Wednesday, April 11, 2012

PANAMÁ IFF—THE LINE-UP: Films From the Isthmus & International Showcase

When Thomas Elsaesser and I conversed about the rationale behind film festivals programming sidebars of national cinemas, he advised: "Now, that's where—on one hand—they need the festival to be a national showcase, as in Rotterdam. Rotterdam is the most important festival for Dutch filmmakers, not because they're shown in competition but because the festival always programs a sidebar to showcase Dutch films, as indeed in Toronto it's very important to bring together the Canadian films—the English-speaking and the French-speaking; it's the only time they get together—to show their work, their films, to the international critics and hopefully distributors as well. So the festivals always had—at least recently—this double function: it's a showcase for the national but it's also there to bring constituents or, if you like, actors that are both part of the international film industry and filmmaking, and not part of it."

Indeed, Henk Van der Kolk—the co-founder of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF)—confirmed in his comments to Screen Daily that in 1976 Canada was considered part of the American domestic market with most Canadians accustomed to American film. "In '76," Van der Kolk remembered, "our press had no interest in us as Canadian filmmakers. So we held a film festival to bring the world to us." All these years later, TIFF successfully boasts three annual programmes that focus specifically on Canadian output: Canada First, which introduces the work of first-time Canadian filmmakers; Short Cuts Canada, which showcases short documentary, animated or narrative films from emerging and established filmmakers across Canada; and Canada Open Vault, which offers special presentations of recently restored, iconic, Canadian films.

The Dutch-born Canadian Van der Kolk has now retired to the Republic of Panamá—though in his case retirement is a relative term—and along with his son-in-law Canadian businessman Rob Brown, Van der Kolk has applied his creative energies to co-founding the Panamá International Film Festival (Panamá IFF) with somewhat the same incentive that inspired him back in 1976 to establish a forum for Canadian film, only now he and his programming team have turned the spotlight on films from the Isthmus, with an attentive eye towards foreign investment in local production.

As stated at the festival's website: "The Panamanian section of IFF Panamá will show samples of interesting works that reflect an emerging cinematic movement from Panamá, that yearns to be seen and heard. From iconic figures of the Panamanian popular culture to the poetry of the pristine culture of San Blas islands, these productions will show that there is an authentic local voice in this medium that is just getting started." But true to Elsaesser's comment above that an international film festival serves a "double function", Panamá IFF has enhanced the spectacular dimension of its line-up with some of the best transnational work currently or recently circulating on the international film festival circuit. The following program capsules are adapted from Panamá IFF's website.


Chance, dir. Abner Benaim (Panamá / Colombia, 2009)—What happens when the maids of a wealthy household stand their ground against what they see as exploitation? Well, you have material for a great comedy, especially if your story takes place in Latin America, where values get pressure from the need to keep appearances and feign your status. Director Abner Benaim keeps his approach light enough to make room for the natural flow of the characters, who navigate complex relationships and power structures that seem unchangeable but where there's always moments of irony, relief, sarcasm and hilarity. Toña y Paquita (Rosa Lorenzo and Aida Morales), the two main maids of the story are thoroughly believable and deal with their frustrations, dreams and daily work in a way that clearly elicits some traits of our Latin culture. Official site. IMDb. Facebook.

At Variety, Ronnie Scheib writes: "There's no dearth of films about maids who turn on their masters, from the bluntly titled Murderous Maids to Claude Chabrol's La Ceremonie, but rarely is this particular form of class warfare staged as outright farce. Abner Benaim's first fiction feature, Chance, concerning two disgruntled domestics who hold their employers hostage, proves the exception. Pic's satirical strokes often play too broadly, but when one of the captors hauls off the lady of the house to help hawk heirlooms, the shifting femme-on-femme interaction raises the comic stakes exponentially." At Culture Catch, Brandon Judell contextualizes the film's farcical narrative with some sober observations: "The richest 20 percent of Panamanians control 50% of the country's wealth. 48% percent of the country lives in poverty, and 9.8% percent cope with extreme poverty. Additionally, according to the Encyclopedia of the Nations, "regulations on the minimum wage, social security provisions, and working conditions are rarely enforced by the government which means that many workers are unable to earn even the minimum wage." Judell praises Chance as a "hard-hitting, anti-bourgeois comedy" that remains "consistently entertaining" and proves "a thoughtful, intelligent demonstration that a political allegory can be extremely funny."

