Abner Benaim, one of Panama’s leading helmers – whose recent features include 2009 comedy “Chance” and 2014 docu “Invasion” – is attending IFF Panama for the fest’s closing film, “Ruben Blades Is Not My Name,” which world premiered in South by Southwest (SXSW) where it won the audience prize, in the 24 Beats Per Second section.
The trailer, launched in March, has been a viral hit, with over 1 million views on Facebook.
Benaim reveals that the picture has already secured a wide theatrical release in Panama, with distribution deals covering Central America, the Caribbean, Colombia and Argentina and is about to close with Mexico. He says that the producers are currently considering offers from U.S. distributors and digital platforms and from international sales agents.
“Ruben Blades” is a co-production between Benaim’s company, Apertura Films, and Argentina’s Gema Films, run by Gema Juarez Allen, together with Ciudad Lunar in Colombia (“Embrace of the Serpent’”). It has backing from Ibermedia, INCAA, Caracol TV, DICINE Panama’s film fund, COPA airlines and Panamanian TV station TVN.
Filmed over a three-year period, in which the documentary crew accompanied Blades in concerts and other day-to-day events in Panama City, New York, Puerto Rico, Mexico and Colombia, the film offers an intimate portrait of Blades, who played a key role in New York’s Salsa revolution in the 1970s, has recorded 38 albums, won 17 Grammys, acted in 42 films, and also has a law degree from Harvard. He is a former Minister of Tourism in Panama, and once ran for President in Panama.
The documentary includes interviews with key figures from the Latin music world, such as Larry Harlow, René Peres (aka “Residente”) from Calle 13, Gilberto Santa Rosa and Danilo Perez and also musicians and actors from other areas, such as Junot Diaz, Paul Simon and Sting, among others.
“For me it was a new kind of production, my first music documentary,” explained Benaim.
“I was doing a lot of things for the first time. Ruben opened his arms to the project and allowed us into his New York home, where no crew had ever shot before. We got a ‘yes’ from almost everyone we asked to interview, including key figures from the salsa world.”
Benaim commented that he was delighted with the audience reaction in SXSW in Austin and anxiously awaits the screening in his home town during IFF Panama.
The doc feature has already played in Ambulante, Mexico, FICG in Guadalajara, Mexico, and will screen in Docsbarcelona and BAFICI in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Blades is a very private person but placed his full trust in the filmmakers and hasn’t seen the film yet, Benaim said.
“I do admire and respect him. Usually to make a powerful documentary you try to find something negative,” the director added. “My challenge was to make it interesting, while focusing on the positive side. Over his 50-year career he has transmitted very good, positive messages.It was very important for me to capture that human dimension, and not just show the star.”
The feature also offers a privileged insight into Panama City, where both Blades and Benaim both grew up, including its unique locations and sounds, and the omnipresence of music. Simultaneously, it explores what it’s like to be an emigré, while retaining a powerful link to one’s homeland.
“This film views Panama in a different way from my other films. It explores what it means to be Panamanian in your soul. What you take with you when you’re abroad,” Benaim reflected.
“Like Ruben, I have also spent a lot of time abroad. The film is also about what it means to come from a place with a strong identity. What it means to feel, and to miss that special warmth.”
Benaim observed that some of these sensations are expressed in Blades’ song “Patria.”
“For me, Panama is about familiar faces, the love I have for the people and the nature there. People laugh a lot, anytime, anywhere. When you return you immediately see all the greens you can imagine and those you thought never existed. The smells that stay with me the most are the grass, the plants and the ocean. Panama is almost like an island, surrounded by the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.”
Benaim is now prepping “Plaza Catedral”, to be co-produced with Mexico’s Matthias Ehrenberg of Rio Negro Prods. The project, formerly known as “Biencuidao,” was developed at Eave, won the 2015 Berlinale Co-Production Market VFF Talent Highlight Pitch Award and has support from Ibermedia.
Casting is currently underway and the pic will be shot in September/October,to be lensed primarily in Panama’s old quarter, the Casco Viejo, and also the Chorillo and Santa Ana neighborhoods.
The film is about a man in his forties who cannot find peace in his life after having lost a son. But his life is changed when he meets a kid from the streets in dire need of help.
Benaim recently worked on the project with script doctor Clare Downs at the Jerusalem Lab. Shooting “Ruben Blades,” he identified several locations that he would like to use in the film.
Benaim argued that, ultimately, both “Blades” and “Plaza Catedral” are about making the most of life. “There was a time in my life when I was plagued with anxiety and fear of death. A series of traumatic events and deaths occurred in my family and that affected me for several years. It’s good to understand you can get through that.”
He added: “When I make a film about someone else, I also try to talk about themes that resonate most with me. How to deal with death and life and nostalgia. Feelings about your homeland when you spend much of the time away.”