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French auteur filmmaker Claire Denis returns to Panama to open the 11th Panama Int’l Film Festival Dec. 2 with her Cannes Grand Prix winner “Stars at Noon.” 

While set in Nicaragua, the drama shot primarily in Panama last year and is associate produced by Hypatia Films, run by Pituka Ortega Heilbron and Marcela Heilbron, which provided production services. Fest – the IFF Panama as it is also known – closes Dec. 4 with “Tito, Margot y Yo,” an intriguing documentary about the 20th century’s greatest ballerina, Dame Margot Fonteyn, and her marriage to Panamanian politician, Tito Arias.

Some changes are afoot at the festival where, starting this year, Bernardo Ordás Guardia takes over festival duties from Ortega Heilbron who is now chair of the festival board and foundation. Ortega Heilbron plans to devote more time to directing and producing although she will continue to be involved with programming, guests and expanding the festival’s reach.

Budget cutbacks has made the festival reduce its dates to three days and its number of films in competition to 16 this year. Industry panels, also reduced, include a talk by Denis about the shoot; a discussion on the latest audience analysis by the IFF Panama Foundation and BID Lab; a workshop on how to navigate Panama’s cash rebate; a panel of women filmmakers moderated by IFF Panama’s former artistic director, Diana Sanchez; and a talk by “Domingo and the Mist” director Ariel Escalante on “Cinema as a Punk Exercise.”

Said Ortega Heilbron: “The pandemic and the economic situation of our country has been brutal for all cultural endeavors and our festival has deeply suffered for it.  Yet, it continues to be a source of joy for our local audiences and a platform of opportunity for our regional industry.”

“We’re showcasing cinematic gems from mostly Latin America with 45% hailing from Central America and nearly half by women filmmakers,” said Ordás Guardia, who added that they will all be vying for an audience award.

The lineup includes “Bratan” (“Brother”) a restored masterpiece by the late Tajik-born filmmaker Bakhtyar Khudojnazarov who died age 49 in Berlin.

The festival includes three Panamanian films and one Panamanian-Colombian co-production, testament to the small but growing film output of this tiny Central American country of only 4.5 million. Thanks in part to a film fund of $2.2 million, between 2017-2019, Panama was producing an average of 12 films a year. But the pandemic hit and in 2020, only one film was made, the following year merely two, but 2022 will close with some seven films, Ordás Guardia pointed out.

Panama hopes to increase its output not only in volume, but in quality and in diversity of themes and genres, he added.

This year’s Panamanian submission to the Oscars’ Best International Feature Film category, Arturo Montenegro’s “Birthday Boy,” touches on a theme that affects all human beings who are either afflicted or whose loved ones are saddled with a terminal illness and consider the prospect of euthanasia. Set in a stunning beach house in Pedasí, Panama, the drama centers on Jimmy who has invited a few close friends for a weekend celebration of his 45th birthday. When he tells them that he plans to end his life, illegal in Panama and most countries in the world, they are shocked into questioning how far they will go to help their friend.

Poised to go into production in early December, multi-hyphenate Arianne M. Benedetti will be filming her latest drama, “Despíerta Mamá,” where she directs, produces and stars opposite her daughter, Mila Romedetti who at age 6 has already toplined a number of productions.

But the fund is limited and not always available at the right time, so both filmmakers brought in co-producers, product placements and private investors to back their films.

It’s this spirit of entrepreneurship and can-do attitude that will keep the country’s film community going, against all odds.

“We are certain that we will get back on our feet stronger than before,” said Ortega Heilbron, adding: “We simply must, it is our duty, our mission, our purpose. It may take a little time, but we will achieve it.”