New Law and Festival Help Launch a Film Industry in Panama

Gov't funds will fuel film production while Panama Film Fest aims to consolidate a newly-born film scene.

PANAMA CITY – After a 60 year period of silence, the Panamanian film industry is waking up. Last week, President Ricardo Martinelli enacted a new film law that had been in the works for eight years, pushed by a very small group of local filmmakers and producers who were trying to create a film industry in a country that hadn’t produced one single film since the 1950s.

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The law, which was championed by local producer Luis Pacheco and went through a couple of legislative setbacks and corrections to effectively defend local productions (and not just foreign shoots), was finally passed last week. It established an annual USD 3 million fund for local film productions, a huge sum in a country with only a handful of filmmakers. “Even if there’s just 25 of us, this is a good start,” says director Pituka Ortega Heilbron, who co-created the new Panama International Film Festival together with Toronto fest founder Henk Van Der Kolk. The festival was established to “contribute to the promotion of local culture, push for the development of a local film industry, promote film education”, according to Van Der Kolk.

The local audience’s indifference, as well as the lack of funds, film training centers, or a theater scene to develop actors, are some of the reasons Heilbron mentions to explain the 60 years hiatus, which ended with the release of Abner Benaim’s comedy Chance, an all-time audience hit that even beat Avatar at the box office in 2009. “Abner’s effort was a very good thing for local filmmakers, because it was a hit and it was well made,” says Heilbron. “Everyone, regardless of their economic class, identified with the film. People saw themselves portrayed in it.”

Regarding the education of local audiences, Heilbron claims the festival “is tearing down all the myths that existed about the Panamanian public. General believe was that people here wouldn’t respond to their own films. And that’s a lie. The Panamanian audiences are ready for this.” One of the fest’s main events took place last Sunday at the Teatro Nacional gala: the world premiere of Ruta de la Luna, a Panama-Ecuador coproduction directed by Ecuadorian filmmaker Juan Sebastian Jacome and produced by Pacheco. Other local films to be screened are The Wind and the Water, directed by Vero Bollow and the Igar Yala Group, and Ana Ednara Mislov’s Curundu.

“Simply put, this is Panama’s moment,” says Heilbron.

Still, once the festival momentum is over this incipient Panamanian film production will have to face the hardship of a Hollywood-dominated market. “Do I believe this kind of cinema is ready to compete immediately and continuously with US films? No, not yet,” acknowledges Heilbron. “Now people come because this film festival is the only chance to see these films.”

Nonetheless, Heilbron aims higher: “we in Central America need to think beyond the local market,” she states. “We must compete and be present in an international market like Latin America. There’s also a big Latin audience in the US, and a Spanish-speaking audience in Spain. So we need to set ourselves for that, train us, and rise to that level.”

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