With its third edition, which concluded on Wednesday, the Panama International Film Festival continued the year-on-year growth that is turning it into one of the region’s most important showcases for Ibero-American cinema.
For the first time this year, the festival played host to Meets, a film market aimed at fostering networks for co-production, sales and distribution of Latin American projects. Panama City was also chosen by EGEDA and FIPCA as the venue for their first Premios Platino awards, also during the week of the festival.
“Having all these filmmakers in one place has been extraordinary,” says festival director Pituka Ortega Heilbron. “Meets has added to this great vibe around the city. And Premios Platino could have been in so many other locations, in any other week of the year, so we were very honoured that it was here. It all underlines the festival’s growing significance.”
Synergy would seem to be the byword for the emergence of Panama as a cinema force in the region. The creation of the festival, with a $1m-plus government grant, coincided with a Panamanian film law that supports local production and film culture, and a new Panama Film Commission (under the aegis of the ministry of commerce and industry) that each year awards millions of dollars of production grants to local filmmakers, again during the festival.
Ortega Heilbron, a producer and documentary maker herself, was one of those filmmakers who had long campaigned for such government support for their small but ambitious community. This has been her second year as sole director, and the third as artistic director for Diana Sanchez, Toronto’s respected Ibero-American cinema programmer.
Sanchez’s 73 films are a canny combination of crowd-pleasing and tougher fare, which acts as a high-quality snapshot of contemporary Latin America cinema. There’s an international showcase, but the emphasis is on Spanish language, with a section devoted to Central America. The effect for local audiences restricted to a year-round diet of Hollywood films can’t be over-estimated.
Notable films this year included two Panamanian documentaries enjoying their world premiers at the beautifully ornate Teatro Nacional: Abner Benaim’s Invasion, an inventive, taboo-breaking reflection on America’s infamous invasion of the country in 1989, which confirms Benaim as a filmmaker who really needs to be noticed outside Panama; and Breaking the Wave [pictured], Annie Canavaggio’s good-looking and engaging account of the struggle of Panama’s black surfers to overcome prejudice and acquire the corporate sponsorship to match their talents. Both played to packed and enthusiastic houses.
Across town at the Cinepolis multiplex, screens normally given over to US blockbusters instead played such titles as the Premio Platino winner for best film, Gloria, and San Sebastian’s Golden Shell winner Bad Hair, a deadpan black comedy from Peru, The Mute, the powerful migrant story from Mexico, The Golden Cage, and the terrific Costa Rican comedy All About the Feathers, which combines such Latin tropes as disaffected security guards, God and cock fighting to marvellously silly effect.
Sanchez also offered a small retrospective to the great Spanish actor Luis Tosar, who was in town with his co-star of the closing night film A Gun in Each Hand, Ricardo Darin; Arturo Ripstein and Clare Denis were among other visiting filmmakers.
Meanwhile, Meets featured a day of pitching to producers, distributors and sales agents, followed by a day of meetings. Twelve projects were selected to take part, five Panamanian, from 128 submissions. Projects had to be in the final stages of development, with at least 30 percent of financing in place.
Among the participants, director Aldo Rey Valderrama, and producers Miguel Gonzalez and Mariel Garcia Spooner presented their drama Dream About the City. Adapted from a Panamanian novel, it concerns the journey of a poor rural woman to Panama City, in search of her lost daughter. In their twenties and thirties, the trio represent a new generation of Panamanian filmmakers training abroad (in Cuba and Spain) but keen to make films in their own country.
“I’m truly excited about the market,” says Spooner. “We have been longing for this kind of exposure for our projects in Panama. We’ve got to get our films out there.”
“Initiatives like Meets are important because they enable Latin American projects to reach high-profile professionals from the world film industry,” says film commission chief and Meets general director Arianne Benedetti. “We’re making Panama the hub for Latin American production.”
A Mexican project, The Darkness, won the Meets cash prize of $25,000. The same day, the Dream About the City team learned they had been awarded the film commission’s top production grant of $750,000, around half of their projected $1.5m budget.
Theirs was one of 14 projects to receive grants totalling $22m. Both Invasion and Breaking the Wave received production money last year.
“This enables us to complete the path we’ve started out on,” says Miguel Gonzalez. “It changes everything.”
The festival presented three audience awards. Invasion was voted both the best Central American and Caribbean film and best documentary, and the Spaniard Javier Ruiz Caldera won the best Ibero-American fiction award for his romantic comedyThree Many Weddings.
“To have a film open here is really special,” says Benaim. “I love this festival, because it’s ours and it’s the one I fought for. And because of the theme, I particularly wanted Invasion to premier here. It was part of the plan.
“I think the festival is shaping up very nicely. The programming is great, it’s becoming known by the filmmakers in the region. And with the market, and the Premios Platino, for a week we’ve been the centre for Latin American cinema.”