IFF Panama: Spotlighting Central American, Caribbean Films


A report by Anna Marie de la Fuente for Variety.

Filmmaking grows despite caveats

Central American and Caribbean filmmakers are coming into their own, despite the myriad obstacles they face.

Scant resources, infrastructure, and training are just some of the challenges in the region. However, film production has risen in some territories, especially in Panama, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico where state-backed film funds are available.

Due to recession-related budget cuts, Trinidad & Tobago’s already limited film fund has been dormant of late although state org FILM TT has been offering micro-grants towards marketing costs. In 2015, Costa Rica launched film and TV production fund El Fauno, valued at 250 million colons ($446,735), and has backed 17 projects so far.

“The region’s burgeoning cinema needs all the support it can get,” said IFF Panama founder-director Pituka Ortega-Heilbron who has made it her life mission to support the arts and hopes that the festival will not only give the films a much-need platform but nurture new audiences.

The festival’s Central American & Caribbean section and pix-in-post platform Primera Mirada showcase the growing sophistication of a budding film industry.

“Heat, color and rhythm are recurring elements in these films, with the exception of Costa Rican drama “The Sound of Things,” which has a more austere look to it,” said artistic director Diana Sanchez.

“Despite external influences, whether from their studies abroad, there’s an honesty and visceral quality to these filmmakers’ work,” said Ortega-Heilbron.

“I believe there is a tendency – ever more pronounced – for the region to produce two kinds of films: Those that are more complex, with profound themes, and the more commercial audience-friendly films,” said Habanero Films’ Alfredo Calvino who brings Cuba’s controversial “Santa y Andres” by Carlos Lechuga to IFF Panama. Banned in Cuba, “Santa & Andres” has been making the round of festivals worldwide. Habanero Films is also handling Costa Rican Hilda Hidalgo’s (“Del Amor y Otros Demonios”) latest film, still in post, “Violeta al fin.”

For the first time ever, IFF Panama is closing with a Caribbean film, “Carpinteros” (“Woodpeckers”) by Jose Maria Cabral of the Dominican Republic. “Carpinteros” was also the first Dominican film to compete at the Sundance Film Fest. Inspired by real-life detainees at the Dominican Republic Najayo prison, the pic centers on a romance that blooms between two inmates in neighboring prisons where they learn to communicate via a sign language. Female lead Judith Rodriguez Perez also plays a key role in Primera Mirada entry, “Cocote” by DR’s Nelson Carlos de los Santos.  “Carpinteros” Dominican-Haitian lead Jean Jean also has a documentary he directed competing at IFF Panama, “Si Dios Quiere, Yuli,” (“God Willing, Yuli”), which turns on the injustices Haitians suffer in the Dominican Republic where they are treated like second-class citizens.

Some of last year’s Primera Mirada entries are in this year’s Central America & Caribbean selection, led by Costa Rican Jurgen Urena’s “Abrazame como Antes” (“Embrace Me Like Before”) which centers on a transsexual prostitute’s bid to create a family. Dominican Yanillys Perez’s debut feature “Jeffrey,” winner of Toronto’s Dropbox Discovery Film Award, is another 2016 Primera Mirada alum playing at IFF Panama.

Julio Hernandez Cordon, who won the Primera Mirada Grand Prize in 2015 with “I Promise You Anarchy,” is back with his sixth feature film “Atras hay relampagos” (“Behind, There’s Lightning”), which premiered at Rotterdam.  Bikes, instead of “Anarchy’s” skateboards, are key elements in Hernandez’s latest drama about the travails of two young women. “The story stems from two friends who have a falling out,” said Hernandez. “I wanted to make a movie where vintage cars, bicycles and lush vegetation were present,” he added.

An animated feature made the cut this year: Martinique’s Alain Bidard, “Battledream Chronicle,” a dystopian thriller with videogame aesthetics about slaves revolting against tyranny. Given the Caribbean’s slave history, the film has a decidedly political undertone.

Panama’s “La Matamoros,” Delfina Vidal’s account about Panama’s first feminist, is among the noteworthy documentaries coming from the region where the non-fiction genre is prevalent due to its relatively low production costs. Another Panamanian entry, docu “Cimarronaje en Panama” by Toshi Sakai, explores the history of the rebel slaves in colonial-era Panama.

“I would like to think that a new wave of talent will enrich film production in Central America,” said Hernandez. “Now that they’ve managed the nuts and bolts of making a film, they need to polish their content, and find or decide on an aesthetic that is uniquely Central American; for that, we need more productions,” he said.

The 6th IFF Panama runs from March 30 to April 5.

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