When IFF Panama launched in 2012, the Panamanian film industry was slowly ticking over and the link between Panama and the world of cinema was limited to the occasional U.S. or international feature film shot in the country.
But over the past 5 years, under fest director, Pituka Ortega Heilbron and artistic director, Diana Sanchez, IFF Panama has secured its place as, without doubt, one of the most important festivals in Central America and the Caribbean. Along the way the fest has also helped consolidate the nascent Panamanian film industry.
By building a bridge between Central America and the Caribbean, the festival has also helped create a critical mass of films and filmmakers in the region which is feeding into new development.
These achievements were particularly evident at this year’s 6th edition, as highlighted an increased industry presence and attraction of key filmmakers from throughout Latin America-
The 3rd Primera Mirada sidebar has already established itself as one of the region’s most prestigious pix-in-post sidebars, screen new films by some of the region’s most dynamic filmmakers.
This year, the inaugural Campus Latino, organized by the Panama Film Festival, Documentary Campus and the Goethe Institut Mexico brought 13 projects and over 20 filmmakers to the fest.
The festival also increased its educational program in 2017, including sold-out sessions in Teatro Balboa’s 1,300-seater cinema, and master classes with leading film professionals such as art director Eugenio Caballero (“Pan’s Labyrinth”).
Documentary film production was highlighted by a documentary film funding panel and Campus Latino workshop, focuses on doc projects from Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean.
Another panel homed in on the fine line between documentaries and fiction with Chilean documentary filmmaker, Maite Alberdi, Colombia’s Lucia Carreras and Panama’s Ana Endara.
Alberdi says that instead of a fusion between documentary and fiction there are currently two very highly distinct trends: Some fiction filmmakers adopt a rougher approach to make their films look more realistic and closer to life; several doc directors, including herself, are doing exactly the inverse, using careful framing and editing to achieve an almost-fiction look to their work, as in her recent Down’s syndrome docu, “The Grownups.”
Alberdi is currently developing what she calls a film noir documentary, “The Mole Agent,” about a private detective, that she will shoot in September, she said that in terms of the photography and visual style it will look like a classic detective film, but will be a completely true-life story. “I always loved detective films,” she said. “But I never found a documentary with a private detective.”
IFF Panama’s Cine en el Barrio section,another 2017 departure, organized three open-air screenings in different neighborhoods of Panama City among them Lucia Carreras’s “Tamara & Ladybug.” Carreras said that she is a big fan of such events, which almost operate like a parallel festival, recalling a presentation she made at Spain’s Huelva Festival in the local jail, which she describes as “another great opportunity to show films to a different audience that normally doesn’t have the chance to see that kind of cinema.”
Mexico-based Guatemalan Julio Hernandez Cordon was one of Primera Mirada’s three jury members and also screened his sixth feature, “Behind There’s Lightning.”
“Lightning” was literally produced at lightning speed and with an ultra-low budget. The pic’s lead actresses, Natalia Mora and Adriana Alvarez, asked Hernandez to direct the pic and raised the budget via a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo, with many sponsors and services-in-kind fleshing out the budget.
Mora and Alvarez – who are well known actresses in Costa Rica – wanted to break with the female stereotypes that they are often asked to portray, in which women are shown as victims of different social causes in highly patriarchal social structures.
“We wanted to make a film in which the main female characters are much more empowered,” revealed Alvarez. “The can-do attitude behind making this film was part of that process.”
Hernandez says that, ironically, the ultra-low budget coincided with his first opportunity to work with professional actors: This enabled him to improvise and develop unexpected dramatic moments.
“This film is an example that will motivate others to fight for their projects,” says Mora. “There are no excuses not to make a film.”
Hernandez plans to shoot his next film in Mexico in October, starring his daughters which he says is inspired by a mixture of Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn,” “Mad Max” and baseball.
He is also writing a 13-part TV series, “Invisible Wall,” about middle class Mexican immigrants living in the U.S. that will be shot in English and Spanish. Both projects are produced by Mexico’s Rafael Ley.
