“Quantum of Solace” might not be considered a classic, but the filming of James Bond film in Panama created a ripple effect in the country that is still felt today. “That was our first project,” admits Gabriel Padilla, the Projects Relation Manager of the Panama Film Commission. “It was one of the driving reasons why the government established the Film Commission.” Six years later, in large part due to the economic push of a blockbuster studio production, Panama has made strides to bolster its film industry and provide previously unavailable opportunities to local filmmakers.
There’s a blind, go-for-broke dedication present in every corner of the independent film world. What sets Panama and the rest of Central America apart is that there has been no established industry to support the careers of its residents. While there might be fewer resources, however, the passion and commitment are on par with other film industries around the world. In recent years, there has been a shared feeling that the infrastructure being put in place will give filmmakers across the region access to the necessary resources to create a self-sustaining independent film industry.
“There are no film schools in Panama,” said Ana Endara Miroslav, director of the documentary “Reina.” “I always wanted to make movies but I never had the chance. I had to study something else in college.” Upon graduation, she applied for a loan and flew to Cuba to enroll at the Escuela Internacional de Cine y TV de Santiago de los Baños, the alma matter for most of the filmmakers in the region. When she returned to Panama, Miroslav found scarce opportunities in her field. Like many of her classmates, she found work directing commercials, institutional documentaries, and educational films. She had to wait until 2007, seven years after leaving film school, to complete her first documentary feature. That film, “Curundú,” didn’t screen in her home country until 2012, when it was part of the inaugural IFF Panama.
I met with Miroslav and several other filmmakers at the second edition of IFF Panama, a film festival founded through a collaboration between executives from the Toronto International Film Festival and local members of Panama’s film community. Screening local films isn’t enough for a serious festival in Central America. The real responsibility lies in creating the appropriate channels to encourage production, distribution, and exhibition across borders. “The goal is to create a platform for Central American cinema,” explains festival director Pituka Ortega. “We want the festival to build ties across the region.”
Anayansi Prado studied cinema at Boston University and began her career in New York and Los Angeles. She returned to her native Panama to make her third documentary, “Paraiso for Sale,” and experienced first-hand the unique difficulties that face Panamanian filmmakers. Anayansi made it clear, however, that her experience is distinctly different from those based in her country. “I made my film with American funding, so my situation doesn’t compare to those working down here who really had to hustle to get their movies made.”That hustle isn’t limited to fundraising, either. Arianne Benedetti, a filmmaker and the current head of the Panama Film Commission, describes a bohemian approach to production on her films, with friends and neighbors helping out in every role. “We can prepare directors but it won’t get us anywhere unless the more technical roles are also developed,” she states. “We need proficient sound technicians, gaffers, and camera operators as well. The task is to train people so we can create the technical jobs that make the creative aspect possible.”
Attracting foreign productions to shoot in Panama is part of that strategy. A recently implemented 15% cash back program is in effect, with the hope of bringing in projects where locals can work alongside industry veterans to get hands-on experience. The revenue will help finance the $3 million fund established to give local filmmakers funding for their projects. The first round of these awards was given at this year’s festival to 12 filmmakers. Workshops are also being implemented across the country and there is talk of partnering with a university to open a 12 month post-graduate program.”Our goal is to ramp up production from one to seven films each year,” explained Benedetti.
Miroslav couldn’t rely on any of these new initiatives for “Reinas.” The first big break in her career came when she received funding for “Curundú” from Cinergia, a production fund based in Costa Rica since 2004 that helps finance projects from Central America and the Caribbean. “My generation owes a lot to that organization,” she added. “Cinergia had the vision to open itself up to the region and help us get our films made.”
Miroslav decided to go a different route when raising money for “Reinas,” becoming one of the first Central American filmmakers to start a Kickstarter campaign. “No one knew what that was here,” she said. “I had to introduce the whole crowdfunding culture to everyone I met. People weren’t familiar with the concept, so it became a challenge to convince them that it’s a legitimate and common way to finance films.” “Reinas” was featured in Indiewire’s Project of the Day in August of 2011 and successfully reached her fundraising goal of $19,000.
Despite these advancements, the major Hollywood studios still dominate the distribution and exhibition landscape in Central America. Panama is only a recent example of a country that invests in cinema as a source of economic growth. It’s ironic that a blockbuster film, free of all the challenges mentioned above, helped pave the road for the filmmakers following in Ana and Anayansi’s footsteps. “Quantum of Solace” indirectly showed Panama’s government the economic benefit of supporting film production, both on a foreign and domestic level.
The byproducts of globalization aren’t always this positive (there are too many counter-examples and adverse effects to list), but James Bond might just be the hero that Panama’s independent filmmakers never expected.