The president of Colombia gave a rousing rallying cry for local cinema at the opening of the Cartagena Film Festival late last month, showing one country that is taking its industry seriously.

In an era where support for film – and the arts in general – are increasingly the victim of public funding cuts, it was refreshing to see the president of Colombia make such a firm commitment to his local industry at the opening of the Cartagena Film Festival late last month.

President Juan Manuel Santos was about 45 minutes late to the opening but that didn’t stop him from giving an eloquent statement of intent to local film-makers.

“We want more and better Ibero-American films, more and better Colombian films, in which our people can express and reveal new facets of themselves to the entire world.”

He went on to say that his agenda is to make an aggressive play for foreign productions to shoot in Colombia, “to create conditions so that more and more national and foreign producers choose our country as the best place to make their films.”

“We have the human talent and the will to make film-making a new source of prosperity.”

For a country like Colombia with a burgeoning industry, film may serve another important purpose – to inform the world that Colombia whose name has for decades been associated with the drug trade, social and political unrest and kidnapping has changed and is now a culturally rich, safe and relatively stable society. Film, as Santos realises, has the power to reflect society and he said he longed for a time when the films were no longer about druglords or crime, when “there are no more Rosario Tijeras or Our Ladies Of The Assassins.”

“From the time I acted as Minister Of Foreign Trade in the early 1990s,” he said, “I was very aware of the need to promote national films as a way of introducing others to our country and venturing into an important international market.”

Surrounded by his phalanx of bodyguards and aides, Santos stayed for the opening night screening of local film The Colours Of The Mountain directed by Carlos Cesar Arbelaez, although for those of us in the audience, it was ironic and a little discomfiting that there were more men with guns in the auditorium than there were on the screen.

Santos’ enthusiasm for film is famous in Colombia and he enacted the 2003 Film Law when he was minister of finance. I couldn’t help comparing him to the UK prime minister David Cameron, who in the wake of the abolition of the UK Film Council, declared, with an almost staggering lack of interest or information, that there should be more films like Harry Potter.

Colombia’s cinematic renaissance, buoyed by the government’s support, is neatly echoed by Cartagena itself, the oldest film festival in the Americas which celebrated its 51st year with a new director, Monika Wagenberg, who is determined to bring it soaring into the 21st century and onto a world stage. It’s a big job, which includes upgrading the local screening facilities and the film offering.

Her first programme was a sophisticated showcase of the best Latin American films of the year with the latest highlights from Colombian cinema. The main Ibero-American competition featured impressive films like Pablo Larrain’s Post Mortem (which world premiered in Venice), Natalia Smirnoff’s Puzzle (Berlin 2010) and Daniel and Diego Vega’s Octubre (Cannes) along with less exposed titles such as Anil Berneri’s excellent Por Tu Culpa (Argentina) or Frederico Veiroj’s delightful La Vida Util (Uruguay).

Wagenberg also enticed some big names to Cartagena including Olivier Assayas, Arturo Ripstein, Carlos Reygadas, Luis Tosar, Carlos Cuaron and Guillermo Arriaga; the excitement and discussion surrounding cinema, both fiction and documentary, was scintillating and reflective of a continent which is abuzz with new storytelling forms and bold film-makers.

Latin America already has some significant festivals – Morelia, BAFICI, Guadalajara, Rio, Sao Paolo, Mar Del Plata – but Cartagena, with its glorious walled Spanish city, superb Caribbean climate and superb cuisine, has the potential to become a premier event for Ibero-American film from its base in Colombia.

Besides, while Europe licks its wounds in the wake of devastating government cuts, it’s nothing less than invigorating to visit a country where film is front and centre in the political conversation.