Ariel Escalante, whose “Sound of Things” played in Primera Mirada in 2015 and this year screened in the fest’s Stories of Central America and Caribbean section, talked to Variety about forthcoming project, “Land of Ashes,” directed by Costa Rican Argentinian director Sophia Quiros, and co-produced with Argentina’s Murillo Cine and Chile’s La Post Producciones.
“Ashes” is a coming-of-age tale, set on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast. The $300,000 budgeted pic participated in Mar del Plata’s Lobo Lab in November, and won production prizes at Costa Rica film festival in December, and Cartagena’s co-prod meeting in March. It also has Ibermedia .
Escalante is also prepping his own next feature, “Zanfona” which he plans to direct in 2019. It’s a supernatural family drama which Escalante says deals with the “historical revision of the role of the bourgeoisie in the construction of Costa Rica’s contemporary democracy.”
“Zanfoña” turns on a patriarchal father, a great-grandson of a late Costa Rican president, on his deathbed who suddenly realizes that there is a pack of wild dogs on his estate that have come to take his soul.
“I want to move away from naturalism and move towards more poetic and surreal stories and discuss certain things that aren’t normally discussed in my country.,” Escalante said.
The desire to use cinema to address pressing political issues in Latin America is by no means new. But many – often young – Central American and Caribbean helmers interviewed at Panama openly embraced this goal, including Escalante: “This part of the world is definitely awakening at a fast pace. The Panama Festival brings Central America and the Caribbean together. Despite our shared history, we don’t make bridges that often. Panama, Costa Rica, Honduras and Guatemala all have parts of their countries in the Caribbean, but usually the poorest, most forgotten parts,” Escalante said.
He went on: “This fest says that it makes sense to screen films from Martinique and Costa Rica at the same fest. That makes your head think differently and could lead to very wonderful things.”
IFF Panama films also bridge Latin and North America, such as Marty Sader’s “Monday Nights at Seven,” which stars and is executive produced by Edward James Olmos, with Mexican actress former UFC Middleweight Champion, stars. Laura Keys co-wrote and produced.
Sader, who also plays the lead character, grew up in Iran until the age of 13 before moving to the UK where he studied theatre, before moving to L.A.. He describes “Nights” as a combination of ultra-method acting and neo-realism, revealing that he’s particularly inspired by Ermanno Olmi’s 1961 classic, “Il Posto.”
The picture bowed in at October’s Mill Valley Festival, then Miami this March where it caught Sanchez’s eye.
“Nights” is set against a backdrop of the Mixed Martial Arts. “Fight is a metaphor. When we first started this adventure, I didn’t understand the artistry behind the fight. These fighters come into the cage to express themselves. They’re like jazz musicians ripping off each other.”
This year’s selection of films included the first-ever animated feature from Martinique and one of the first in the Caribbean region – “Battledream Chronicle,” by Alain Bidard.
The film is set in the 22nd century, centering on a young girl slave. Bidard said the film aims provide a distinctive view of Martinique: “The way French directors show Martinique is really another variant of Orientalism: An exotic location, while our own philosophy and mythology aren’t really explored. What interested me was to introduce mythology from the Caribbean and Martinique. That way I can talk about part of our black slavery history, projected into the future.”
Film is partly inspired by Ray Kurzweil’s writings on Transhumanism and the Singularity. The pic will be distributed by Frances Anne Solomon’s Caribbean Tales, with whom Bidard is now developing a $1.5 million animation TV series, based on the same universe.
In the fest’s closing press conference, Heilbron emphasized that distribution is the key challenge facing the region’s filmmakers and also underlined films potential to foster social and political change.
“Cinema in this region is growing in production volume and caliber. All the films shown in this festival merit broader exposure. Films can inspire people. When someone buys a ticket at the IFF Panama, it’s much more than watching a film, it’s a cultural event.”