Curundú, dir. Ana Endara Milsov (Panamá, 2007)—Kenneth is a lively inhabitant of the Curundú neighborhood in Panama City. Describing himself as "an almost retired lowlife", he is more of a photographer for his neighbors and a versatile storyteller, who gladly takes on the role of guide for this documentary. Through his lens and the open participation of the residents, the audience gains unrestricted access to one of the most notorious red zones of the capital, where all the signs of prolonged abandonment by the state are found. But beyond poverty, prejudice and the continuous feeling of uncertainty, the locals prove how hope is always stronger than adversity and how a real-life community grows even against the deepest indifference from the rest of society. Curundú takes its name from the river that runs through it, a former border to separate the Panamanian State from the Canal Zone, administered by the United States until 1980. The testimonies offered by Kenneth's family, friends and neighbors were collected by director Ana Endara Mislov over a year of shooting, and show how the lack of opportunities pushes the community into further isolation, giving space for violence, low scholarship and illicit activities, among other problems to become the norm. Official site.

Hora menos / Hour Less, dir. Frank Spano (Spain / Venezuela, 2011)—Hour Less is the moving story of two women who traveled from Venezuela to Spain after the tragic events of Vargas in 1999. Considered one of the worst catastrophes in Venezuelan history, after heavy rains a mud avalanche buried 15,000 people in the town of La Guaira. Isabel, a 49-year-old nurse and Yudeixi, who is 16 years old, travel together to Canarias as refugees after the avalanche. Fate forces them to share their circumstances and their new reality. Alfredo is in the middle of that relationship making things even more complicated. This emotional drama is the cinematographic debut of Panamanian / Venezuelan actor and director Frank Spano, and was twice awarded at Madrid Imagen in 2011. The film has important musical assets like the Venezuelan Aquiles Baez, guitar player and composer, and the Panamanian Roberto Blades, who sings the original track of the film. IMDb. Facebook.

Marimbas del infierno / Marimbas From Hell, dir. Julio Hernández Cordón (Guatemala / Mexico / France, 2010)—Don Alfonso is a marimba player who must abandon his family and music group in order to protect the instrument that has accompanied him for over 20 years. Gang members have extorted him and threatened to destroy his daily bread-earning tool, but he is determined to give life to his marimba in a city surrounded by danger. It is this path that leads our main character to embark on a project that mixes heavy metal with the unique folkloric and traditional sound of his instrument. Marimbas from Hell is the second feature film by Guatemalan director Julio Hernández Cordón (Gasolina, 2006). The film is outstanding for its frenetic rhythm and its absurd and disconcerting performances, which are at the same time incredibly fun and charismatic. Winner of Best Picture at the Morelia Film Festival. Panamá IFF has likewise programmed Marimbas into its Experimental Corner. IMDb. Facebook.

Although Robert Koehler at Variety dismisses the film as "an elaborate doodle", Danny Kasman at MUBI characterizes Marimbas From Hell as a "slight and friendly mixture of drollness, real life melancholy, art-house minimalism and third-world doc interest."

Ruta de la luna / Route of the Moon, dir. Juan Sebastian Jacome (Panamá / Ecuador, 2012)—See write-up here.

Los colores de la montaña / The Colors of the Mountain, dir. César Arbelaez (Colombia / Panamá, 2011)—See write-up here.

Los puños de una nación / The Fists Of A Nation, dir. Pituka Ortega Heilbron (Panamá, 2006)—The first feature documentary by Pituka Heilbron explores issues of identity and collective memory by intertwining the life-story of Panamá's most remembered box champion, Roberto aka "Hands of Stone" Durán and the lengthy process that led to the restitution of the Canal to the country by the United States. By the mid 1970s Durán was on the rise, a street kid from the populous Chorrillo neighborhood who was determined to make it all the way to the top so that he could get his family out of poverty. The negotiation of the treaties that would give the control of the Canal back to Panamá was also getting steam and General Omar Torrijos (then head of state) reinforced widespread support of his lead by channeling the sport icon's struggle towards the public mind. Durán's fights stopped the country, and the epic narrative that unites the hopes of millions reaches its peak with the momentous challenge of the United States's own Sugar Ray Leonard for the welterweight world title. Durán was made a Latin American hero that boosted the region's self-esteem, in times of the gross incursions of the Reagan administration. Official site. IMDb.

Burwa dii Ewo / The Wind and the Water, dir. Vero Bollow & The Igar Yala Collective (Panamá, 2008)—Young Machi came to Panama City from Guna Yala, where he was born and raised, hearing about the secrets of the Sahilas, the wise men of his indigenous community. During his journey he feels the shock of urban life, but also meets Rosy, a girl from the same island who lives with her parents in the capital and—by virtue of her more assimilated upbringing—has mixed feelings regarding her identity. Celebrating her fifteen birthday and the memory of a recently decreased member of her family, Rosy travels back to the motherland. The young couple's encounter deepens but so do the challenges of finding love and themselves in an ever-changing environment. With this simple but powerful coming of age story the local production collective Igar Yala gives voice to the troubles of often forgotten and alienated minorities, and renews love and respect of the earth as the center of culture, diversity and memory. The Wind and the Water premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and has become the most internationally acclaimed Panamanian film in history.

