12th IFF Panama Captures the Excitement of Central American and Caribbean Film Industry Advances

Moved from its usual December berth last year, the 12th Panama International Film Festival (IFF Panama) runs April 4-7, replete with new industry activities and double the number of films since its previous edition.

True to its mandate to serve as a showcase for Central American and Caribbean cinema, the festival’s program this year includes a bevy of acclaimed films from the region, including two Panamanian Indigenous-themed features, “Bila Burba” and “God is a Woman.”

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Recent years has seen the growing international recognition of pics from the region, with Nelson Carlo de los Santos becoming the first Dominican – and first Latin American – filmmaker to snag the best director Silver Bear at the Berlinale for his drama, “Pepe.”

Costa Rican director Antonella Sudasassi Furniss’ sophomore feature, “Memories of a Burning Body,” clinched the Audience Award for best fiction film in the Panorama section of the A-list German festival.

Both are screening at IFF Panama. Announced last December, “Pepe” is one of three winners of the festival’s Primera Mirada (First Look) industry section for pics in post, alongside Guatemalan filmmaker Jayro Bustamante’s “Cordillera de Fuego” and Dominican Johanné Gómez Terrero’s “Sugar Island.”

Winners of the Su Mirada section, in development and in post, will be unveiled at the closing ceremony on April 7, as will the audience award winner, chosen from 18 contenders.

“We have been real-time witnesses to the growing success of filmmaking in Central America and the Caribbean, and we are honored to have been supporting it all these years,” says IFF Panama board president Pituka Ortega-Heilbron, who has ceded festival director duties to Karla Quintero to focus on her own film projects.

Indeed, more women filmmakers are emerging from Panama, most recently led by Ana Endara and Ana Elena Tejera. Arianne Benedetti is premiering her second film, “Despierta Mamá” in May.

Sugar Island
Sugar Island

Endara’s fiction feature debut in post, “Querido Tropico,” just won the Arthouse Cinema Award which comprises a presentation deal at the Cinélatino Toulouse’s Cinéma en Construction section, the first Panamanian to win such an honor.

It stars Chile’s Paulina Garcia (“Gloria”) as an upper-class woman with encroaching dementia who is cared for by a pregnant immigrant with problems of her own, played by Jenny Navarrete (“The Other Son”). “The film succeeds in bringing to life and making vibrant that space between two solitudes, that moment when the daily routine shared and the care for each other create an intimate and indestructible bond,” said the jury.

Tejera’s award-winning documentary “Panquiaco” was heralded among the first notable Indigenous-themed films made by a Panamanian filmmaker when it made a splash at Rotterdam IFF in 2020. It was produced by Maria Isabel Burnes who’s also produced Mariel García Spooner’s “Algo Azul” and directed her own feature, “Tumbadores.”

Tejera, who is now prepping her debut fiction feature, “Corte Culebra,” was recently named an Academy Gold Fellowship for Women nominee.

“At the heart of ‘Corte Culebra’ lies the story of Lake Gatun, the artificial reservoir submerged with the remains of Afro-descendant and indigenous communities,” she explains, adding: “This film is an ode to their history, a testament to their resilience in the face of displacement and erasure.”

Quintero points out that despite recent cutbacks, the festival is running for four days instead of three, with the first day, April 4, devoted to industry activities led by Cat Caballero, to include panels, talks and Masterclasses throughout the day at the Learning Vila, with the following three days reserved for festival screenings. “We found that some people were torn between watching films and attending the industry activities so we solved the issue this way,” says Quintero. This year also marks a happy return to the Cinepolis Multiplaza after the pandemic forced the festival to find alternative screens the past three years.

Cordillera de Fuego
Cordillera de Fuego

Industry highlights include a conversation with Gregory Nava, who celebrates the 40th anniversary of his iconic film, “El Norte” which will have a special screening and a discussion on Central American migration and the enduring importance of his cinematic masterpiece.

Themba Bhebhe of the Caribbean Film Academy, Third Horizon will discuss creating communities and connections to promote inclusion. He’ll review collective actions and initiatives supporting participatory equity in global markets.

And with politics very much a deciding factor in many Latin American countries’ audiovisual industries, Alejandra Luzcardo (Grupo BID) Pierre Emile Vandoorne (Head of Public Policy, Netflix), Essie Mastellari (Panama Film Commission) and Panama’s Minister of Culture Giselle Gonzalez will discuss recent vital data about the economic impact of the film industry, both nationally and internationally. These findings not only offer a comprehensive understanding of the economic impact of cinema and its affiliated sectors but also lay a robust groundwork for propelling its growth in the years ahead.

The pandemic saw a host of film festivals suffer major cutbacks, with some closing down for good. Festival directors Estrella Araiza (Guadalajara), Quintero (IFF Panamá) and Santa Barbara’s Roger Durling will take a deep dive into the purpose and challenges they face, both currently and in the long term, regarding issues such as sustainability, distribution, audience, and inclusivity.

The 12th IFF Panama opens with Asmae EL Moudir’s “The Mother of all Lies,” a Cannes winner and Morocco’s submission to the Oscars this year.

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