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Local Directors Chart New Ground in Panamanian Cinema

Five Panamanian titles screen at the 6th IFF Panama

Overview of the five Panamanian Films
Photo by Martin Dale

PANAMA — The 6th IFF Panama screened five new Panamanian titles –  Delfina Vidal’s women’s rights pic, “La Matamoros,” Tashi Sakai’s “Cimarronaje en Panamá,” both playing in the Stories of Central America and the Caribbean section; Aldo Rey’s “Kimura,” Ana Endara’s “La felicidad del sonido” (The Joy of Sound) in the Special Presentations selection; and Fernando Muñoz’s “A Night of Calypso,” in the Primera Mirada films-in-roughcut sidebar.

The 1926 silent classic, “Garras de Oro” also screened in Special Presentations.

“La Matamoros” is a documentary about factory dressmaker Marta Matamoros, who became an international trade union leader, played a key role in asserting Panamanian independence against U.S. domination and helped enactment of 14 weeks pregnancy leave. The film has three sections, covering her roles as dressmaker, trade union leader and political figure.

Vidal works for Panama’s Institute of Labor Studies, part of the Ministry of Labor that commissioned the $98,000 project. Her first documentary feature was “Caja 25” (2015) and she also co-directed “Out” (2013) and “A Different Day” (2007) with Mercedes Arias.

“Matamoros” is written by Joaneska Grossl, who is also co-writing Vidal’s next project.

The documentary includes fictionalized moments with actress Rosanna Uribe – used in order get closer to the character, Vidal said.

One of the main sources of material for the film was an interview recorded on Video 8 in the 1980s by researchers Myrla Gutierrez and Jaqueline Candanedo, that was restored by Vidal.

Vidal said that still further progress needs to be made to achieve gender equality in Panama but that in Panamanian cinema women already play a key role, citing the two leading figures of IFF Panama – Pituka Ortega-Heilbron and Diana Sanchez.

Her next project is feature documentary “Tito and Margot,” about the love story between Panamanian politician Roberto Emilio Arias (1918–1989), known as “Tito,” and English ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn. They met in Cambridge during WWII and married in 1955. Their life as international jet-setters – including as close friends of John and Robert Kennedy and John  Wayne – was suddenly transformed in 1964 when Tito was shot and paralyzed for life.

“We want to recover this episode in the history of Panama,” explained Vidal. “This couple was admired but also unknown to the public.” Her co-director for the project, Mercedes Arias , is Tito’s niece.

56- year old Tashi Sakai was born in Japan but has mostly lived in the U.S., with regular visits to Panama since 1978. His debut docu feature, “Cimarronaje en Panamá,” turns on fugitive African slaves during the colonial period who united to create self-governing communities in Panama.

His own first experience as a filmmaker was as a runaway child, recruited into a program for problem children and given the chance to produce Super 8 films. He went on to study film at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts School, before charting a career as a designer.

In the 1980s he produced a multimedia project about Panama’s iconic painted buses, the Diablos Rojos, which was his first major introduction to the country and whetted his appetite to do more.

He moved with his wife and children for a year to the town of Portobello that has a strong community of people from African descent which got him interested in the subject of the Cimarronaje.

“The history of the African contribution to Panama is overlooked,” They came as slaves, which itself is a dehumanizing word. They weren’t considered to be people. They carried loads, built the cities, did the work, but they’re generally not in the history books,” Sakai said.

Sakai developed a self-financed documentary in which over an eight-year period he interviewed over fifty experts, with a core group located in Panama, as well as people from the town of Portobello, whom he interviewed in order to talk about stories handed down from their ancestors.

Complementing the interviews and archive images, he recreated black and white tableaux based on his own educated guess of what the people looked like and how they dressed.

The word Cimarronaje is linked to the Spanish word for marooned and a word in the Indian language which meant fight. It was first used for runaway cattle and then applied to the self-liberated slaves with communities found all over Panama and other parts of Latin America and the Caribbean.

Sakai now hopes to make a second part focusing more on the broader African influence rather than just the fugitives.