At Variety, Robert Koehler assesses: "Part of a trend in collectively made Latin American films, The Wind and the Water is an unusual work hatched by young Panamanians inside and outside the country's indigenous Kuna tribe. Crudely made political romance pitting young heartthrobs against the big, bad corporation plays like a wan workshop pic, but could be the basis for future prospects in a Central American country with little previous moviemaking activity."


A Dangerous Method, dir. David Cronenberg (Canada / Germany, 2011)—A carefully executed period piece that explores, in Cronenberg's signature tense and chilling way, the peculiar relationship between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and a hysterical patient (Keira Knightley). The film focuses on how these relationships challenged and defined modern psychoanalysis. Official site. IMDb. Wikipedia. Facebook.

Jodaeiye Nader az Simin / A Separation, dir. Asghar Farhadi (Iran, 2011)—Simin and Nader, a middle-aged couple struggling with their relationship, contemplate the idea of emigrating from their native Iran to hopefully give their young daughter better life opportunities. Things come to a halt when Nader decides to stay to look after his ailing father, and Simin moves to her mother's home and starts putting distance between them while suing for divorce. Nader then hires Razieh, a married, religious woman from a poorer background whose strong beliefs put her at odds with the tasking demands of the older, Alzheimer's disease-ridden patient. The subsequent fallout between Nader and Razieh affects all the characters and questions their ideas on loyalty, truth and commitment. This bold and complex piece has been widely acclaimed since its Tehran premiere last year and won the first Iranian Oscar® ever for Best Foreign Film. Focusing on the intricate social divides that exist inside contemporary Iran, it has impeccable performances and a remarkable formal unity that makes it a timeless, essential tale. Official site. IMDb. Wikipedia. Facebook.

Hearat Shulayim / Footnote, dir. Joseph Cedar (Israel, 2011)—Rivalry between father and son in the midst of a Talmudic research is the story behind Footnote, an extraordinary Israeli film that challenges filial loyalty through study of the text that comprises the oral tradition of the Hebrew Law. In Joseph Cedar's film, the father—a purist who has dedicated his life to his work—crosses academic paths with his son, a very successful university professor, recognized for his intelligence and kindness. Father and son are both authentic in their determination to achieve particular research methods and their competition is cruel in their quest for excellence. The film's well-balanced humor and thorough description of Hebrew culture were recognized during the 64th Cannes Film Festival, where Footnote was awarded Best Screenplay. Official site. IMDb. Wikipedia. Facebook.

Le Havre, dir. Aki Kaurismäki (Finland / France / Germany, 2011)—A famous bohemian writer, voluntarily exiled at the port of Le Havre in France, fights against the State to disallow the police from taking an immigrant boy who accidentally entered his life. Meanwhile, his wife, with whom he humbly lives, grows ill. His neighbors' solidarity and his determination will be key factors in achieving his goal. This is a film with intelligent humor, characteristic of the geniality of Aki Kaurismäki. Warm and reflective, with outstanding performances, Le Havre communicates a slight utopist optimism that is lived throughout the story. Between comedy and modern drama, the film gives a clear picture of immigration in Europe. The film was nominated for three César awards, and received the FIPRESCI prize in the last edition of the Cannes Film Festival. Official site. IMDb. Wikipedia. Facebook.

LUV, dir. Sheldon Candis (United States, 2011)—In an attempt to redeem himself, an ex-convict seeks getting closer to his 11-year-old nephew by taking him on a business trip. Without realizing it, both are swept into the dark past of the ex-convict. For the boy, the encounter with his uncle entails discovering an unpleasant reality while spending an intense day on the streets of Baltimore. This film debut for director Sheldon Candis turned into one of the most acclaimed movies in the last edition of the Sundance Film Festival because of its honest, daring, and true portrait of the social problems facing many cities of the world today. The cast of LUV, a fable about the difficult life of gangsters, includes United States rapper Common and veteran actors Danny Glover, Charles Dutton, and Dennis Haysbert. Candis' story is composed of struggle, pain, and suffering; yet, is able to capture the public with 11-year-old Michael Rainey, Jr.'s firm and sensitive portrayal of the young boy. LUV is one of Panamá IFF's Red Carpet galas. IMDb.

