Abner Benaim, one of Panama’s leading helmers, whose 2014 doc “Invasion,” about the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama, was the country’s 2016 Academy Award entry, is currently preparing a 13-part TV series “El Presidente,” as well as new fiction feature “Plaza Catedral”, while completing his 90-minute music docu “Ruben Blades Is Not My Name,” which he plans to release at the end of 2017.
All three projects are aimed at the international market: “I don’t believe in making films just for Panama,” says Benaim. “It’s not feasible economically. It’s too small a market. You need to aim at least for Latin America.”
Benaim is particularly interested by the contrast between rich and poor in Latin America, and explores this question from multiple perspectives, including crime drama in “El Presidente,” a thriller-drama in “Plaza,” and music in the “Ruben Blades” documentary.
“El Presidente” is co-penned by Benaim and Papus Von Saenger, who also co-wrote his first feature, “Chance.” The pilot and synopsis for the first two seasons are written. The project is a co-production between Benaim’s company Apertura Films, and Panama-based Vertical Media, owned by Carlos Garcia de Paredes, one of the producers of 2016 boxing bio pic, “Hands of Stone.”
The series is aimed at payTV and VOD platforms such as Netflix and is based on politicians in the region who run mafio-cracies.
“It’s a fun show, with lots of dark comedy,” said Benaim. “But it’s also got a very sharp edge, using comedy to point out the injustices that abound and the absurdity of what has become the norm for the political system in Latin America.”
Benaim says they are currently in talks with possible partners for the Latin American market who believe in original content and are ready to support a project that could generate controversy – “Although it’s all fiction, the fact that it’s inspired by real situations and people scares some people away,” he commented.
This will be Benaim’s first major TV series and he said that it represents a huge challenge, but because of the high interest in producing TV series he hopes to create enthusiasm because of the material and the way that he plans to treat it.
“The source of the material is endless! Every day in every newspaper, there is an outrageous story about some political or corporate scandal in our countries,” he remarked.
He added: “Now it’s not limited to Latin America, either. The craziness and unhinged corruption is everywhere. But ours is more the stuff of comedy and the absurd, because of our joyful culture, which somehow plays even in the most difficult situations.”
“Ruben Blades” is a co-production between Benaim’s company, Apertura Films, and Argentina’s Gema Films, run by Gema Juarez Allen, together with Ciudad Lunar in Colombia (“Embrace of the Serpent’”) and has backing from Ibermedia, COPA airlines and Panamanian TV station TVN.
Benaim said that he wanted to make the documentary about Ruben Blades because he is a fan of the man and his music since he was a kid.
“I think it’s important to understand where I’m coming from, namely a place of admiration of his music, his career, and especially because I can relate so much to him, since I’m also from Panama,” he revealed.
The helmer said that shooting the documentary during 2016 was extremely exciting – as he filmed concerts and other day-to-day events involving Blades in Panama, the U.S., Puerto Rico, Mexico and Colombia.
“We’ve been lucky that Ruben has collaborated with very interesting people throughout his career,” ssid Benaim. “So I also got a chance to interview many greats of Latin Music, such as Larry Harlow Rene (from Calle 13) and Danilo Perez and also icons from other areas, such as Junot Diaz, Paul Simon, Christopher Walken and Sting, among others.”
He says that making a documentary about someone with such a long career as Ruben Blades – spanning almost 50 years since the release of his first album – has been a difficult task, because his first instinct was to try to encompass everything that Blades has done in a 90-minute film, but soon realized that this was impossible.
“A key question to answer is what resonates with me as an artist from Ruben’s life and work experience?” explained Benaim. “The answer to that for me is in the process itself. Getting to know a person is all about impressions. The hard facts are there, but even they are malleable. Although the film captures very concrete moments, the editing process makes these come together and forms a kind of mosaic, that seen from afar, is interpreted as a portrait of a man.”
Benaim says that he hopes that his portrait will be “noble and loving, but also critical and severe at the same time.”
“Ruben has warned me of his dislike for the vain and superficial. My answer to that was: Don’t worry- I’ll try and make a film about a storyteller who creates his own story in order to tell it, and tells it in order to be able to cope with life, and in time, with death. To that, he answered simply – ‘OK.’”
Ultimately Benaim said that it’s “a film about a musician I admire and I hope to pay justice to his life and work by doing something interesting, unconventional, that makes sense for me and for an audience that includes fans and people who don’t know him at all. It’s a tricky route, but I’m optimistic.”
“Plaza Catedral” is due to be shot in 2018, primarily lensed in Panama’s old quarter (Casco Viejo). The project won the 2015 Berlinale Co-Production Market VFF Talent Highlight Pitch Award and has support from Ibermedia.
It is about a man in his forties who cannot find peace in his life after having lost a son. His life is changed when he meets a kid from the streets in dire need of help. Benaim plans to use a non-actor for the kid and a well-known actor for the grown up, whose name can’t yet be revealed.
The helmer plans the film’s look to be very stylized and edgy: “I think the combination of fine camera work and art direction with the roughness of the place should yield interesting results. The fact is that Casco Viejo is gentrified and touristy, but there are still enough wild, raw elements about it to make it interesting to me, especially because that contrast between smooth and rough is an important component of the film.”
Benaim’s previous films have achieved considerable box office success in Panama. “Chance” outperformed “Avatar” at the Panamanian box-office, with 140,000 admissions and also clocked up a further 150,000 admissions in Colombia. His 2014 docu “Invasion” recorded over 50,000 admissions.
This will be the first time in five years that Benaim doesn’t have a film in the IFFPanama Festival, although he will be attending the opening ceremony.
Asked about his view on the current state of Panamanian cinema, he says: “My opinion is that there is still not enough being made to judge. I think what you can feel now is the eagerness to film. I think we’ve a long ways to go before Panama’s films find their own character. I know that in my own career I feel like I’ve just begun, and I have a huge ‘to-do list’ for the near future.”
Benaim said that in the near future he plans to work across the three fields – features, documentaries and TV-series, as well as new forms of storytelling. “I just wish I could be more productive, quicker, even exuberant,” he says. “I have so many things I want to do. But no complaints, just the desire to do even more!”