Making a film in Central America is not easy. Except for Panama, the region does not have national film commissions, leaving filmmakers few opportunities for government funding. They must rely on the private sector to raise money, but attracting investors is no easy feat. It doesn’t help that audiences across Central America (and Latin America) mostly prefer to watch Hollywood blockbusters over national films, making it unlikely that private investors will make their money back in ticket sales. And without a government entity overseeing the film industry, there is no infrastructure to support directors and producers throughout the process of making their movie.
Given the circumstances, the film industry – especially in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras – is really in its infancy. While history books count 1900 as the year that cinema was born, the first national production shot entirely in Guatemala was 1994’s Silencio de Neto and not far behind, Honduras’ first feature film, No hay tierra sin dueño was shot in the 80s, but not completed until 1996.
Despite these challenges and against all odds, there has been a boom in the number of national film productions in Central America over the last few years. Directors like Paz Fábrega and Neto Villalobos have taken Costa Rican cinema to heights the country has never reached before. Earlier this year, Fábrega’s second feature, Viaje, became the first Central American film to play the famed Tribeca Film Festival in New York, while Villalobos’ directorial debut Por las plumas took the honor of being the first Costa Rican film to screen at the San Francisco International Film Festival. Filmed in the Kaqchikel dialect, Ixcanul brought the region one of its highest honors by winning a Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, and as a result, closing several worldwide distribution deals. It was recently announced that the Mayan romance was selected to represent Guatemala at the Oscars in the Best Foreign Language Film category.
To celebrate these incredible gains, we put together a list of feature films produced in Central America that made it to theaters in their own countries in 2015. Hopefully, some of these will make it stateside soon.
Filmed almost entirely in the Kaqchikel dialect spoken in Guatemala’s coffee-growing highlands, Ixcanul dramatizes the story of María, a young Mayan woman who is promised to the coffee plantation foreman, despite her desire for a lowly coffee cutter named Pepe. Dreaming of absconding with Pepe to a romanticized vision of the United States, María eventually has the encounter with modernity she so yearned for, but not for the reasons she had hoped. In addition to the impressive naturalistic performances from the film’s non-professional cast, Ixcanul’s visuals are extremely powerful, with radiant bronze skin tones, textured interiors, and the requisite breathtaking landscapes.
Caja 25 (Box 25) surveys the major events in the troubled relationship between Panama and the United States, focusing on 114 recently discovered letters written by Panama Canal diggers, which describe brutal working conditions, rampant discrimination, and enduring hope. Making elegant use of archival documents, photographs and films, as well as contemporary interviews, Box 25 brings these lost voices back to life, reminding us of our diverse history and of the sacrifices made to make a dream a reality.
Venganza y justicia
When Kayden Zwicky finds out that her husband was murdered for mysterious reasons, she’s determined to find the killer and have her revenge. With the help of her sister, Kayden sets out on her search for justice, which takes her down a dark and treacherous path. She might be perseverant enough that she finds what she was looking for, but perhaps it’s not exactly what she expected. With its rapid cutting and tense pauses, this indie Honduran thriller blurs the line between superstition and reality, until they become indistinguishable from each other.
In this romantic drama, free-spirited Luciana and Pedro meet at a party. They don’t believe in traditional relationships or commitments, but they immediately give in to their intense chemistry; the only thing they abstain from is learning each other’s names and backgrounds. The film’s black-and-white format sits in stark contrast to the varying shades of their passion. When the pair takes a spontaneous trip to the to the gorgeous Rincón de la Vieja National Park together, we watch them go through a process of self-discovery as their relationship develops and frays.
Un loco verano catracho
Quiro is a humble man that lives and works in the fields, struggling to support his family. Juan Carlos is a successful businessman who lives in the city. However, despite their differences, these men are brothers, and they value family above anything else. Of course, every family has its quarrels, but after confronting each other in the popularly acclaimed Una loca navidad catracha, the Barro family has finally reconciled and is ready to take a vacation together. In Un loco verano catracho, the Barros visit La Ceiba, a stunning port city on the coast of Honduras, where there will be snorkeling, dancing, a little trouble, and lots of laughter.
