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Panama: The Next Big Country for Latin American Films?

Panama: The Next Big Country for Latin American Films?

An exponential surge in the quantity and quality of films is continuing to come out of Latin America. (Hence my urge to write two books on the subject, the next to come out this fall.)

Mexico’s output of 140 films, the highest in its glorious if erratic film history, has been accompanied by an explosion of the number of top ranking directors (Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Alfonso Cuarón,Guillermo del Toro), DOPs (Emmanuel Lubezki), actors (Eugenio Derbez, Gael García Bernal), producers, below the line, etc; major blockbusters (“Instructions Not Included”, “The Noble Family”), and festivals in every state of The United States of Mexico from Chiapas, Morelia, Cuernavaca, Oaxaca, Baja, Guadalajara, Puerta Vallarta, Acapulco, etc. What a way to see Mexico through its films and film festivals! USA’s partnership in the cross-border cultural achievements of Mexico unites our two countries in culture, a great alliance which benefits us perhaps more than it does them…but that is another article.

Argentina continues, in spite of its erratic politics and economy, to keep its production steady as it always has and continues export the largest number of arthouse cinema of Latin America, Daniel Burman’s “The Tenth Man” being its latest, with Kino Lorber picking it up for U.S. and Canada. Argentina’s Latam market, Ventana Sur, in partnership with the Cannes Marché, is the strongest and best market of Latin America for Latino films.

Colombia’s systematic, steady work at creating a film culture is paying off in a tremendous outflow of award winning arthouse, indigenous (Ciro Guerra’s “Embrace of the Serpent” whose ISA Films Boutique sold to Oscilloscope for U.S., Interior 13 Cine for Mexico, Alfa Films for Argentina, Diaphana Films for France, MFA Filmdistribution for Germany, Magyarhangya for Hungary, Peccadillo Pictures for U.K.,trigon-film for Switzerland, Natlys for Denmark, Diaphana for France, Alambique for Portugal) , Afro-diaspora (“La Playa DC” whose ISA Cineplex sold it for U.S. to Artmattan Productions, Canada to K Films Amerique, Colombia to Cineplex, France to Jour2fete; and “La Sirga” which Cineplex licensed to Film Movement for U.S., for Colombia to Cineplex, France to Zootrope Films ) and genre films.

Tiny Uruguay has strong films by doubly strong producers like Mariana Secco whose strength at carving out a niche equals the work of Wonder Woman. Guatamala, Paraguay, Peru and Cuba are showing the world their undeniable accomplishments as well.

Central America, long denied its own voice — first because United States and United Fruit created banana republics out of them, then by the trade in drugs and now by exporting gang members to their parents’ countries – all of which has resulted in creating nations of violence and poverty — is now experiencing the thrill of creating sustainable film economies.

Will Costa Rica prevail? To its advantage, it has not been a part of the violent cycle of drugs and gangs) and its stability and economy are able to sustain growth if the government creates cinema laws to help it along. The film writer María Lourdes Cortés from Costa Rica is the most articulate advocate of Central American Cinema and has established Cinergia, Central America’s only homemade film promotion, training, dissemination and funding organ.  The astoundingly prolific young producer, Marcela Esquivel, whose “Red Princesses” brought Costa Rica to the world’s attention as two frontrunners in Costa Rica’s race is another promient voice from Costa Rica. Esquivel’s Cuban-Costa Rican coproduction “August”/ “Agosto” (ISA: FiGa) was nurtured by Cannes’s Fabrique des Cinemas du Monde and was recently in FICG’s Coproduction Market along with her project “The Ballroom”/ “El Baile y el salon” about to start production.

Or will Panama prevail?  Its Canal has just doubled in size and is a center for international trade to such a degree that China itself is challenging it by tearing up the rain forest of Nicaragua in order to build its own canal.

Panama, with its eye on taking a lead as the internet hub for Latin America, Panama whose Canal creates a Cuba-U.S.-China triangle for trade, Panama whose close history with U.S., its same time zone location with U.S., its direct flights to U.S., its central position for Israeli businesses fleeing the instability of the Mid East, Panama may well come out ahead of Costa Rica. Yes, well there are also the “Panama Papers” whose discovery has come since I first wrote this article.  But I don’t think this latest revelation of the wealthiest and greediest 1% will put a stop to Panama’s growth.  These are the two horses I am putting my money on.