Aldo Rey’s debut feature, “Kimura – Blood Duel,” is the only new Panamanian fiction film screening at IFF Panama. It’s a drama set in the world of mixed martial arts, produced by Fariba Hawkins and Jeico Castro Ferrari. Hawkins and Rey both studied at Cuba’s Intl. Film and Television School.

Their main goal was to produce a feature with major commercial potential. Combat sports are popular in Panama, including famous Panamanian boxer, Roberto Duran. Duran’s son, Robin, who starred in the Duran biopic, “Hands of Stone,” is executive producer and one of the two lead actors. Cuban actor Jorge Perugorria (“Viva”) plays the pic’s fight promoter. The producers screened the film to Elba Macallister of Colombia’s Cineplex, who agreed to give it a simultaneous theatrical release in Guatemala, Costa Rica and Panama on May 4, a first for a Panamanian feature.

The pic’s $900,000 budget was raised through a $500,000 production grant from Panama’s film fund in 2013 and a $25,000 post-production award in 2016 and the rest through TV funding, sponsorship, private financing and services in kind.

“It’s hard for people to believe in our cinema,” said Rey. “Audiences are only used to seeing auteur films rather than genre pics. We made a real effort to show Panama from a new perspective. The world of mixed martial arts is the starting point to tell a universal story – where no Panamanian film has gone before.”

Ana Endara’s third documentary feature, “The Joy of Sound,” is a sensorial journey, that explores the sounds of nature, and urban contexts, to reflect upon themes of joy, loneliness and silence. The $70,000 black and white pic won the production award at the 5th DocTV Latinamerica and premiered in IDFA in the Mid-Length Documentary section. It aired in a 52-minute version across public TV channels in Latin America.

A graduate of Cuba’s Intl. Film and Television School, Endara’s previous documentaries include “Curundú” (2007), and, “Reinas” (2013), which won the Grolsch Discovery Award at IFF Panama 2013.

Endara produced “Joy” in response to a call from DocTV Latin America that wanted films based on the theme of happiness. She says that the starting point for the film was a close friend who was broken hearted and bought a pair of expensive hifi speakers. This inspired her to find five people who all find joy from sound and are passionate about what they do, such as a man who drives around Panama City’s ghettoes with speakers in his car playing jazz and alternative. She also interviewed a blind woman who has a beautiful singing voice and can imitate frog calls.

“My two previous films are critical of Panama, with lots of stuff that makes me angry,” revealed Endara.

She added: “But this film features things that I cherish and make me love my country, with a lot of underground characters that make this country what it is. There are wonderful sounds in the city when the sun is coming down, with the call of the Talingo birds and people shouting and street sellers. Making this film intensified my understanding of sound.”

Endara presented her latest project, “Panamazing,” co-directed with Pilar Moreno, and produced by Isabella Galvez, in Panama’s first edition of its Campus Latino workshops. The project mixes collage animation and documentary, and portrays Panamanians who are obsessed of getting into the Guinness World of Records. “It’s like a delirious fable,” says Endara.

Fernando Muñoz’s documentary “A Night of Calypso” – which is playing in Panama’s Primera Mirada sidebar – explores the roots of Calypso music in Panama. His starting point was a concert in 2014 by one of the country’s last calypso bands, Grupo Amistad. The documentary uses interviews and archive photos and footage to explore this musical tradition which was brought to Panama from workers from the West Indies.

In December 2016 in Havana’s New Cine Latinoamericano Festival, the project won second prize in the post-production category as well as the postproduction prize from the Panama Film Fund. The Spanish online radio station, Gladys Palmera, has also provided funds for the project.

Argentina-born Muñoz works as a graphic designer and moved to Panama in 2009. He says that calypso provides a unique window into Panamanian culture and history.

“Calypso is part of Panama’s national identity but it originally came from outside, with African roots and now it’s almost disappeared.”

In parallel with the music itself, Muñoz talked about the stories of West Indians who came to Panama from the Caribbean adding that he hoped that his project will lead to a resurgence of calypso in Panama.