Ovnis en Zacapa
Ovnis en Zacapa opens in theaters across Guatemala in October of 2015.
Made by the eccentric filmmaking collective Best Picture System, Ovnis en Zacapa stands out for its unusual genre mash up that’s been concisely summed up as “sci-fi comedy narco thriller.” It follows a frustrated college professor who teams up with the TV crew of a sensationalist reality show in order to find out why a small town in northeastern Guatemala has been reporting UFO sightings. The feature’s over-the-top aesthetic, popular comedy, and tongue-in-cheek genre appropriations, harken back to the tight-knit collective’s stated mission of making films for the enjoyment of Latin American audiences.
Yo soy de donde hay un río
The San Juan River is a natural border that separates Nicaragua and Costa Rica. For centuries, this river has been a constant source of dispute between the two countries: who owns it? Who has the right to use it for war or commerce? However, this documentary shows that to the inhabitants of the river, the concept of a frontier is nonexistent. These people share traditions, schools, churches, and this territory, which is being threatened by global warming. Yo soy de donde hay un río takes interviews with witnesses from both sides of the river and combines them with beautiful shots of the rich natural landscape, proving that perhaps the question isn’t who owns the river, but what will be done to protect it.
Chinche Man is the story of Pedro, an average guy who can’t seem to find a stable job and has the worst of luck. His landlord, Don Manuel, is an abusive crook who wants to steal Pedro’s stuff and his girlfriend. Finally, when he’s put in jail for a crime he didn’t commit, Pedro decides that he’s fed up and trains to become Chinche Man, the very first Honduran superhero. With its dubstep soundtrack and its super campy aesthetic, Chinche Man proves that you don’t need to have superpowers in order to fight crime.
A young painter named Daniel attempts to drown himself after losing everything he has ever cared for. But as his final breath slips away, his agonizing mind grants him a final opportunity to relive the tragic events that led to his demise and change the course of his life. It’s within this vision that Daniel’s subconscious manifests itself in the form of his childhood self, in order to guide him through the pitfalls of delusion and show him the path to redemption.
A young, Afro-Costa Rican boy from the country’s long-neglected Caribbean coastal region makes a difficult choice with the best of intentions: he decides to get his hands dirty in the region’s growing drug trade in order to send his little brother to a soccer academy and help his family make ends meet. The boy quickly finds himself over his head and his entire family is soon mixed up in the violent aftermath. Director Patricia Velásquez shot this ambitious feature using non-actors and incorporating real life stories from the region to keep things authentic.
Victoria is a young, middle-class woman whose family is going through a serious financial crisis, forcing her to enroll in night classes so that she can finish high school and to take an inconvenient job that leads her to the La Reforma penitentiary. In the prison, Victoria meets Jason, an inmate. As she explores his world behind bars, she begins to question her own limitations and her sense of freedom. Inspired by his father’s documentary on Costa Rican prisons, Tico director Esteban Ramírez takes the same social themes and translates them to the big screen, showing that one doesn’t need to be in prison in order to be a prisoner.
El cuarto de los huesos
From the Institute of Legal Medicine, El cuarto de los huesos (The Room of Bones) follows several mothers from El Salvador who search for the remains of their children, who disappeared amidst violence in their country. The film is a look at the 20 or more bodies that are received at the morgue on a monthly basis and remain unclaimed – the story of DNA with no name, of bodies that became cadavers for belonging to a rival gang.
Josué is a young and successful businessman, son of a conservative — read classist — mother. Kenny is Josué’s cousin, a teenager who seems to be going through a rebellious phase that mainly consists of smoking a ton of weed. When Josué is appointed by the family as Kenny’s guide, responsible for steering him off the evil path of ganja, the situation becomes tricky, because secretly Josué also happens to be a big fan of the green stuff. With a simple, handheld camera and unpretentious cinematography, Kenke tells a story about first love, family dynamics, and a hypocritical society that suffers from double moral standards and other vices.