With the third International Film Festival Of Panama underway, Panamanian film industry director and film commissioner Arianne Benedetti talks to Jeremy Kay about beaches, jungles, Quantum Of Solace and her country’s ambitious film industry.

As the figurehead of the Panamanian film industry, what are your goals?
We try to get producers from international production companies to come to shoot in Panama. As the film commissioner I go out to sell Panama as a place to shoot films.

What does Panama have to offer?
Panama offers many things. We use USD and that’s a very important thing for an international production because you don’t have to change your money and you don’t lose money [with fluctuating exchange rates]. There are numerous, frequent flights from Panama to the US and for a production company that has to bring a crew and people down here, that’s important.

Tell us about the prime incentives in Panama
Panama started late. We didn’t have the help of past governments but we passed the new law [Law 16] two years ago. We used to make one movie a year and now we’re making eight Panamanian films. So in two years there’s been amazing growth.

Law 16 offers a $3m fund to promote, produce and distribute Panamanian movies and offers tax incentives to private Panamanian companies that donate to Panamanian movies. [There’s also a] screen quota: 10% of all movies shown in movie theatres [owned by] TV channels have to be Panamanian.

We have a 15% rebate for [international] productions that come to Panama and spend more than $3m and under $40m. They have to be international. Everything that’s spent in Panama goes towards the rebate: plane tickets, hotels, transportation services, equipment rental, etc.

Are the crews experienced?
We’re an industry that’s growing and we’re starting to make it happen. In 2007 we started to get production back. That year we got Quantum Of Solace here. That made crews more experienced. As Panamanian film director I am putting workshops together all the time. We could handle one big production and two medium productions at the same time.

So the level of international productions is growing?
In terms of international, Panama used to get $2-3m movies from outside shooting in Panama, except for Quantum Of Solace. Last year we closed out with $23m from international productions. Quantum spent $12m in Panama and hired the crew. Last year we had Paradise Lost with Benicio del Toro [as Pablo Escobar] and a couple of $3m productions and TV shows, which is very demanding because you have a lot of cameras going on at the same time.

Tell us about Panama’s different looks
Panama is a very small country and it’s very metropolised: you can be in Dubai or Vegas or New York, but 50 minutes away you have the jungle and 50 minutes away you have amazing beaches. You could shoot as if you were in the middle of the Amazon but you don’t have to drive nine hours to get to the jungle, so it makes it cheaper.

What are the training opportunities for aspiring local filmmakers?
We’re working on a film school. We have colleges that have production crews but they tend to be more for TV. We have developed workshops for ADs and DPs etc throughout the year. We want to develop a three- or four-year spncialised course.

And the festival. The director is Panamanian filmmaker Pituka Ortega Heilbron and the head programmer is Diana Sanchez, who looks after the Ibero-American strand for Toronto. It sounds like a young and vibrant celebration
The festival started in 2013. This is the third edition. We’re the primary sponsor but we don’t run it. We try to make it a festival for the people and show Panamanians the different types of films they can see. They can always see popcorn films and we try to get them to understand they can see a different kind of film – not necessarily better or worse, but different. The first year we had 11,000 people and we got 23,000 in the second.

It’s like a boutique festival: we treat people like friends. Every day there’s something to make sure you have the best experience, not only as a filmmaker but as a tourist. We have a lot of films from Latin America but it’s international in scope and we’re aiming to show films from 36 counties. We have only one award – the audience award for best first-time director.

Tell us about the MEETS market
I’m the head of the MEETS market. It’s the business part. We want to give Panamanian projects the possibility to be seen and shown. The aim is to get people from all over the world to see the best of the Latin American market. We have a co-production forum and next year we’re lining up to offer finishing funds for films.

The third International Film Festival Of Panama runs from April 3-9.