18 APR 2019: “Cine es Vida” – Film is Life - was the slogan of the 8th annual Panamá International Film Festival, which took place from April 4 – 10. And Panamá City came alive with local and global visitors drawn by the festival’s manageable size and its international scope of films, selected under the leadership of hands-on executive director Pituka Ortega Heilbron and artistic director Diana Sanchez, who is also senior director of film at TIFF.  

Panamá, perhaps best known as the banking capital of the lower Americas, also happens to be one of the most unusual and sumptuous ecological sites on earth. Yet with only 2.48 million international visitors in 2018, it remains largely undertouristed. “In many ways we’re still learning to communicate who we are,” Ortega Heilbron explained.

IFF Panamá, as the festival is known, may have the cultural clout to turn that around. It has already put Panamá on the global festival map and is doing its part to help the country emerge on the world stage.

“Film is essential to our existence in a changed world,” Ortega Heilbron said.

“Film transcends space and time and connects us as a species. Film festivals sometimes get a bad rap for attracting only erudites. But Panamanians love films, and there are plenty of films here that speak to your own truth and in your own language.”

The festival is open to the public and screenings are often packed.

This year’s schedule offered a selection of feature films and documentaries with appeal for the general moviegoing public as well as dedicated cinephiles (including outdoor screenings, family screenings and a special Green Program). Along with Panamanian, Latin American and American feature films and documentaries were screenings of international films as diverse as Japan’s award-winning “Shoplifters” and Canada’s “Falls Around Her,” a feature directed by First Nations writer-director Darlene Naponse that stars Tantoo Cardinal in the first leading role of her 49-year film career.

Ortega Heilbron is a film director herself whose vision for IFF Panamá was to create “a beautiful event in an unexpected place.” Headquartered in the stylishly restored Central Hotel in Casco Viejo, a small, historic and architecturally diverse UNESCO World Heritage site within Panama City, IFF Panamá is a welcoming festival with an inclusive approach.

“It’s a woman-centric festival,” said Naponse.

“Pituka has great energy and you feel like you’re being taken care of here.”

“It has a beautiful atmosphere … it’s wide open and we need more of that,” Cardinal added.

Ortega Heilbron’s personal touch and global vision characterize the festival, the films and the audiences they attract. “Panamanians are citizens of the world,” she explains. “We are a diverse mosaic of other cultures; everything that identifies us comes from other places.”

This extreme heterogeneity goes back at least three million years, when the narrow isthmus of Panama formed a land bridge, generating a prolific cross-pollination of people, flora and fauna between the Americas. The development of Atlantic-Pacific trade routes over the past five centuries, culminating in the Panama Canal, globalized the country’s role as a crossroads for people, goods and ideas. To give you an idea of how this plays out, more than 70% of today’s Panamanian population is of mixed ancestry, and a local private school operating in both English and Spanish has an enrollment of 850 students and 45 different nationalities.

Snowbirds flock to Panamá

The last few decades have ushered in a wave of North American snowbirds and retirees to Panamá, encouraged by the country’s financial and climatic stability, infrastructure, good medical care and affordable property costs. Ron and Donna James, a retired couple from Alberta, enjoy Panamanian residency in La Concepción, an inland region in Panama’s northwest Chiriqui province.

“We love it here,” Donna James said. “The positives really outweigh the negatives. It’s changing rapidly and becoming more tourist-friendly. Every year, it’s getting better and better.”

For fun, they like to visit Las Olas Resort on La Barqueta Plantation, a 2000-acre farm with a 9-mile stretch of private beach on the Pacific coast just outside David, Panamá’s third largest city. James said they always take their visitors there to kayak, ride and swim. She likes to take her boogie board out at low tide, when the currents are manageable.

Las Olas is a private, low-key and affordable ecological resort run by Donna Araúz and her husband Juan, whose family has owned the property for several generations. Rooms are spotless, spacious and sparse. The luxury here is the unspoiled environment, the fresh farm-to-table cuisine and the spectacular, undeveloped beachfront--a rare find these days.

The Missouri-born Araúz, a global traveler herself, is enthusiastic about the budding efforts of the recently-formed Discover Chiriqui Tourism Association. It’s still early days for the industry in most of Panama and tourism across Chiriqui province lags far behind that of Costa Rica, just an hour or so away.

Araúz cheerfully acknowledges that she and her fellow association members have work to do.

“Tourism has been slow to develop in this region, and in this country,” she said, “and we’re working together to change that for the better.”

For more details: Panama International Film Festival: iffpanama.org

Las Olas Resort: lasolasresort.com

Panamá Tourism Authority: visitpanama.org


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