When Paz Fábrega was growing up in Costa Rica in the nineties, she loved movies, but the idea of becoming a filmmaker didn’t seem plausible. “It was really like deciding to be an astronaut or something,” she said in a recent interview at the Costa Rica International Film Festival’s fifth edition. “I didn’t know anyone who worked in film or anything like that.”
Fábrega’s experience is a typical one for aspiring directors in Costa Rica and throughout Central America. However, a number of recent developments throughout this emerging film community are starting to change the identity of the country and inspire a new generation of filmmakers to improve its reputation.
In Fábrega’s case, the desire to pursue a filmmaking career in Costa Rica arrived only once she saw a range of possibilities elsewhere. She spent three years in middle school living in New York while her mother finished a doctorate program there, and later attended the Havana Film Festival, where she was inspired by movies produced far beyond the reaches of Hollywood. Eventually, she studied film production in London Film School before returning to Costa Rica, where found herself back in a limited arena.
“Coming back was horrible,” she said. “It was hard. At the same time, I really wanted to make a film here.”
And so she did: 2015’s “Viaje,” the tender black-and-white romance set in Rincón de la Vieja Volcano National Park, landed a positive reception at festivals around the world — including the Tribeca Film Festival. “I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Costa Rica,” she told IndieWire at the time. “I keep moving away and back.”
These days, however, she’s especially well-entrenched in the scene. Settled in Costa Rica, she teaches film at the local university and has been developing two projects at the local film festival’s works-in-progress lab, one as director and the other as producer. While sitting with IndieWire at the festival’s hub at the center of town, she was continually interrupted by a string of well-wishers from the Central American film scene — including Julio Hernández Cordón, the Guatemalan-American who many consider to be the region’s first true breakout.
His 2008 debut “Gasolina” received strong reviews on the festival circuit, and later films have continued to find supporters, including this year’s Toronto International Film Festival entry “I Promised You Anarchy.” His next project is also being workshopped at Costa Rica International Film Festival’s lab.
Cordón and Fábrega are both part of a generation that has benefited from a unique set of opportunities specific to the technologies of their time, from the ability to watch movies at home to the affordability of digital cameras. “People just started going out and shooting films,” Fábrega said, as festival guests sampled local coffee and tamales nearby. “Maybe they weren’t amazing at first, but there was a different energy.”
Much of this recent momentum stems from events that have been in progress for quite some time. The 2004 launch of the film fund Cinergia provided financial support for a number of developing Central American projects, including “Gasolina” and “Ixcanul,” Guatemalan director Jayro Bustamante’s 2015 festival hit, which was the country’s foreign language Oscar submission.
Two alumni of Cinergia ultimately took leadership roles at the festival: Its director, Marcelo Quesada, and industry coordinator Karina Avellán Troz, both of whom grew up in Costa Rica around the same time as Fábrega. Like her, they found the prospects for filmmakers in Central America to be severely limited just a few short years ago. “At that moment it was crazy to think about the film industry in Central America because there was nothing,” Troz said. “From that moment until today, everything has been changing — but not in a fast way.”
Troz and Quesada also run a boutique distribution company called Pacifica Grey, which releases four films per year in the country. The company’s recent slate includes festival favorites such as “Little Men” and “Aquarius.” In the country’s capital of San José where the festival takes place, Pacifica Grey has a healthy outlet in the 550-seat independent theater Cine Magaly. Five years ago, the theater stopped showing Hollywood fare after it failed to compete with multiplexes in nearby malls. The alternative programming has yielded strong returns. During the festival, most screenings filled up with a mixture of young cinephiles and curious locals.
As the festival provides a foundation for moviegoers, filmmakers in the region have started to consider the specific stories they want to build out of their surroundings. “This is a small place that has its own thing going,” Fábrega said. “It’s very provincial in a lot of ways. That can be interesting for storytelling, because people aren’t as free as they are in a lot of places. It’s sociologically complicated, which is very interesting to me.”
As “Viaje” — in addition to several of the recent films in the festival’s Central American competition — prove, stories from Central America are primarily intimate character studies. “It’s not very political,” Fábrega added. “It’s an aesthetic-narrative search more than anything else. People are more in contact with what’s happening in other places than before.” Quesada, who oversees the festival lineup, agreed.
“They’re creating a type of everyday film that isn’t focused on big social issues,” he said. “They’re more about personal experiences in the region.”
There has been no shortage of new examples to explore. For the third edition of the works-in-progress lab at the festival, nine films in various stages of post-production are being showcased from across Central America, in addition to seven pre-production projects from Costa Rica. Participants meets with filmmaking mentors that include “Neon Bull” producer Sandino Saravia and longtime Pablo Larraín editor Andrea Chinogli, in addition to industry professionals and distributors from Argentina, Ecuador and Mexico. The underlying goal is to gain traction for the projects outside of the area.
“At the end of the day, it’s about creating visibility around the films being shown here so other people can see what’s happening,” Quesada said. “These are decision-makers who can create wider visibility for us.”
The selection for the labs includes a mixture of narrative and documentary projects from first-time filmmakers in addition to others a few films in. This year’s competition includes one film, “Abrazame Como Antes,” which went through the lab several years ago. Notably, many of the directors emerging from the region are women. These include Hilda Hidalgo, who adapted Gabriel Marquez’s “Del amor y otros demonios” and now has a second feature in post-production; Alexandra Latishev, Fábrega’s producing partner, whose short films have made waves on the international circuit in advance of the feature-length debut she has in post-production; and Ana Endara, whose third documentary “The Joy of Sound” premiered at the recent International Documentary Festival in Amsterdam.
“There is a much more personal growth with the films they’re creating,” Quesada said. “Many of the male directors are going in more commercial directions, while the women are focused on more personal stories. I can’t say what brought us to that point, but it’s very clear that it’s happening.”
In the context of Central America, Costa Rica is much better off than other areas, such as Honduras and Nicaragua, where almost no locally-produced films are released. Quesada and Troz hope to change that. “I think we have a responsibility to support new directors from there,” Troz said. “They don’t have the support of their governments.”
Meanwhile, Central American cinema continues to develop its identity in the hopes of congealing enough for the rest of the world to pay attention. “We can’t yet speak of a Central American cinema,” Fábrega said. “But the people making the short films now are going to keep at it. In the nineties, it felt like the films being made here weren’t watchable anywhere else. They were just for locals. Now, we’re seeing films that can be more universal.”
For Quesada, the youth of these filmmakers is key. “The films made in the next five years will catch the eye of the international industry,” he said. “I’m very confident of their quality.”
Fábrega struck a similarly optimistic note. “I don’t know if there’s enough of us to be a real community yet,” she said, “but more people keep coming.”