IFF Panama: Tribeca Film Institute Seeks to Expand Partnerships in Central America

Variety catches José F. Rodriguez, director of documentary programs at the Tribeca Film Institute, after panel at the IFF Panama

Jose Rodriguez
Photo by Martin Dale

José F. Rodriguez, director of Documentary Programs at the Tribeca Film Institute, attended a panel at the 6th IFF Panama dedicated to support schemes for documentary filmmakers, which also featured Yissel Ibarra, at Mexico’s Imcine Film Institute, and IDFA Bertha Fund’s managing director, Isabel Arrate Fernández.

Speaking to Variety after the panel, Rodriguez explained that Tribeca is looking to expand its partnerships with festivals in Central America. Panama is one possible option, because of the fest’s growing international profile and the launch of initiatives such as the Primera Mirada pix-in-post sidebar and the new Campus Latino initiative. organized in partnership with the Goethe Institute.

“I know a lot of the people who work at the Panama Film Festival, the programming is stellar,” enthused Rodriguez. “And with new initiatives such as Campus Latino, it has a very strong profile. We’d certainly be interested in increasing our involvement next year, whether on an informal basis or moving towards a partnership.”

He added that he was delighted to have had the chance to meet filmmakers in Panama. “It’s crucial for us to be here, and so necessary to find time to be face-to-face with local filmmakers.”

TFI co-founder Robert de Niro has also been linked to Panama recently, as executive producer and actor in Panamanian feature, “Hands of Stone,” about Panamanian boxer Roberto Duran, which bowed in 2016.

Rodriguez said that film festivals in Central America are building an increasingly important international visibility and TFI wants to build a bridge with these events.

“In Panama the festival is clearly growing and getting its message across to an international audience. The Costa Rica International Film Festival is growing by leaps and bounds. Guatemala’s Icaro film festival is getting storytellers out there, who are winning awards in festivals.”

As IFF Panama increases its industry events, Tribeca would potentially be interested in establishing a partnership that would help target projects that may be supported by the Tribeca Film Fund and may be invited to attend the Tribeca Film Festival where producers have the chance to contact sales agents, distributors and co-producers.

Rodriguez explained that in 2016 he attended the Costa Rica International Film Festival which led to Tribeca supporting a documentary project, Ernesto Villalobos’ “Jamon,” that was then invited to the Tribeca Film Festival.

TFI already has formal partnerships in Latin America with several festivals, where it runs filmmaker labs and scouts for projects suitable for funding.

Current partnerships with film festivals include Sanfic in Chile, Cartagena in Colombia, and Guadalajara, Morelia and Docs MX in Mexico.

TFI also has a partnership with the Cuban Film School, which holds a retreat, in conjunction with the Havana Film Festival, which TFI has been attending over the last three years.

Rodriguez is interested in attending festivals in Latin America in order to scout for projects of interest for Tribeca’s Latin American Fund which launched in 2010.

The TFI Latin America Fund offers hands-on mentoring and funding support for fiction films and documentaries. Since 2010, it has awarded more than $700,000 to over 60 filmmakers from 15 Latin American and Caribbean countries.

On March 27, it announced support for a further 17 projects from countries such as Brazil, Mexico, Peru, Colombia, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Chile and Argentina. Projects cover a wide range of different topics from quirky individual tales to broader political issues, such as Petra Costa’s “Impeachment,” about the ousting of Brazil’s first female president.

Rodriguez explained that the reason for attending the panel at IFF Panama was to explain how the Latin America Fund works, what they are looking for, what attracts them and how they work with filmmakers.

When the fund was launched in 2010, resulting from a partnership with Mexico’s Canacine, it initially targeted primarily Mexican filmmakers. In 2012, Bloomberg Philanthropies also became a partner for the fund and support was extended for filmmakers from the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean.

Funding provided via the financing line supported by Canacine gives fixed grants of $10,000 to projects from Mexico, whereas financing supported by Bloomberg, which is open to the entire region, provides grants which typically vary between $7,000 and $12,000.

Rodriguez is particularly interested in coming into projects at an early stage, or providing support at rough-cut stage where funding can make a key difference to completing the film. “Within our tight constraints we try to make every penny count.”

Rodriguez said that the fund is now increasingly supporting filmmakers from Central America and the Caribbean. In 2017 it is backing projects from the Dominican Republic for the first time, as well as two projects from Cuba, for the second time. It is also supporting a project from Peru for the first time.

The Fund forms part of TFI’s wider mission to create space for new voices and visions, in particular from minorities. “Living in New York, it’s very easy to be in a bubble. It helps to break out of that bubble and bridge the gap with other countries.”

Rodriguez said that fiction films from the region are gaining more traction but it’s often an uphill struggle for documentary projects. “Documentary is still an ugly word for some people. Simon Kilmurry of the International Documentary Association says that someone people compare a taste for documentaries to eating broccoli. We have to try to break down pre-conceived ideas that documentaries aren’t just good for you, they can be just as compelling as fiction. Also some filmmakers choose a hybrid route, mixing documentary with fiction.”

Rodriguez commented that many of the supported projects find their audiences through festivals: Key festivals for Latin American films in North America include Sundance, Toronto, the Chicago Latino Film Festival, the New York Film Festival, the Colombian Film Festival and Havana Film Festival in New York, and South by Southwest.

However, beyond festivals he says that it remains difficult to reach out to a wider audience, including the huge Hispanic audience in North America.

“Latin American films that repeat stereotypes about corruption, mafia and drug wars find it much easier to be bought, distributed and financed. For example. if I pitch a coming of age story about a young boy, with a circus in his backyard, people don’t know how to respond to it. But that’s precisely the story of one of the projects we supported – “Jonas and the Backyard Circus” by Brazilian filmmaker Paula Gomes – which is one of the most beautiful documentaries you’ll ever see.”

“We want to avoid clichéd approaches. This includes looking for more nuanced stories, including more optimistic stories for which it’s sometimes more difficult to get attention. Ultimately we’re looking for good storytelling.”

Other examples he cited include José Villalobos Romero’s “Charro of Toluquilla” about a character who appears to be a quintessential macho mariachi, but becomes HIV positive and has to choose between being a father and continuing his womanizing ways.

Rodriguez says that the 2016 presidential campaign and Trump’s election has actually made people more emotionally open, which makes support for Latin American filmmaking even more important than ever. “I think people are now even more predisposed to tackling nationalism head on and not feed stereotypes. Instead of building walls, let’s open our doors to a plethora of new voices and create kinship and emotional connection. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

He concluded: “We aim to introduce people to other perspectives. This doesn’t mean that films have to be about social issues or politics. We’re above all interested in the human condition and supporting films that will be screened in other parts of the world. That’s part of our mission statement to be a catalyst for change. We’re particularly interested in quirky character-driven films, where music and ballet can be as important as films about society or the economy.”