I am now at the 5th Panama Film Festival, long headed by the much acclaimed Pituka Ortega-Heilbron and headed on the programming and industry fronts by the Toronto FF vet Diana Sanchez. Covering it in all its diversity to see if it furthers the odds against the Costa Rica International Film Festival has not been disappointing.  Also here is the longtime Costa Rica advisor, 20-year Sundance Film Festival industry vet, Nicole Guillemet. CRIFF is now, reportedly finally being stabilized by the installation of a permanent producer also attending IFF Panama

Panama is also premiering six of its own films. Comprised of three documentaries and three fiction films, this year’s Panamanian pictures portray the constant struggle of minorities, problematic life in the city, the search for one’s identity, and unresolved past events, exploring numerous socio-cultural issues living in the isthmus of Panama. Comedy will not be missed.

“Salsipuedes”, co-directed by Ricardo Aguilar and Manolito Rodríguez is about Andrés Pimienta, a young neighborhood boy from Panama who is sent to the United States to remain as far away as possible from his troubled homeland and his father Boby, a boxing ex-champion now serving time in prison. Andrés returns to Panama ten years later to attend his grandfather’s burial, where he meets again with Boby– a reunion that transforms Andres’ destiny.

Time to Love, A Backstage Tale”/ “Es la hora de enamorarse”, a documentary directed by Guido Bilbao, is the true story of a group of young actors with Down Syndrome who courageously mount the classic Panamanian play La Cucarachita Mandinga, without any previous experience on stage. Many thought it unlikely that they would manage to memorize lines, learn choreography or capture the attention of the public. The artistic process is unveiled as Bilbao shows the intimate world of these young aspiring actors, along with their fears, hopes, and daily struggles. 

Drifting Away”/ “A la deriva”, a documentary film directed by Miguel I. González is an expose of the healthcare system in Panama in 2006 when it mistakenly created and distributed over 200,000 jars of a common flu remedy, made of a substance named diethylene glycol used in the automotive industry. This caused the mass poisoning of patients, mostly resulting in permanent illness or even death. This notorious case involved companies in China, Spain and Panama. Highlighted are the lives of Iris, Milagros, and Briseida, three women who were severely affected by the poison, both physically and emotionally telling stories of their inner conflicts, as well as their patience, desperation, solitude, and their yearning to be healthy again.

The Route”/ “La ruta” is Pituka Ortega-Heilbron’s new documentary.

Every morning from Monday to Saturday Severino González, a construction worker, wakes up at 3:30 A.M. to take the bus to work. For most Panamanians, buses are their only option to get to work and sustain a city that grows so recklessly. Yet these buses are like time bombs, its passengers well-aware of its danger but ignorant of its countdown. Every month people die or get hurt, and Severino knows this, but he has no other choice as he will show us through his everyday bus route and his life. This is the portrait of a nation that claims it is becoming a first world country but lacks the basic resources to live up to it.

“The Check”/ “El cheque is Arturo Montenegro’s first feature film. It is a Panamanian comedy taking place in the midst of the chaos that haunts the Vinda household.  A wild and vigilant vegetarian spirit with massive eyes carrying the name of Dominga changes their lives in unimaginable ways. In her stay with the Vindas, Dominga’s fuss and madness becomes the joy and fervor of the family, except with the household’s spoiled dog, Claudia, who’s the only one aware of Dominga’s secret. Everything seems to work fine until a check raises a debate about identity, happiness, trust and the great beyond.

“Kenke”, directed by Enrique Pérez Him, concerns a professional and successful young man, Josué who accepts the family challenge to help his cousin Kenny get away from marijuana.  Unbeknownst to the rest of his family, he too shares this vice. Together Josué and Kenny face a society ruled by double standards and other addictions.

Even if only one of these films is directed by a woman, and that woman is the festival’s own director, it is still noticeable that in all this exciting activity of festivals and countries growing culturally, that women are in the majority taking the lead in innovating and establishing these cultural outposts in counties that have been brought to their knees formerly by the macho impositions of capitalism in its ugliest forms of colonialism and imperialism.  

As a side remark here, we are witnessing similar activitiy in MENA’s (Middle East and North Africa) Gulf State of Qatar with the Doha Film Institute’s CEO  Fatma Al Remaihi and in the Emirate State of Dubai with its long standing Dubai Film Festival led by Managing Director, Shivani Pandya.

Culture, always the first to go when the men get going using armaments to build wealth, is now finding that with the potential strength of 51% of the world’s population behind it, it just might get the upper hand for the first time in “civilized” society. Also we are witnessing the LGBT community’s creative might also being exercised on the side of culture.  This always original, innovative segment of world society helps enormously in crossing the lines drawn in the sand by the white male establishment.

So we will put our eye upon Panama, the next possible contender for The Latin American Prize for Excellence in Cinematic Experience.

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