Monsieur Lazhar / Mr. Lazhar, dir. Philippe Falardeau (Canada / Germany / United Kingdom / Switzerland, 2011)—Director Philippe Falardeau looks into the education system from the perspective of a mature Algerian substitute teacher, immigrant in a North American city. While sharing with his students the main lessons of life and death, of being here and now, this adult and his young students will learn together that pain can hit with all its might, but sooner or later one can heal the wounds and move forward. This story, which is set in Montreal, Canada, is also the encounter between two worlds, East and West, demonstrating that education and communication allow human beings to break the chains of prejudice. Monsieur Lazhar received an Oscar® nomination for Best Foreign Film. It was also applauded at the Toronto, Locarno and Valladolid film festivals. Official site. IMDb. Wikipedia. Facebook.

Pina, dir. Wim Wenders (Germany / France / United Kingdom, 2010)—Wim Wenders, a major figure in world filmmaking for over 30 years, describes attending a show by Pina Bausch's Tanztheatre Wuppertal with a girlfriend and going from mild apathy to enthralled excitement in a matter of minutes. Even though he was young and already obsessed with cinema, he was almost brought to tears with the immediacy and visceral qualities of contemporary dance. He approached Pina and suggested they collaborate on a film about her. She said yes with a condition: no interviews. Time and life and projects got inbetween them and his dream of capturing the sheer intensity of Pina's work. He waited until he had the proper means to achieve his goal but then—right when they started shooting—the mythic choreographer passed away. The rest is the splendid film IFF Panamá is proud to present: dancers of different generations in the company perform for the camera what they feel they learned from Pina, in Wuppertal settings as well as in the theater where they usually showcase their work. It is hard to imagine a better, more heart-rending homage to the visionary woman who teaches us silent ways to deal with our deepest, strongest feelings and emotions. My interview with Wim Wenders has been previously published at MUBI. Official site. IMDb. Wikipedia. Facebook.

Poetry, dir. Lee Chang Dong (South Korea, 2010)—Mija is a very peculiar old woman who takes care of her 16-year-old grandson and who is very proud of her surroundings in her little Korean town. She decides to realize her old dream of writing a poem so she registers in a poetry course at a community center. The chain of events that impact her life will make her discover bitterness among beauty and will change the course of her life. This jewel of Korean cinema won Best Screenplay at Cannes and was applauded by the audience and the critics for the impeccable performance of Jeon-hie Yung as Mija. The film has also been awarded Best Director at the last edition of the Asia Pacific Screen Awards, the Grand Bells Awards of South Korea, and two mentions from the critics of London, among others. Official site. IMDb. Wikipedia.

Superclásico, dir. Ole Christian Madsen (Denmark, 2011)—Depressed and almost-broke Christian has probably seen better times: his shop is not doing that well and his runaway wife Anna is planning to marry her new lover, a younger Argentinean soccer star on the rise. He is alone with his teenage son Oscar, who sympathizes while keeping a safe distance from his Dad's diminishing spirits. But this will all soon change when Christian decides to face Anna and give their marriage one last chance, which means leaving Denmark and traveling to Buenos Aires for the first time. This self-reflective comedy successfully plays with the clichés with which it is liberally seasoned, but also feels like a sincere love letter to the South American capital, where Oscar falls madly in love with a beautiful tour guide, and Christian goes through an improbable self-discovery after reaching the depths of despair. He does get a bit of help in restoring his manhood from a local maid who can't stand self-pity in a hilarious scene that sets the "anything can happen" tone, but to Christian's credit he reaches out to the city through wine and tango, and even gets to understand the insane Argentine passion for soccer. IMDb. Wikipedia.

Le Gamin au Velo / The Kid With A Bike, dir. Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne (Belgium / France / Italy, 2011)—Eleven-year-old Cyril can hardly conceal his anger after he reluctantly learns his parents have abandoned him. He believed his young father when he said he would come back for him. Instead, his deadbeat dad leaves him in a state-run boys' home, without even leaving an address where Cyril might locate him. This kid is determined to find him, however, and he receives unexpected help from Samantha, a local hairdresser who he meets by chance. Her kindness gives Cyril (and the audience) an opportunity to believe that there are possibilities for everybody who's willing to heal, even in the direst adversities. Jean Pierre and Luc Dardenne are Belgium's most acclaimed filmmakers from the last few years, known for an unflinching, almost documentary-style realism that deals with urban, detached settings that push their stories and characters to the limits of human flaws and conflicts, but also of forgiveness and commitment. The ethical quandaries in their narratives point to timeless moral dilemmas, with a keen eye for the fears and qualities that ultimately make us what we are. Official site. IMDb. Wikipedia. Facebook.