Karim Aïnouz's Playa del Futuro
“Films are interesting when they’re specific.” So said Brazilian filmmaker Karim Aïnouz when asked why he explores identity—queer, national, gender, ethnic—in his films like Madame Satã and his most recent work, the sensuous Playa del Futuro. With his features being the focus of the International Film Festival Panama’s retrospective during its fourth edition, Aïnouz’s comment can also be extended to the fest’s (still evolving) mandate: an emphasis on—and bolstering of—the geographically specific cinemas in Central America.
This idea of films defined by borders has increasingly gone out of vogue, as the nation state as it was defined in the 19th and 20th century has all but dissipated with increasing international co-financing and multi-national organizations not recognizing borders (let alone international labor laws). But as Aïnouz notes, this only makes festivals like IFFP more important: “It’s important to assert a certain identity—the world has never been more homogenous. Film festivals can be places of resistance and friction.” In a place like Panama, one of the most rapidly growing economies in the region, cultivating a respect for indigenous cinema can be a way to fight what Aïnouz calls “remake and franchise culture.” And he has a point: shortly after talking with Aïnouz, I spotted an IFFP poster at the local cineplex next to (and dwarfed by) one for Rápido y Furiosos 7.
Aïnouz is the first to note this idea of a return to national cinema is a bit “anachronistic,” but totally disavowing the idea also rings of a Western elitism. Like Jean-Luc Godard’s declaration that “cinema is dead,” the conceit of denying the formation of national identity on screen shuts down the party before most of the world was able to make it—particularly in a post-colonial and developing world context. “Film festivals, especially in Latin America, are where new film knowledge is being disseminated to filmmakers,” said Diana Sanchez, IFFP Artistic Director. Since launching the festival in 2012—the last time I attended—Sanchez has made efforts to bring together filmmakers from Central, South and Latin America, and, importantly connect them to a local audience.
During IFFP’s first year, the festival’s focus was boosting Panamanian film industry and tourism (“that was never my vision” said Sanchez). This element is still present, but no more than at any other festival that is beholden to sponsors in order to operate. And in programming Aïnouz’s work, Sanchez is pointing IFFP towards a bolder and more cinephilic direction—a gay Portuguese language retro is less of an easy sell than, say, the Spanish genre master Álex de la Iglesia, who was featured in 2012. When asked about this shift, Sanchez says Aïnouz was “a ‘risk’ but he has clout.” More importantly, having known him for years, she noted he “knows how to communicate about his films with an audience.”
With a strong connection to the Toronto International Film Festival (Sanchez is a programmer there), much of IFFP can feel like playing catch-up for press who work the major fest circuit. (Though it did mean I could finally see the Sudanese doc Beats of Antonov and the excellent and enjoyably elliptical No Soy Lorena.) But, again, recognizing Sanchez’s emphasis on director-audience discourse, this lack of major world premieres isn’t indicative of unambitious programming. The choice of the opening night film was also reflective of this dialogue over premiere status, with Emilio Martínez-Lázaro’s Spanish Affair. The second biggest box office success in Spain, on the surface the movie a broad rom-com that hits all the predictable notes of boy meets girl. But calling back to Aïnouz’ comment about specificity, Spanish Affair overcomes most of these issues thanks to a plot that centers on a man from Seville falling for a woman from the Basque (separatist) region.
While chatting with Geraldine Chaplin (at the festival with another TIFF/Rotterdam favorite of mine, Sand Dollars), the actress confessed she initially wrote off Spanish Affair when it was released in her adopted home of Switzerland. But after seeing it on IFFP’s opening night, she said it reminded her of her father’s The Great Dictator, given how it used comedy to address political tensions. Though this is far higher praise than I would give, Spanish Affair’s preference for combining humor and affairs of state over gross-out gags does give it a leg up over nearly all top grossing films of the same genre in North America.
Historias del canal
One of the most popular screenings was of the epic anthology film, Historias del canal, which has set a high watermark for Panama’s burgeoning film industry. (One section was directed by IFFP’s Festival Director, Pituka Ortega Heilbron.) With episodes set in 1913, 1950, 1964, 1977 and 2013, Historias manages to compress 100 years of Panamanian history gracefully thanks to this serialized structure. While each story is fairly conventional in content and style—lovers torn apart; a young boy comes of age; a racial star-crossed lovers tale; a spy comedy-thriller; a singer regains her voice in discovering her roots—the stories are centered on characters that are often overlooked by history books. Be it Jamaicans working in brutal conditions while building the canal or a young American boy caught in dynamics of 1950s Panamanian politics, Historias paints alternate versions of the country’s history. Listening to the audience’s reaction during the screening at the recently restored Teatro Nacional, it was clear as an outsider I was missing some key references. But this only drew me in further, as I scrawled questions in my notebook about the Panamanian independence movement and what time of year mangoes ripen on trees.
The way Historias captured a sprawling temporal scope also recalled another remark made by Aïnouz: “Places aren’t fixed.” Like people, countries, cities and even topography change with time. For some, this is destabilizing force, but as is seen in Aïnouz’s work this can also create a freeing fluidity. As Panama, its festival, and Central American cinema continues to grow, they too will continue change. Hopefully, however, they remain connected to the specificity of the moment and live up to Aïnouz’s call for resistance and friction. This is exactly what cinema—and indeed the world—needs.