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IFFP: ‘La Ruta’ Director Pituka Ortega-Heilbron on Her Portrait of Panama City Through Its People

IFFP: 'La Ruta' Director Pituka Ortega-Heilbron on Her Portrait of Panama City Through Its People

Panama is more than Paper.  It is People, Culture, Music, Dance, Movies, Work, Love, Pain and Passion. 

Pituka Ortega-Heilbron is not only the director of the International Film Festival of Panama, she is first and foremost, a producer and director of both fiction and non-fiction features. 

Two years ago in Cannes I wrote about her film “Panama Canal Stories” (Read it here)

This year at the IFF Panama, I saw her film The Route”/ “La ruta” about the metropolitan bus system of Panama City.  Told in an impressionistic way this documentary captures the raucous spirit of Panama and its people, music, art and especially depicts the hard work of those who sustain a city that grows almost recklessly.

“Panama is more than paper”, Victor, one of these people of the city, said to me at the closing night party where we danced to a DJ, Miles-like trumpeter and two drummers. And he is right.

As I walked around Panama City which is rapidly losing its poorer neighborhoods in favor of beautifully reconstructed colonial buildings for business and tourism, I visited two churches on Sunday and was deeply moved by the people praying, receiving communion and greeting their neighbors and the strangers among them (me) with warm handshakes.  These are the people depicted in “La ruta” with a great affection by Ortega-Heilbron.

This follows several ordinary Panamanians on their way to work, and in doing so emphasizes the enormous, sometimes fatal, problems Panama City continues to experience with its desperately needed public transit system.

 After seeing this movie, I will never look at those crazily painted buses called “Diablos Rojos” (“Red Devils”) the same way again.  And I certainly will never ride in one.  When I was in Cuba, I had to have the experience once of riding “the camel”, as they called their buses at that time, buses they rated “R for sex and violence”.  But I will leave the Panamanian buses to the Panamanians, like the three people depicted in this film about the masses transported to work in the city from the outskirts of town. For most Panamanians, buses are the only option to get to work and these buses are like time bombs.  Their passengers are well aware of their danger but have no choice. Every month people die or get hurt.

In “La Ruta” we meet Alcides Pineda, a 72 year old bus driver, who attended the screening, Lucia Zavala, a woman who wakes and walks and even takes a jitney in the early dawn hours to her bus which takes her to work at a food truck where she sells meals to the other early morning workers, and Severino Gonzáles, a construction worker who wakes up at 3:30 A.M. every morning from Monday to Saturday to take the bus to work on one of those skyscrapers now distinguishing the skyline of Panama City.  Luckily for the viewer’s sensitivity, it is not one of those which are displacing the poor and moving them farther out from the center of the city where they must return every day in order to service the wealthy city dwellers.

This is the portrait of a nation that claims it is becoming a first world country but which lacks the basic resources to live up to it. But before I call the kettle black, I must look at our own great “melting pot” cities who are cooking up a similar stew: L.A. rents are so high that even the middle class cannot afford them.  Mass transportation is still an issue.  In New York the subways are century-old dark, dirty, noisy and rude and its neighborhoods are mostly gentrified by now.  Paris outskirts are notorious zones of social unrest.

Read John Hopewell’s Variety article on “La Ruta”.

In his article in Variety, John Hopewell mentions that Amnesty International considers adequate public transportation a human right which places “La Ruta” in a position of social advocacy. This film should certainly serve as an advocacy tool and I hope it shows in Amnesty International Film Festival and other festivals of human rights.  I see it playing in Urbanworld Film Festival and other urban festivals as a call to people to act on these universal issues the 1% is imposing upon the 99%.  Festivals on ecology, urban issues, and even music festivals would be impressed with this city symphony. But, with its dreamy, nostalgic transitions and sublime music, “La ruta” pays loving tribute to the people of the city. 

I interviewed Pituka who had this to say: “Most Panamanians still believe things can get better and that they eventually will, even though the 72 year old bus driver (who is now 77) recognizes it is all political.  “it’s all a business – the promise to change.  Red Devils are the only ones that move people into the city”.

SL: The music was especially strong…

Pituka Ortega-HeilbronAt the beginning of the film we used 1981 footage with 80s music. The opening song with the aerial shoot is called Aguarrás and it is by Señor Loop and the song at the end was by The Weather Report, by Lilo Sánchez. While some of the music is composed by Sr. Loop, other songs are interpreted by other Panamanian musicians and created by Spanish-speaking composers that hail from Spain to Cuba to Panama. 

SL: Do the bus drivers own their buses and decorate them themselves?

Pituka Ortega-Heilbron: No, they get a public permit to drive.  The painting is done in competitions and there are three or four famous bus painters making “rotolistas” which is a style using air spray and graffiti-like letters.

SL: Was this a difficult movie to make?

Pituka Ortega-Heilbron: It took eight years to make it.  Crews varied from three or four to zero.  Six years of shooting meant the DP was not always available and we used other photographers at times.

Often we had to capture events and visuals as they happened and did not have time to mount a camera on a tripod. Using a “restless camera” was a risky visual tack we took, getting the feeling of being inside the bus.

Editing with the many ideas we captured and wanted to convey was also difficult.

SL: What was the budget?

Pituka Ortega-Heilbron: It cost $180,000.  Most of the money went into music and post. 

SL: How did you raise the money for the film?

Pituka Ortega-Heilbron: Ibermedia, DICINE fund (the Panama Film Fund), TVN Films (a local TV station) and Cinergia.

SL: How did you feel about the audience’s reaction?

Pituka Ortega-Heilbron: I heard someone say, “I’m stressed” as they left the theater.  I sensed a sadness in the audience.  There is a lovelessness toward these people who live in faraway neighborhoods who must drive so far to get to work and then to return home.

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