IFF Panama: ‘From Afar,’ ‘Salsipuedes,’ ‘Time to Love’ Win Audience Awards at 5th Panama Film Festival

Central American fest wraps

Audience Awards at 5th Panama Film
Photo by Martin Dale

PANAMA CITY — The 5th IFF Panama wrapped Wednesday night with a closing ceremony in which Venezuelan-Mexican pic “From Afar,” by Lorenzo Vigas, Panamanian drama “Salsipuedes’ helmed by Ricardo Aguilar Navarro and Manolito Rodriguez and documentary “Time to Love,” from Panama’s Guido Bilbao, won the three audience prizes – Best Ibero-American Film, Best Central American and Caribbean Film and Best Documentary, respectively. Panamanian documentary, “Drifting Away,” by Miguel Gonzalez, received a separate prize from 507 Red Lager Premium for Best Panamanian Film.

Edgar Rodriguez, a producer of “From Afar” accepted the award, stating that it demonstrated that audiences are willing to see different kinds of film, not just mainstream pics. He concluded by dedicating the prize to his native Venezuela, saying that there needs to be such rays of hope for “a people filled with light.”

Guido Bilbao said that at a time when Panama is in the news for the wrong reasons, his film showed another side of Panama, of ordinary hard-working people. Ricardo Aguilar Navarro, clearly moved by the moment, confided that he was surprised and overjoyed by the award.

The 5th Panama Festival’s closing pic was Celso R. García’s “The Thin Yellow Line, ” starring Damián Alcázar, with both of them attending the screening.

Earlier on Wednesday, the fest organizers announced that Laura Amelia Guzman’s “Noeli Overseas” and Enrique Castro Rios’ “Sultan” had won the second edition of IFF Panama’s Primera Mirada movies-at-roughcut sidebar. Competition is dedicated to films from Central America and the Caribbean.

This year’s 5th IFF Panama recorded a significant jump in audience attendance levels. The main evening galas in previous editions have been held in the National Theatre in the historic center, but this year were shifted to the 1,200-seater Teatro Balboa that was filled on most evenings, including a packed audience for the world premiere of local pic “Salsipuedes.”

The open-air screenings, along the seafront near the historic center, saw a 30% jump in audiences, rising from a total of 5,000 for 3 screenings in 2015 to 6,250 in 2016.

This year’s event saw major media exposure – including from leading trade journals, as well as NBC Universal, HBO, CNN, plus media from Central America and South America.

This year’s fest had a strong family feel: Several guests have strong personal ties to Panama, including Edgar Ramirez, who has established a base in the country, fruit of his work on the U.S.-Panamanian feature “Hands of Stone” which will bow on 2600 screens in the U.S. in August 2016.

Lucia Bosé, who received a career tribute at the fest, has been living between Panama and Spain over recent years, and has long ties to the country including the fact that her son, actor-singer Miguel Bosé, was born in Panama. He also attended this year’s event.

In a talk featuring Bosé and Marisa Paredes, the Italian actress said that Latin American cinema still maintains the magic that used to exist in post-war Italian cinema.

Other guests – such as Laurie Anderson, who presented “Heart of a Dog,” and Nicolas Jaar, who presented “Dheepan” – were attending for the first time, but said they were delighted by the fest’s intimate atmosphere. “Laurie’s playful spirit really combined well with the fest and the guests,” revealed Panama’s artistic director Diana Sanchez.

One of the strongest themes during the fest – present at the screenings, panels, talks and informal discussions – was the fast-growing film industry in Central America and the Caribbean, which in addition to Spanish-speaking countries, also includes the English-, French- and Dutch-speaking Caribbean countries.

IFF Panama has a special sidebar and Audience Award dedicated to films from this region. Films screening in this section included Ari Maniel Cruz’s coming-of-age drama “Before the Rooster Crows,” lensed in a mountain village of his native Puerto Rico. The pic recently won a Yellow Robin award in the Curacao International Film Festival Rotterdam and will screen in Rotterdam’s main Bright Future new filmmakers sidebar in January 2017.

“Countries in the Caribbean have tremendous diversity, which is now starting to explode onto the big screen,” says Cruz. “For example, I grew up in streets of San Juan, in Puerto Rico, going to the beach, playing basketball, dancing to music and salsa. I’m a coast guy. But in the mountain villages there’s a completely different culture, much more conservative, religious and austere, with a very different ethnic mix and history. People from outside Puerto Rico don’t know about it.”

