With more than 70 feature films, this year’s International Film Festival Panamá (IFF Panamá) is yet again proof that Central America is making great strides when it comes to nurturing its film industries. While local audiences will be able to get a chance to see festival favorites by the likes of Hirokazu Kore-eda, Barry Jenkins, Pawel Pawlikowski, and Sebastian Lélio, the focus will also be on the fest’s “Historias de América Central y del Caribe” and “Perspectiva Panameña” programs. Between them, they’ll be showcasing stories from and about the region, which often don’t get the exposure they deserve at other international festivals.
We’ve combed through it to bring you our suggestions for what to prioritize. Check our list of top picks below, which include a certain Oscar-winning black-and-white film, a doc about a Panamanian jazz group, a Costa Rican romantic tale about a contemporary dancer, a Guatemalan drama about gay conversion therapy, and even an anniversary screening of one of Edward James Olmos‘ greatest performances.
José is a 19-year-old who lives with his mother in Guatemala, one of the world’s most dangerous, religious, and impoverished countries. He spends his days on crowded buses and delivering food on the streets. Resigned to his fate, he plays with his cellphone during free time, goes on dating apps, and hooks up in street corners. When he meets Luis, he is thrust into a dimension of passion, pain, and self-reflection.
Cynthia Shank, Autumn Shank, Ava Shank and Annalis Shank appear in The Sentence by Rudy Valdez, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
Drawing from hundreds of hours of footage, filmmaker Rudy Valdez shows the aftermath of his sister Cindy’s incarceration for conspiracy charges related to crimes committed by her deceased ex-boyfriend—something known, in legal terms, as “the girlfriend problem.” Cindy’s 15-year mandatory sentence is hard on everyone, but for her husband and children, Cindy’s sudden banishment feels like a kind of death that becomes increasingly difficult to grapple with. Valdez’s method of coping with this tragedy is to film his sister’s family for her, both the everyday details and the milestones—moments Cindy herself can no longer share in. But in the midst of this nightmare, Valdez finds his voice as both a filmmaker and activist. He and his family begin to fight for Cindy’s release during the last months of the Obama administration’s clemency initiative. Whether their attempts will allow Cindy to break free of her draconian sentence becomes the aching question at the core of this riveting and deeply personal portrait of a family in crisis.
Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) works as a live-in maid and nanny for an upper-middle-class family in Mexico City’s Roma district. When the family patriarch departs for an unusually protracted business trip, his wife Sofia (Marina de Tavira) is left at home. Inhabiting a role somewhere between family member and employee, Cleo helps Sofia and the kids through a period of difficulty, just as she is dumped by her self-absorbed boyfriend when he discovers she is pregnant. As both women face the possibility of single motherhood, it’s obvious that their disparate levels of social status will differently impact their possible futures. Roma subtly explores these ethnic and class divisions with a potent sense of emotional intimacy and historical acuteness.
Barely 20 years old, Dolores Dreier (Lali Espósito), has spent the last two years hiding from the outside world under the ever-watchful eyes of her parents. Dolores suddenly finds herself as the only suspect in her best friend’s murder; she’s the last person to see her alive before her brutal death. Under intrusive media scrutiny, and facing accusations from the general public and the speculation of friends and family, Dolores is feeling hollowed out and drained from the experience. At first reading like a criminal procedural, Gonzalo Tobal’s accomplished second feature Acusada (The Accused) develops into a reflection on the way our society processes true-life crime stories.
Gonzalo Tobal, Ulises Porra Guardiola
Matías Roveda, Leticia Cristi, Julio Chavezmontes, Santiago Gallelli, Matías Mosteirín, Hugo Sigman, Axel Kuschevatzky, Benjamin Domenech
Eve (Gabriela Cartol) works long hours as a maid at a luxurious hotel in Mexico City. A young, single mother who travels far to get to her place of work, Eve has aspirations for the future and hopes that her diligence will get her a coveted spot as the cleaner on an executive floor. She enrolls in the hotel’s adult education program in her quest for a better life but quickly discovers that it’s not necessarily the most hard-working who get noticed for advancement. The Chambermaid, Lila Avilés’s striking debut, employs a quasi-documentary approach as it accompanies Eve on her daily routine. She quietly enters one indistinguishable guest room after another and we are struck by the intimacy behind the act of cleaning a stranger’s mess. The disparity between the guests and those working at the hotel — who often do not have hot water in their own homes — accurately reflects the reality in many Latin American countries.
Lara (Erina Libertad) is a contemporary dance dancer who lives to dance. When she starts auditioning to be part of a dance company in Berlin, she meets Ernesto (Hernan Jimenez), a charming guy whose life is very much rooted in Costa Rica. As she goes through her auditions, Lara realizes that leaving means leaving everything that makes her feel at home. The professional ideal that she has worked so hard for, becomes an internal conflict that forces her to reevaluate her priorities and find herself. Paz León’s debut feature is about the hard choices that make us not only who we are but who we want to be—and where.
Costa Rica, Chile
Hernan Jimenez, Laura Avila Tacsan
Tarde para morir joven
CountryQatar, Netherlands, Chile, Brazil, Argentina
It is the summer of 1990. As Chile returns to democracy after 17 years of dictatorship, a small network of previously urban families have decided to return to rural living, constructing their new community at the foot of the Andes. While the adults busy themselves with such essentials as electricity and plumbing, the children run free on a vast playground of woods and rivers. Sixteen-year-old Sofia, meanwhile, struggles with challenges of a more internal nature. Her father is withdrawn, while her mother, a popular musician, is largely absent, though she promises to visit the encampment for its imminent New Year’s Eve celebrations. Clearly adored by Lucas, a sensitive boy her age, Sofia has her sights set on Ignacio, a charismatic young man with a motorbike on which Sofia dreams of being swept off to some place far from this. With its sun-kissed images and magnificent ensemble cast, Too Late to Die Young immerses us in this experiment in communal renewal.
