PANAMA CITY — Posting a record in admissions, said festival director Pituka Ortega Heilbron, the 8th IFF Panama wrapped Wednesday with the closing film “The Sentence,” screened in the presence of actor Edward James Olmos.

Gustavo Pizzi’s “Benzinho” won best Ibero-American fiction film, Mauro Colombo’s “Tierra Adentro” Best Documentary, about the endangered jungle on the border between Panama and Colombia, and Sebastian and Rodrigo Barriuso’s “Un Traductor,” about Chernobyl victims being treated in 1989 Havana, won best film from Central America and the Caribbean, sponsored by Copa Airlines, Revista K and Master Card respectively.

In the 5th Primera Mirada, IFF Panama’s pix-in-post sidebar, Ana Elena Tejera’s “Panquiaco” scooped a $10,000 cash prize and a trip to Cannes Film Market and Fernando F. Blanco Rivas’ “Por eso vengo al río” a $5,000 prize. The sidebar screened five films from Central America and the Caribbean.

“Panquiaco,” about Cebaldo – a reincarnation of the original indigenous tribesman who showed Spain’s Vasco Nunez de Balboa, the way to the Pacific Ocean – will engage Panamanian audiences because of its exploration of national identity, said director Tejera.

A documentary about a true-life love story between the Dominican Republic and Syria will also attract attention because it casts a new light on two parts of the world that have been vilified by some politicians – Latin America and the Middle East.

With talent at a premium, festivals which act a showcase in parts of the world little covered by international media are acquiring an added attraction.

Primera Mirada juror Andrew Hevia, VP at Fabula US, attended IFF Panama for the second year running. He said he considers that the fest offers an excellent chance to get a firsthand glimpse of upcoming talent from the region.

Edward James Olmos emphasized the importance of festivals such as IFF Panama precisely because of Donald Trump’s unprecedented onslaught against Latino communities.

“The opportunity has never been stronger for the Latino community in this planet to express itself to the fullest. But that also generates a reaction. Right now huge rocks are being thrown at the culture. In such a disgraceful way, it’s inhumane,” he added.

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© Carlos Agrazal

Olmos has started the Youth Cinema Project in California which aims to teach young people from underprivileged communities. He says that “no art form influences the unconscious mind so powerfully as film.”

Ana Isabel Bustamente’s “La Asfixia” about the desaparecidos during the Guatemalan Civil War, won IFF Panama’s FIipresci prize for best film, chosen from entries in the Stories from Central America and the Caribbean section.

The new Fipresci prize underlined the rising international recognition of the fest, and is seen by the fest’s organizers as a first step to test the viability of organizing an official selection.

Ortega Heilbron was particularly satisfied by the audience’s embracing of films from Panama and the rest of Central America and the Caribbean and the high turnout for Q&A sessions with filmmakers including a packed audience for the Q&A after the screening of “Roma” with the pic’s lead actor, Yalitza Aparicio, and production designer, Eugenio Caballero.

Aparicio took Panama by storm. Panamanians thronged to see her; during her stay she was offered the keys to the city, viewed as an icon of hope by Panama’s indigenous communities as was evident in the questions she received during the Q&A session.

There was massive excitement about Yalitza’s presence, commented Ortega Heilbron, who added: “She herself was amazed by the reaction. I told her: ‘You have created an awareness of cinema in this country that didn’t exist before. People know there is a film festival because of you.’”

The 8th IFF Panama was marked by several new ventures including the Locarno Industry Academy, the result of a three-year partnership with the Locarno Film Festival.

For the 2020 edition the fest is launching a $15,000 fund, sponsored by the Inter-American Development Bank, for women filmmakers from Central America and the Caribbean, with two awards – one for development, the other for a work-in-progress. The winning films must have a social theme – such as gender, race, human rights etc.

The festival also hopes to strengthen its joint venture with Copa Airlines which has an IFF Panama channel on its flights that screens selected films from the fest. The four films with the highest number of views in the first year were “Salsipuedes” (Panama) , “Carpinteros” (Dominican Republic), “Rei de Once” (Argentina) and “Rara” (Chile).

At its closing press conference the fest announced the launch of a new fund, Su Mirada (Her Gaze), sponsored by the Inter-American Development Bank, which will grant $15,000 annually over the next five years to women filmmakers from Central America and the Caribbean, with two awards – one for development the other for a work-in-progress. The winning films must have a social theme – such as gender, race, human rights etc.

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Although this amount may seem modest it can make a vital difference in this region, where filmmakers often have to get blood from a stone to get their films made and has little development funding.

One powerful example is Costa Rica’s Antonella Sudasassi who financed her first feature “El despertar de las hormigas” with the aid of a $40,000 grant from the Fondo del Fauno. The pic premiered in Berlin and screened in Malaga and Costa Rica, where it won best film.

Sudasassi now plans to shoot a feature documentary about older Costa Rican women talking about their sexuality – which will complete a trilogy of films all with the same title.

The underlying theme linking the three films is based on the idea that ants are a metaphor for women in Costa Rican society, who on the one hand sustain a matriarchal society through their hard work, while also supporting machismo through their own attitudes and traditions.

Women filmmakers and talent made a powerful mark on this year’s edition. In addition to Ana Elena Tejera, Aparicio and Sudasassi, Mexican helmer Lila Avilés and Uruguayan helmer Lucia Garibalidi screened their debut features – “The Chambermaid” and “The Sharks” respectively, amongst many others.

The 8th edition also marked a new phase for the fest due to the recent appointment of the fest’s artistic director, Diana Sanchez, as Toronto senior director for film. The promotion at Toronto obliges Sanchez to restructure her work with IFF Panama becoming an adviser, but both she and Ortega Heilbron are confident that the fest’s existing curatorial team is ready for this new challenge.