PANAMA CITY — Prior to the launch of IFF Panama in 2012, Panama’s film production was virtually non-existent. With the aid of the festival, the national film fund, and impetus created by an influx of foreign shoots, local productions have secured an increasingly important role at the domestic box office.

Several projects now enjoy multi-territory releases – such as Abner Benaim’s “Ruben Blades Is Not My Name” and Arturo Montenegro’s “Frozen in Russia,” both released in 2018.

IFF Panama has increased visibility for local films and helped local helmers set their sights on the international market.

Seven Panamanian films are screening at the 8th IFF Panama; other promising projects are in production or pre-production.

All projects explore the complex, multi-faceted dimensions of Panamanian culture, ranging from tropical rainforests and indigenous tribes to the legacy of decades of U.S. presence.

Miguel González’s half-hour documentary, “The Fourth Estate,” turns on corruption in a country that has one of the world’s highest levels of social inequality.

“Certain parts of the country are completely forgotten,” explains González. “There are also shocking examples of poor shanty towns next to tall skyscrapers. But the worst dimension of corruption is its interiorizing – people accept it as being normal.”

González plans to release the short documentary online after the festival in order to generate debate in the build-up to Panama’s May 5 general election. He aims to release a longer feature-length version later this year.

The fest’s Panama Perspective section includes four films. José Ángel Canto’s black-and-white feature, “Dry Season” revolves around three young people in their early twenties, an old gentleman and a native woman from the Kuna tribe. Canto stars as one of the youngsters.

The pic was shot 13 years ago, but had to remain on the shelf as he searched for an editor and post-production funding.

Canto studied at the Cuba Film School, and thinks that this helped him bring an innovative visual aesthetic and greater social awareness to the film.

He is now developing a $1 million period drama set in the 1960s, “The Divided Land” with support from Panama’s national film fund. The film is about a local black man who falls in love with an American white girl living in the U.S.-controlled zone of the Panama Canal, whose motto was “The land divided, the world united.”

Lucho Araújo’s 54-minute documentary “Grandchildren of Jazz” received an award from Doc TV Latin America and was recently aired by several Latin American pubcasters.

The pic, shot over a two-year period, is about a group of six teenagers living in Panama City’s historic quarter who are keen jazz players and are preparing to record their first album.

Two well-known Panamanian jazz musicians, Idania Dowman and Carlos Garnett help the teenagers achieve their dream. Araújo is now finalizing a feature-length version of the project which he hopes to screen in other festivals.

A. Fernandez’s musical documentary, “Azuquita,” is about a 90-year old Panamanian calypso singer, Camilo Azuquita, who has spent most of his career singing abroad, above all in Paris and Puerto Rico, but who returned to Panama for an emotional tribute concert.

The documentary includes interviews with other leading Panamanian musicians such as Ruben Blades and Roberto Duran.

Angelho Taylor’s documentary “Calypsonians” is also musically-themed. It’s about a group of young people living in Portobello in Panama’s Colon province and veteran calypso singers including Ringing Bell, Mighty Sparrow and Lord Panama.

“The film is about identity issues, including a search for my own identity,” explains Taylor. “People in Panama often don’t recognize their own roots and identity. For example if you ask someone whether they are black they will reply, ‘I’m the last shade of white.’”

Denmark’s Supersonic CPH co-produced the film, and oversaw the post-production. The pic will be released in the alternative cinema circuit of Selina.

Edgar Soberón Torchia’s docu “Panama Radio” is about a music store in Panama City’s Historic Quarter, run by women, that also served as a venue for impromptu concerts and was a key hub of salsa music in the 1970s.

Adrian Alexis Mora’s “Huaquero – Profanity of the Shadows” is a fiction film about the theft of Panama’s archaeological treasures. It stars Mora in the lead role, as an anthropologist trying to protect national artefacts. Mora is a real-life anthropologist and says he wanted to make the film to focus attention on what he considers to be a major problem for Panamanian heritage.

“Tierra Adentro,” by Italian director Mauro Colombo, is a documentary about the Darien jungle, on the border between Colombia and Panama, which is home to native tribes but has been transformed into a kind of no-man’s land as a locus for migration and drug trafficking. One of the main characters is an 83-year old missionary woman who escaped from El Salvador and has made the jungle her home.

Colombo moved to Panama 8 years ago and has worked as cinematographer on several pics by Abner Benaim, including “Ruben Blades Is Not My Name.” Benaim produced “Tierra Adentro.”

“I want to show the jungle as a symbol of life – as something which is wild and pure,” explains Colombo. “Because this jungle is disappearing very quickly. This isn’t just an environmental problem, it’s a problem for our identity. I try to use the film to draw the audience into a kind of shamanistic ceremony, that will transport them into another world, which at the same time is linked to their inner selves.”

Ana Elena Tejera’s “Panquiaco,” screening in Primera Mirada, revolves around the story of an indigenous man, Panquiaco, who in 1513 took Vasco Nunez de Balboa through the Darién jungle to get to the Pacific Ocean, an event which changed Panamanian identity for ever. Tejera is an actor and artist who admires the slow cinema style of Pedro Costa and brings a dreamlike approach to the pic. She researched the film while living in Spain, and spending some time in Portugal, and says that the film is partly about exploring the sense of nostalgia that is fueled by exile, as emigrants dream of a land that no longer exists. “We return, but we realize that the country in our heads isn’t the real country. Deep down, this is something which is felt by all Panamanians. We have lost touch with Panquiaco. Now we’re all gringos.”

“Panquiaco” received seed funding from the Tribeca Film Fund and support from Curtas Vila do Conde in Portugal.  It won a prize in Chiledoc’s roughcut sidebar and also screened in Ventana Sur.

Other upcoming projects from Panama include Raphael Salazar’s “Wigudun,” produced by Fernando Muñoz, about the Omeggid trans-gender individuals in the Kuna culture of Panama.

The personal documentary “Tito, Margot and Me,” by Mercedes Arias and Delfina Vidal, is about Panamanian diplomat Tito Arias, and his wife, the ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn. Mercedes Arias is the niece of Tito Arias. The film combines archive footage and new scenes shot in London, Cambridge, New York  and Panama. It explores a profound true-life love story in which Fonteyn adopted Panama as her new home.

After an assassination attempt on her husband, which left him paraplegic, she looked after him for 25 years. A key source of recollections in the film is archive footage, complemented by an interview with the couple’s maid, Buenaventura Medina.

The pic won a prize last year in the pitching session of DocsBarcelona and will return for the speed meeting session this May, in search of completion funding for the post-production.

Finally, director Abner Abnaim plans to shoot his next feature, “Plaza Catedral,” this August. Winner of the 2015 Berlinale Co-Production Market VFF Talent Highlight Pitch Award, the pic returns to one of Benaim’s favorite themes, the contrast between rich and poor, but represents a shift in cinematic style, as he explores a thriller-drama, with a neo-noir aesthetic.