IFF Panama: Pituka Ortega Heilbron, Samuel Larson Guerra on ‘La Ruta,’

World premiering at the Panama Festival, movie portrays Panama’s lamentable transport system with color, music, humor

La Ruta
Courtesy: Pituka Ortega Heilbron

PANAMA CITY – It’s no coincidence that the massive wave of street protests which swept Brazil in 2013 as Brazil staged the 2013 Confederation Cup soccer tourney, were sparked by a hike in bus ticket prices in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. From the 1980s, Latin America escaped from the maws of dictatorship. But formal political democracy is one thing; what Latin Americans also merit, they argue, is a separation of the church and judicial and state and welfare state which includes not only the rights to education and a health service but, as Amnesty International argued at the time of the Brazil protests, an adequate public transport system. Like Pablo Larrain’s Berlin winner “The Club,” Rodrigo Pla’s Venice player “A Monster of a Thousand Heads” or Alejandro Fernandez Alemendras’s Sundance and Berlin-selected “Much Ado About Nothing,” Pituka Ortega Heilbron’s “La ruta” belongs to what could be called a building cinema of discrepancy in Latin America: Films which questions the socioeconomic limits to real democratic change while seeking to deliver a more nuanced and accurate portrayal of countries’ immediate past and still urgent present. “La Ruta” isn’t just a docu-feature about Panama’s transport system, or lack thereof. It’s a Panamanian docu-feature about Panama’s transport system. It tables serious issues, but does so with color, capturing Panama’s rambunctious street scenes, the pop-art backs and chasses of its ageing – and sometimes lethal – Diablos Rojos big buses – and with a Latin Jazz-laced soundtrack that captures the energy of a Panamanian people who suffer the daily grind of commuting to work with a hang-dog humor. Variety talked to Ortega Heilbron, also director of the Panama Film Festival, and producer Samuel Larson Guerra after “La Ruta” world premiered Saturday at the event’s fifth edition. “La Ruta” is produced by Hypatia Films and Al Fondo del Callejon, in co-production with Jaguar Films and Manglar Films.

This is not just a documentary on Panama’s transport system. I feel it also sets out to be a Panamanian documentary on Panama’s transport system: It’s a social issue feature with a lot of color – the uses themselves, for example  –  a lot of music and a sense of humor, especially in the prologue. Could you comment?

Ortega Heilbron: Panama is a country full of contradictions and social contrast and, as it is often the case, humor is a way to survive. Tragedy breeds humor and color and incredible music.

The use of music I think is key: The film describes a big challenge to Panamanian quality of life. The music is, however, energetic, far more positive….

Ortega Heilbron: Panamanians manage to handle serious and tragic problems with a light heart.  As of today, most Panamanians still believe that things can get better and that they eventually will.  At the screening after the projection of the film, someone asked the construction worker if he felt transportation had improved and he said yes, a little, he said.  Then someone proceeded to ask, do you still get up at the same time to go to work and he said: ‘Yes.’  They all are waiting for [Panama City’s] second and third Metro line [to open].

Larson Guerra: The use of music in “La Ruta” represents a very strong element of cultural identity that goes beyond mere emotional support to become a fundamental part of the narrative. It is coherent with the historic tradition of Afro-American music as an expression of cultural resistance: Songs and music are a means to overcome hardships and suffering.

The film’s also cinema. I sense that there is a conscious effort to come at the issue – the lamentable public transport system-  from various aesthetic angles, so that sequences often have contrasting styles: a pop animation collage; dramatic aerial shots from above Panama City’s sky-line; non-scripted nght-time immersion as the films follow three commuters on their long journey to work. Again, could you comment?

Ortega Heilbron: Yes!  It was a risky decision for us to go with what you see on the screen, which is a restless camera, most of the time, because most of the scenes were caught in the immediacy of the moment, not produced at all. We had no second chances, or tripod moments.  When one sees it on the big screen, it is more intense.  People felt they were inside a bus: It is asphyxiating and that was the intent.

The film joins a cutting-edge cannon of titles – Rodrigo Pla’s “A Monster with a Thousand Heads,” Alejandro Fernandez Almendras’s “Aquí No Ha Pasado Nada” which talk, from very different angles, about a lack of a social welfare state in Latin America. In other words, formal democratic, elections, is not enough. Would you agree?

Ortega Heilbron: I often wonder what is the system that could really work for Latin America. Neither has worked so far for most of our countries.  The big key here is education.  Not only academic, in the arts. One cannot exist without the other. Nothing will ever be perfect, because we are not perfect but we need to have the tools to keep trying and that can only be achieved with art in our lives.

Larson Guerra: I agree that “La Ruta” presents a very common situation in Latin American countries. But at this point in history I think it has become a global problem, one where most governments worldwide tend to work for the economic elites and not for the welfare of the people. Nowadays, this applies also to the U.S. And, regretfully, our economic and political elites tend to mirror the ones up North.

“La Ruta” boasts high production values. Could you talk about its financing?

Ortega Heilbron: Well, it cost $180,000 over eight years of production.  I am not sure it is that big of a budget: Most went in music and post, actually.  I received money from the Ibermedia Fund, Dicine Fund (the Panamanian film fund, TVN Films (a local TV station) and Cinergia, the Costa Rican fund.

What are the distribution prospects for the film? Where will it be seen in Panama? Where might it be seen outside Panama?

Ortega Heilbron: We are working on it, hoping it gets into some festivals and some local cinemas, of course.