Abner Benaim

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Panama’s top director’s world premiere at IFF

By Charles Conn

Abner Benaim, director of Panama’s first feature length film, is a high-profile member of the Board of Advisors of Panama’s International Film Festival (IFF). He will be premiering his latest documentary, “Invasión,” during the event Sunday, April 6 at 6 p.m. and on Tuesday, April 8 at 7 p.m. The Visitor spoke with Abner, who shared his views on Panama’s burgeoning film industry and his latest project, “Historias del Canal.”

Francisco Gattorno and Aida Morales in “Chance.”

Francisco Gattorno and Aida Morales in “Chance.”

When in college at the University of Pennsylvania studying International Relations, Abner suspected he was cut out for the arts. Courses such in subjects such as photography held a special appeal. After graduation, he worked in Panama for five years before moving to Tel Aviv to study film.

He returned to Panama and opened his production house, Apertura Films, in 2004. “I wanted to produce movies in Spanish and Panama is the place I know. It’s where I was born and raised,” he told us.

His film “Chance” marked a milestone in the country. Released to high critical acclaim in 2009, its popularity demonstrated that Panama was becoming a hot bed for talent and that audiences were hungry to see Panama represented on the big screen.

“Making movies takes a lot of effort and so it felt great to get good reactions from people, but I never made ‘Chance’ for the recognition. I simply set out to make a movie,” said Abner. Now, that the movie is considered a part of Panamanian culture.

As part of the IFF, Abner’s latest work, a documentary about the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama called “Invasión,” will have its world premiere. Originally entitled “¿Dónde Estabas Tú?” the film explores the collective memory (or amnesia) of that event through the accounts of a wide cross section of people who lived through it.

His current project is his contribution to the collective work “Historias del Canal.” One of five local directors chosen to direct the film, Abner’s segment covers the period of 1977 and focuses on the Panamanian chauffeur of a group of American businessmen who get embroiled in the historical occurrences of the time, situations arising from the Torrijos-Carter treaty which was signed that year.

“‘Historias’ is the first film production that’s coming as the result of the Panama Film Fund,” explained Abner. “It’s part of an emerging, local film industry. Whether we’re talking about local productions, or bringing in three to five outside film productions a year, it’s all about the filmmakers here getting scripts or writing them, making the movies with help from local funding, then screening them at local film festivals like the IFF. It’s about local crews getting experience which makes them better, and so it’s a cycle that is building.

“Right now, we´ve reached the stage where people have run out of excuses for why you can’t make a movie here. While in the past, there was no money, no equipment, or no crew, times have changed and those reasons no longer exist to hold you back.”

For up and coming directors, Abner advises to “go out and take risks.”

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