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Caribbean and Central American Films Flourish Despite Headwinds

IFF Panama showcases new crop

Hurricanes be damned. Film production is surging in the Caribbean and Central America despite natural – and some political – turmoil.

“The region’s film industry indeed feels more effervescent,” said IFF Panama artistic director Diana Sanchez.

Puerto Rico was the hardest hit by Hurricane Maria last September but that didn’t stop some projects from resuming production about a month later. First among them was Nick Hamm’s 1970s-set thriller “Driven,” starring Jason Sudeikis, Lee Pace and Corey Stoll, about auto maverick John DeLorean and the FBI drug sting operation that sought to take down the exec.

Co-produced by seasoned Puerto Rican producer Luillo Ruiz of the Pimienta Film Co., it took a good dose of creativity and vital connections to overcome myriad logistical issues. Just getting diesel, food and water was a challenge. With cell towers down, crew members were visited personally at their homes to get them back on board. “Even those who had lost everything still showed up on time, uncomplaining,” said unit production manager Rosi Acosta who said about 45 trucks were needed to haul the debris from the Dorado neighborhood streets they were using for the shoot.

Sony’s streaming service Crackle resumed production on its crime drama series, “The Oath,” a week after “Driven” did.

Also co-produced by Ruiz, Nick Powell’s drama “Primal,” starring Nicholas Cage, starts principal photography in April.

Despite the logistical challenges, Puerto Rico remains attractive given its 40% tax credit rebate, identical currency, commercial and banking laws and experienced bilingual crew and talent, among many other perks. Changes may be afoot, however, when the film law expires in June but a new draft is underway. “New film credits will be available from July onwards,” said Puerto Rico film commissioner Pedro Rua.

Tax incentive/cash rebate schemes in the Caribbean range from Puerto Rico’s 40% to the 25% transferable tax credit and VAT exemptions of the Dominican Republic.

Investors in Dominican features may also deduct 100% of their investment, subject to a cap of 25% of the income tax otherwise payable.The results of increased private investment in local cinema have been dramatic in a country that saw an average of two-to-three homegrown films a year for nearly three decades prior to the film law. It now sees an average output of 20 to 30 local films a year.

“What’s even more striking is the improvement in quality,” said Omar de la Cruz, executive director of the Dominican Global Film Festival, citing the multi-awarded “Cocote” and “Carpinteros,” the latter of which debuted at Sundance last year.

On the other hand, Costa Rica, which aspires to such a film law, has seen an uptick in films despite the lack of such incentives. Thanks in part to the 2015 launch of film and TV production fund El Fauno, valued at 250 million colons ($440,800), Costa Rica saw 17 homegrown films released last year. “That’s equivalent to all the films made in Costa Rica in the 20th century,” said Costa Rican helmer Hilda Hidalgo (“Love and Other Demons”), whose sophomore film “Violeta at Last” competes at the IFF Panama. She also credits the upsurge of film schools, one of which she founded, to the rise in film production.

Inspired by her mother, in “Violeta at Last,” Hidalgo traces the life of a woman in her 70s who finds new freedom in her old age. “Violeta” is co-produced by Mexico’s Laura Imperiale who also co-produced Hidalgo’s first film and is a juror at IFF Panama’s works in progress section, Primera Mirada.

The Film Law draft presented last year by former president Luis Guillermo  Solis’ government has a better chance of being passed now that writer and former Minister of Labor and Social Issues Carlos Alvarado Quesada, who pledged to continue Solis’ liberal agenda, won the presidential elections on Sunday, April 1.
“We are celebrating his victory with great fanfare,” said Hidalgo.

Stung by the loss of major productions, such as “Pirates in the Caribbean,” to Puerto Rico, Jamaica has been toiling at introducing a film fund, at the very least. It boasts the oldest film commission in the English-speaking Caribbean and a vibrant audiovisual industry despite the lack of incentives. An average of 150 projects – encompassing commercials, music videos, TV series, docs etc. –  are shot in Jamaica annually but focusing on service production over the past 20 years “has limited the development of entrepreneurial skills among locals,” said film commissioner Renee Robinson.

“It’s important to be transformative; develop the local eco-system,” she added. To that end, film and TV association Jafta formed the Jafta Propella initiative, now on its third year, which selects five applicants to receive funding, training and help in producing their projects. At the 2017 ScreenCraft Writer’s Residency Program at Jakes Hotel, Treasure Beach, two of the three Jamaican attendees, Tony Hendriks and Alana Igbe, were Jafta Propella finalists.

Recently, more high-profile Jamaican or Jamaican-themed films have gained worldwide recognition, including Storm Saulter’s Overbrook-produced “Sprinter,” Idris Elba’s directorial debut “Yardie” and the upcoming “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” to be directed by Melina Matsoukas (“Insecure”) for Amazon Studios.

The films competing at the IFF Panama’s Primera Mirada (First Look) section shows local filmmakers “beginning to express a cinematographic language that’s unique to our region,” said festival executive director, Pituka Ortega.

Although Panama’s average production output is at three-to-five features a year, more films have clicked with audiences like last year’s hits “Beyond Brotherhood” by Arianne Marie Benedetti, which represented Panama at the foreign-language Oscar race, and Arturo Montenegro’s comedy “Donaire & Esplendor.”

“We started this festival partly because only English-language films were showing in Panama; we wanted to add more diversity,” said Sanchez.

“Indeed, the festival has helped to bring people out of anonymity; it’s become a platform for regional filmmakers,” Ortega concurred. Among its initiatives is the launch of a dedicated festival channel on airline sponsor Copa Airlines. Currently available on only three planes, they hope to have it on 30 by June.

And for a region quite vulnerable to the onslaught of hurricanes and other pressing environmental issues, it’s only apt for the fest to launch a Green Program in tandem with Panama’s Ministry of Environment. It kicks off this year with three docus curated by both orgs: “From the Ashes” by Michael Bonfiglio, “Dream Big” by Greg MacGillivray and “The Marquis of Wavrin: From the Manor to the Jungle,” by Grace Winter and Luc Plantier.

“Cinema is a window to different realities, where we can find examples of positive initiatives supported by the community and the local authorities,” said Environment Minister Emilio Sempris.

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