During the 70s and 60s, a record store located in the 5 de Mayo plaza was the main meeting place for music lovers. Dashing men and women who would come here to dance to the rhythms of José José, Tito Puente, La Lupe, Leonardo Favio, Celia Cruz y Santana. This is the story of a musical journey through the golden years of a store, where clients and salespeople, who were beguiled by the sound of vinyl records, ponder their legacy
'Stand and Deliver' photo courtesy of Warner Bros./Everett Collection
More than 25 years ago a small, independently made Latino film was released in theaters. Starring the legendary Edward James Olmos and a young Lou Diamond Phillips, Stand and Deliver went on to become a box office success. For his portrayal of Jaime Escalante, a high school math teacher, Edward James Olmos was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor making him the first U.S.-born Latino to achieve that honor. Based on actual events, the movie tells the story of a Bolivian immigrant who teaches math at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles to mostly Latino students. The school is faced with losing its accreditation and the students are failing miserably. Mr. Escalante, or Kimo as his students call him, decides to teach Calculus against the advice of the school administration. The chair of the math department says, “You can’t teach logarithms to illiterates.” Kimo responds, “Students will rise to the level of expectation.” Stand and Deliver is a classic Chicano film that is just as relevant today as it was 25 years ago. The jokes are hilarious and insightful. It is entertaining but raises important social issues and has an all-star Latino cast (including Rosanna DeSoto, who played Ritchie Valens’ mom in La Bamba. “Not my Ritchie!”)
Set in Colombia in the 1970s, right when the demand for marijuana is set to explode, Ciro Guerra’s follow-up to his Oscar-nominated Embrace of the Serpent ditches the black and white aesthetic of his previous film for the colorful world of the Guajira desert. Yet again, though, he’s set his sights (alongside co-director and producer Cristina Gallego) on a story about the way Colombian history intersects with its indigenous population. Birds of Passage follows an Wayuu indigenous family who takes a leading role in the budding new drug trade, and discovers the perks of wealth and power, but with a violent and tragic downside.
In Guatemala City, the very ground the city is built on is fragile and unreliable for its people. It shakes and destroys at will, often with catastrophic results. Under these circumstances, Guatemalans hold strongly onto their faith; it’s the only stable thing they have ever known. Pablo is no different, a good Catholic man who has visited church all his life and is faithful to his wife Isa and their two beautiful children. But when he meets Francisco, he immediately falls for him, which is a sin in the eyes of his church and his family. As Pablo battles his own internalized homophobia, he has to deal with his surroundings’ disgust at this discovery, too: he loses his job, the right to see his children, and the support of his community. Encouraged by Isa and their Pastor, he starts attending conversion therapy, and soon enough, everything seems to be going back to normal — that is, until the ground starts trembling again.
Gérard Lacroix, De Jesus Peralta Orellana Marina, Nicolas Steil, Edgard Tenembaum
'The Extraordinary Journey of Celeste Garcia' courtesy of TIFF
A compassionate and candid woman with an endless curiosity for life, Celeste (Maria Isabel Diaz) is a retired and widowed teacher living a tranquil, unadventurous existence in Havana. Her part-time job at the planetarium keeps her busy, but she goes home to a careless adult son who ignores her, and her selfish sister visits only when she is looking for something. One day, the government announces the surprising news that aliens have been living on Earth and that these unusual guests are now returning the favour by inviting humans to their world. Celeste had always thought that her “Russian” neighbour Pauline was eccentric — she now realizes her friend was truly from another planet. While people rush to put their names forward to be selected in an extraterrestrial lottery, Celeste discovers that Pauline has left her a personal invitation. To everyone’s surprise, she agrees to accept.
In the busy streets of San Jose, Costa Rica, a motorcycle courier comes to the realization that things don’t happen out of nowhere. Surrounded by his coworkers and in the midst of big layoffs, Mancha will have to decide between his careless existence on the streets or life on a small island without his bike but in the company of his girlfriend, the only person that seems to understand him.
Six young people from the San Felipe neighborhood take advantage of a unique opportunity in their lives. Taking on a seemingly dated musical genre, they face the challenge of recording their own original songs for the first time in a professional studio. Getting a chance to record alongside guest musicians such as Idania Dowman, Joshue Ashby and Maestro Carlos Garnett, the Nietos del Jazz know this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance. Lucho Araújo’s colorful documentary puts their musical chops in the foreground as he tracks the ups and downs of the group’s creative process, their first international tour to Costa Rica, and also their personal challenges (three of the musicians lose their homes in the fire at Casa Boyacá).
Spanish director Icíar Bollaín (Even the Rain) and her partner Paul Laverty (Ken Loach’s longtime collaborator) try something completely different with this adaptation of acclaimed Cuban ballet dancer Carlos Acosta’s autobiography. Yuli, the nickname given to Acosta by his father Pedro, runs wild in the streets of Havana where he participates in dance-offs with other kids. Recognizing Yuli’s natural talent, Pedro forces him to attend Cuba’s National Dance School. Yuli is reluctant at first, but is eventually seduced by this world. Seventeen years later, he would become the first black artist to dance the role of Romeo in the Royal Ballet in London. Combining a straightforward narrative with scenes where Acosta is seen working with his company on choreographies based on his life, Yuli is a moving fusion of dance, words and images.