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PANAMA CITY — Until now, IFF Panama has only had audience awards for completed films. But for its 8th edition, it is hosting a new Fipresci Prize for the 12-pic competition, Stories from Central America and the Caribbean.

The jury members are Joel del Río, from Cuba, José Teodoro, from Canada, and Daniel Domínguez, from Panama.

“The attribution of a Fipresci prize during IFF Panama is a clear mark of recognition of the maturity and importance of the festival,” explains Diana Sanchez, the festival’s artistic director. Variety spoke with Domínguez, a film critic and reporter, about the new award.

Why is this prize important for the region?

Central America and the Caribbean is probably Latin America’s most invisible film region, with the fewest number of films produced. During the long period of dictatorship and civil war ,there was virtually no film production and even under democratic regimes very little support. Our stories weren’t told. They remained invisible. Also for the people. How can the people identify with their countries if they don’t have stories to share? Our films were virtually never presented in leading international film festivals. But little by little films from this region have gained ground in terms of local audiences and the international festival circuit, and this prize is an important milestone.

What does it mean for IFF Panama?

It serves as kind of a certification. It confirms that we are growing well – that we’re growing organically. Filmmakers from throughout Latin America come here and the Fipresci prize is a little window – it’s like a tiny hole in the wall, linking us to the rest of the world, but I think a lot of light will shine through it!

What kind of stories are coming from this region?

Obviously, there are multiple voices and many disperse viewpoints but there are certain points in common. Cinema provides an opportunity to talk about things that have been hushed under the carpet. For example, for many years in the countries of this region we had military dictatorships, of the left and right. There are many questions that still need to be resolved, and things to recover. Cinema offers a space for dialogue. There are so many issues related to the vulnerable sectors in our societies, questions of social inequality and of indigenous peoples. In our countries the importance of protecting the environment is often forgotten. We take advantage of nature for economic reasons and overlook the fact that species and peoples are disappearing. These are common themes. For example, the jungle in El Salvador and Panama is the same – it’s a force that brings us together.

Has IFF Panama helped introduce audiences to new kinds of films?

Yes. That’s directly linked to the Fipresci prize. There was no tradition of film festivals in Panama, for example. People were only used to Hollywood movies. Here the audience has grown and this has enabled people to see other realities. This festival helps spectators opens their minds. I’ve supported the festival from the beginning and last year I was a member of the jury of Primera Mirada. I’m very proud to serve on the jury of the first Fipresci prize at the festival.