5 Questions With Abner Benaim, Director of Panama’s First Entry to the Academy Awards

In our new column called ‘5 Questions With,’ we have a quick chat with directors, actors, writers, and producers about their craft. Keep an eye out here for more of our snack-sized interviews.

Abner Benaim is an award-winning Panamanian filmmaker whose latest documentary, Invasión, about the U.S. invasion of Panama, had the honor of being the first Panamian film submitted for consideration to the Oscar’s Best Foreign Language Film category.

Invasión explores themes of trauma and historical amnesia through first-hand recollections and cinematic recreations of the George H.W. Bush-led invasion of Panama in 1989 (called “Operation Just Cause”) which ultimately led to the demise of dictator Manuel Noriega after U.S. troops spent several days blasting heavy metal through speakers outside his house (yes, that happened).

In our chat with Benaim, he opened up about making the decision to become a filmmaker, what movie most inspired him, and how film production in Panama has changed.

Manuel Noriega
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When did you decide to pursue filmmaking?

Since I started university I really wanted to make films, but it was like a dream that wouldn’t let me dream. Having grown up in Panama, I knew absolutely no one who was a filmmaker and it seemed crazy to study film and even crazier to make films. I came from a very conservative family and the expectations around “what are you going to do when you grow up?” didn’t include film. My options were businessman, doctor, lawyer, etc. Getting to a point where I could make that decision was a whole process, and once I made it I felt like I was on the right track almost immediately.

Why have you tended toward documentary rather than narrative?

I don’t prefer documentary, I like both genres, and I like navigating between the two even more. I think the essential elements of film are the same in documentary or fiction: the story, the use of the camera, acting (whether they’re actors or non-professionals), everything points to the same place for me, and that place is trying to achieve something genuine, that moves you, that makes you think, that makes you feel.

“It’s still hard to make films, but it doesn’t sound as crazy as it used to.”

What is the situation like for filmmakers in your country?

It’s changed a lot in the last few years. 10 years ago there was nothing: when I made Chance, my first feature, I went door to door looking for investors and had to bring in a crew from a number of different countries from the region, because it was the first professionally made film in nearly 60 years.

Today we have a film fund, a film festival, affiliation with Ibermedia and DocTV, rental houses and technical personnel with training in many different areas, and every year there’s more local and foreign production in the country. It’s still hard to make films, but it doesn’t sound as crazy as it used to.

Which film has most inspired you and why?

L’avventura by Michelangelo Antonioni. I’m not sure why.

What’s one film you’ve always wanted to make but haven’t been able to?

I’ve always wanted to make a difficult, dark film that transmits thoughts and emotions in a very raw way. I would love to make a piece that I’m ashamed to show to my friends and especially my parents or children… I really admire those directors that don’t seem to filter or self-censor their ideas and I would like to achieve that in my own work. I hope to get there soon. I’m working on it.