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Panama’s Guido Bilbao Preps ‘El Bosque de las Paradoxas’ (EXCLUSIVE)

Helmer is attending IFF Panama with ‘Time to Love : A Backstage Tale’

Guido Bilbao
Photo by Martin Dale

PANAMA CITY — Panamanian helmer Guido Bilbao — who is attending IFF Panama with his documentary “Time to Love: A Backstage Tale”– spoke with Variety about the new project, “El Bosque de las Paradoxas” (The Wood of Paradoxes), that he currently has in development.

“Time to Love” is about Central America’s first ever theatrical production featuring performers with Down’s Syndrome, and is screening in IFF Panama’s Stories from Central America and the Caribbean sidebar.

Bilbao always has a strong social dimension to his work, motivated in part by his observation that Panama is one of the 10 countries in the world with the highest level of social inequalities. He says that the country has the fourth highest GDP per capita in Latin America but also some of the poorest people in the region, without structured policies to foster social inclusion. Bilbao also cites the fact that the country has the highest number of police officers and also the highest number of prisoners per capita in Latin America.

For “Paradoxes,” he aims to accompany two female students from the Wounaan indigenous people, who are currently living in Panama City, and want to return to their native home in the forest on the border between Panama and Colombia, in order to talk with a female elder who is the last surviving defender of the tribe’s oral tradition.

“The students are seeking their roots,” explains Bilbao; “70% of Panama’s indigenous communities live in legally constituted reserves and are constantly menaced with extinction. The indigenous peoples are seen as the lowest of the low in Panamanian society, but they actually have answers to many tragedies and have a strong relationship with nature and community life.”

Bilbao describes the female elder as a shaman who achieves altered states of consciousness through her storytelling techniques, without recourse to plants. In the tribal community, if someone suffers from an ailment, this is viewed as a problem for the entire community, at a spiritual level, and the elder plays a role in trying to heal the community.

For the project, he will work with Argentine photographer, Alejandro Chaskielberg, who he says “paints with light” and whose photos have been published in international outlets such as The Guardian newspaper. This will be Chaskielberg’s first film project.

The region where Bilbao aims to film has suffered from considerable violence perpetrated by drug cartels and timber merchants who cut down trees that are considered to be sacred by the locals and whose seeds are used to produce the body paints for their rituals.

“In my work, I’m fascinated by marginalized people who are viewed as having no value but actually have a great deal to tell us. The same idea underlies my documentary, ‘Time to Love.’ I always remember the phrase by Tolstoy that if you observe the details you find the universal.”

Bilbao asserts that Panama’s indigenous peoples have been persecuted and pushed to the margins over the last 500 years and now “survive in places of silence.” However, they are the last bastions of pre-industrial society, which is why he wants to film this community.

Bilbao began his career as a political journalist and slowly migrated from nonfiction writing to making documentaries. Some of his earliest assignments were reports produced for Al Jazeera English TV channel in London, in collaboration with fellow filmmaker Glenn Ellis, including a report on the massacre of members of the Ngäbe-Buglé indigenous people in N.W. Panama, on the border close to Costa Rica, because the locals were obstructing the construction of a hydroelectric dam in the zone.

A key theme running through Bilbao’s work is to counter preconceived ideas and find wisdom in unexpected places.

For “Time to Love,” he used a fly-on-the-wall approach as he followed the children with Down’s Syndrome as they prepared the stage play that was held in one of Panama’s most important venues – the Teatro en Círculo. The play featured 12 performers who have Down’s Syndrome and 12 who do not. The film focuses on the audience’s surprise at the play’s moving humor, dance and music.

Although his films have sometimes provoked controversy, he believes that spurring such reactions comes with his job as a journalist and filmmaker. “Panama is a highly capitalist country. The Film Law was enacted by the Ministry of Trade and Industry, rather than the ministry responsible for cultural affairs. One of the main objectives is to attract big-budget foreign productions that will bring prestige and investment to Panama. But for local filmmakers it’s also an excellent opportunity to start building a film industry in the country. We have to seize this opportunity and tell stories that have been hidden for so many years.”