The helmer enthused about this year’s IFF Panama. “Panama is a window to the world. In the Caribbean and Central America, there are so many shared traditions. We eat the same food, listen to the same music, and have the same heroes. It’s definitely a moment of growth in the region. We’re clearly doing something right. But since all the countries are so small we have to work together to build a voice.”

Cruz is now prepping his next pic, “Who are you?” based on a true story of the Director of the Department of Health, whose wife has Alzheimer’s. The pic is budgeted at $0.8 million, almost twice as big as “Rooster,” and he says that it’s a new step in his career.

The overall need to foster a greater circulation of Latin American films throughout the region was also reiterated. Obstacles to this process were identified by actor Edgar Ramirez as the legacy of colonialism which has created a fragmented mentality in the region.

Panamanian cinema had its strongest ever showing at the fest, with six new films screening. Panama’s Minister of Trade and Industry announced that he intends to organize a major representation of Panamanian films at this year’s Cannes Film Market, thus further strengthening the alliance between IFF Panama and Cannes.

Festival director Pituka Ortega Heilbron said that with every Panamanian film, the organizers question whether audiences will support local productions, but they have done so with tremendous enthusiasm – all Panamanian films played to packed audiences.

“Locally, most of the films have very good production values,” says Ortega Heilbron. “The filmmakers are very careful about that. For distributors, you need to have it. But the main reason that films connect with audiences is visceral. Difficult subjects are being addressed in these films, from pedophilia to social injustices, xenophobia and misogyny. There’s something very direct that you see on the big screen that you can completely identify with or that brings you close to another place you’re unfamiliar with.”

Local director Enrique Castro Rios, whose “Sultan” won a special mention in the Primera Mirada competition, said that he was delighted by his participation. “The feedback I’ve received on my project is wonderful,” he says. “These kind of events are so important because you easily get lost in the parallel process of searching for funds and sometimes lose sight of the creative input in your project. In our case, because we have a project that addresses complex issues such as racism in the family and the U.S. invasion of Panama, it’s difficult to express these issues to an international audience in a way that is easily accessible. Now it’s much clearer to me.” With his $5,000 prize money, Castro Rios intends to hire another editor and rework the edit of his film.

Miguel Gonzalez, whose documentary “Drifting Away,” about a 2006 healthcare scandal in Panama, won the 507 Red Lager Premium award for Best Panamanian Film, was also delighted by his participation in the event. He believes that it’s a special moment for Panamanian cinema, which is slowly finding its own identity. He is now prepping a documentary in his native Chitré District, on the Azuero Peninsula near the border with Colombia, about a local musical tradition called Pindin. “There’s something truly magical about the countryside in Panama,” he explains. “There’s so much that audiences have never seen.”

One of the initial goals of the fest’s founders was to nurture a stronger local industry but they now aim to achieve a greater impact across the region, especially in Central America and the Caribbean. “Film is a unifying force. That’s what’s happening here, especially in this festival,” says Ortega Heilbron. “Panamanians love cinema. I can’t explain it. I see it intuitively, I’m not a sociologist. But I do believe that Panamanian society is very open to images, and audiovisual media in general.”

“The reaction amongst local Panamanians this year has been amazing,” adds Sanchez. “People are raving about the fest. Everyone in the street is talking about it. They want to see the films. Even the taxi drivers are talking about it. That feels pretty good. Five years ago, people just wanted to know about Hollywood films. Now there’s room for a much greater variety of films.”

The educational dimension of IFF Panama is highly important, since there are no film schools in either Panama or Central America as a whole. Most of the panels saw a full-attendance. Highlights included several panels on co-production and a workshop on sound by Chilean Jorge Arriagada and on sound design by Jorge Muniz.

Another highlight was the master-class by Argentine director Pablo Trapero (“El Clan”), moderated by Diana Sanchez. “People were delighted by Pablo’s presentation,” says Sanchez. “Many young people are still discovering their voices, with lots of experimentation going on, without being confined to a single aesthetic. Pablo really struck a nerve.”

Looking ahead, Ortega Heilbron and Sanchez aim to strengthen the fest’s infrastructure and further increase participation by industry guests, in particular that of distributors and sales agents.

“The spirit of the festival has always been to create a space in which directors can connect with local audiences and show the best films,” concluded Ortega Heilbron. “This year, the reinforced adhesion to the fest vindicated that strategy and we aim to build on these achievements in the next edition.”

The 6th IFF Panama will run March 30 to April 5, 2017.