2021 IFF PANAMÁ: Ten Years Celebrating Cinema and Life

The tenth annual International Film Festival of Panama was filled with emotion and a fine selection of films, master classes, and events that helped celebrate this important anniversary in style.

Text and Photos: Winnie T. Sittón

The 2021 IFF Panama, one of Latin America’s most anticipated film events, took place December 3-5. This year’s festival had a hybrid format, offering both online screenings and activities and in-person events, including presentations, parties, and major film premieres. 

The opening gala, held with all health and safety measures in place at El Ateneo de Ciudad del Saber, was an historic night: for the first time in its ten-year history, the festival opened with a Panamanian film. “Plaza Catedral” tells the story of an encounter between a wealthy woman in mourning and a street boy struggling to cope with his harsh reality. Abner Benaim, the film’s director/screenwriter, and renowned Mexican actress Ilse Salas, who played the film’s lead, were in attendance. The screening also included a tribute to the recently deceased Fernando de Casta, the young actor who also stars in the film. 

Another novelty was the change of festival venue; regular screenings and many of the industry workshops were held in La Manzana, a new cultural center with dazzling colonial architecture in the Santa Ana section of the capital’s Casco Viejo neighborhood. Two special rooms in La Manzana were set aside for the ten American and European films chosen for this mega-event. Outstanding titles included the documentaries “Option Zero,” by Cuban filmmaker Marcel Beltrán, and “Panquiaco,” by Panamanian Ana Elena Tejera, as well as the musical drama “Annette,” by French director Leos Carax.

Shaka King

Many of the film screenings were attended by a variety of artists and special guests, including director, screenwriter, and producer Shaka King, who came from New York to present his most recent film, “Judas and the Black Messiah.” This biographical drama was released in 2021 and received five Oscar nominations, winning two at the 2021 Academy Awards. The film, starring Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield, is based on real events that occurred in Chicago when the FBI and police conspired to assassinate Fred Hampton, leader of the Black Panther party. 

Also in attendance were Dominican actress Judith Rodríguez, star, producer, and author of the original idea for the film “Rafaela,” and Mexican screenwriter, producer, and director Michel Franco (a winner at major festivals in Cannes, San Sebastián, Venice, and Berlin), who came to present “Sundown,” starring Tim Roth, Iazua Larios, and Charlotte Gainsbourg. 

Ilse Salas

And, of course, the festival’s industry programming featured a wide array of talks, master classes, and workshops. Especially noteworthy were Colombian director Cristina Gallego’s master class on film distribution strategies for Central America and the Caribbean and Mexican writer/political analyst Emilio Lezama’s talk on “Cinema as an Agent of Change.”

On closing night, the Copa Airlines Audience Award went to Abner Benaim’s Panamanian drama, “Plaza Catedral,” and the Primera Mirada post-production funds were awarded to Costa Rican Ariel Escalante’s “Domingo y la Niebla,” first prize, and Salvadoran Mauricio Morales’s “Milo, Breaking Frontiers,” second prize. The dates for the 2022 IFF Panama were also announced that night; the event is scheduled to take place December 2-4, 2022.

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