films submitted from the region were documentaries – partly due to funding issues, given that it’s easier to produce a documentary on a micro budget.

But local filmmakers are now bringing these guerilla-style documentary skills to fiction films and it’s precisely this promiscuity between storytelling and local life that gives energy to the pics.

“It’s a region I’m very interested in,” says Juarez Allen. “I’m always looking for projects from there. You can feel something raw, rough and spontaneous. Here in Argentina it’s so difficult to find new topics that haven’t been covered. So we focus more on the cinematic approach and the language. But everything done in Panama or in Central America is new. It’s always a new perspective. That’s what makes it so interesting. And there’s such a thirst from local audiences to see and hear local stories.”

Ortega Heilbron concurs: “People in Central America want to see themselves. They are usually so ignored by the establishment. So when there’s a film that presents an issue, local audiences will completely identify with it and be loyal to it.”

The range of social and political problems addressed in the region’s films is extensive, including issues of corruption, crime, and deficiencies in the legal system, education sector and health services.

“I think in the whole region, education is the number one problem,” suggests Ortega Heilbron. “It doesn’t matter how much money you pump into the sector, it will go down a hole.”

In addition to acting as director to IFF Panama, Ortega Heilbron also produced one of the Panamanian films screening this year – “The Route” – which addresses the crippling transportation problems that force locals to spend hours just to commute back and forth from work.

“The realities that people in Central America are experiencing are so vibrant and often harrowing,” says Juarez Allen. “Everything seems so important. But even when the films show people going through hell, they seem so alive. There’s an urgency that I don’t feel here in Argentinean cinema anymore.”

Ortega Heilbron says that although only one of the Panamanian films screening at IFF Panama is a comedy, humor inevitably appears in all local fare. “Comedy is an important component in all our films,” she says. “Audiences respond well to humor. Panamanians enjoy intelligent comedies, especially film festival goers.”

Abner Benaim echoes this idea: “Although all my films are very different, I think that the one thing they share in common: They all treat very serious problems, but do so in a light hearted way, in a more relaxed way, in a more playful way. And this comes from the way that local people talk about these issues. They mix moments of great hardship and sadness with a sense of play and joy.”

He continues: “Panama is like that. It’s very colorful. Very vital. It’s very hard to find a setting where people aren’t creating a light atmosphere and enjoying themselves. Even in rough times. People have a very good attitude towards life. You can feel that everywhere. It’s the opposite of heavy and depressed. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t any problems. It’s about the attitude to how to confront them.”

One of the main challenges for Central American and Caribbean cinema is to generate greater interest for films from neighboring countries. Ortega Heilbron believes that fests such as IFF Panama contribute to this process but there’s a long way to go.

“It’s not yet working as a region in terms of circulation of films. The problem is how to get the message out there. It sometimes seems as if people in Panama, for example, aren’t interested in seeing a film from Costa Rica or Nicaragua. But they would be if they knew they were out there!”

Benaim agrees: “I don’t believe in making films just for Panama. It’s too small a market. You need to aim at least for Latin America. But distribution networks aren’t set up that way. It’s still very hard to see a film from a neighboring country – even if it was a success at home. Distribution is still dominated by U.S. films, but it’s slowly changing.”

As new multiplexes spring up throughout the region, commercial distribution of local films has been reinforced over the past two years, but restricted primarily to the respective domestic markets rather than cross-border circulation.

IFF Panama director Ortega Heilbron is nonetheless very upbeat.

“When we started our fest, everyone said that it wouldn’t work – that people wouldn’t go to the cinema to see these films. But Panamanians love cinema. With a population of almost 4 million, 5.7 million tickets were sold at the box office in 2015, compared to 3.8 million five years ago. I’m convinced that we’re seeing the birth of a new cinema in Panama and in the region as a whole.”