Why you should care

Because you probably haven’t ever wondered what it’s like to grow up in a country that doesn’t make its own movies. 

Abner Benaim says being a documentary filmmaker is kind of like being a psychologist without the office. He can ask anyone anywhere any question he wants, and receive candid answers.

The 43-year-old Panamanian film director has toured the depths of La Joya, Panama’s largest prison complex, to reveal the dismal plight of its prisoners. He’s unmasked the reality of the country’s gay scene, which has been driven deeply underground in an unwelcoming Catholic society. And he’s won awards in the process: His documentary series El Otro Lado received the Best Documentary award at the New York Television Festival, and several episodes were screened at film festivals around the world. In short: He’s breaking through — and that’s a big deal to a guy from a little isthmus.

Before 2009, when Benaim released his first fiction feature film Chance — one of the cornerstones of the country’s cultural canon — no Panamanian had produced a major-caliber fiction film since 1948. Growing up without stories or people from his culture represented in cinema was like not having a mirror to reflect his identity. “You realize after the fact how much it was lacking,” he said.

Now Benaim might be the one to put Panama on the map — by trotting out his country’s old skeletons on the silver screen.

Woman holding gun while man is in chair

Scene from the movie Chance

Benaim sports black glasses and a cascade of brown curls, often accompanied by a serious expression that can warm suddenly into a smile. Born to a psychoanalyst and jeweler in Panama City’s conservative business community, he says he’s always felt like an outsider, drawn to a creative path.

Screened at several international film festivals, Chance , a dark comedy, features two live-in maids who hold their employers ransom in a wealthy neighborhood in Panama City, provoking discussion of class relations in a country with one of the largest wealth gaps in Latin America.

Benaim gave Panamanians their first cinematic “mirror” by featuring them on the big screen. And they loved it. Chance, shot on a budget of $1.2 million, topped the Panamanian box office for a record 10 weeks, even beating out James Cameron’s high-budget film Avatar .

“Imagine never seeing an American movie before in your life, and then [when you do see one], seeing Chris Rock saying, ‘Get the fuck out!’” said Panama Film Commissioner Arianne Benedetti, explaining the movie’s success. Panamanians went from having never seen themselves onscreen to seeing something wonderfully familiar — not to mention offensive and funny. “Every time someone said ‘chucha’ [a Panamanian curse word], people laughed.” The joy of familiarity.

Benaim is already inspiring a new generation of homegrown filmmakers who realize they can contribute to the country’s cultural repertoire. When he first arrived on the scene in the mid-2000s, film in Panama was a discarded medium with few disciples and limited infrastructure.

People have suffered a lot, and now you’re going to stir those ashes again.

— Bystander at shooting of Benaim’s film Invasion

To study film, Benaim was forced to leave the country. Five years after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in international studies, he headed to Israel, his father’s home country, to enroll in film school.

Although Panama’s aspiring directors still can’t get academic training at home, Benedetti said that nine Panamanian-produced movies would premiere by the end of 2014 — a significant jump for such a small country. And business from international producers is pouring in, up $20 million dollars last year.

Benaim believes the best way to continue broadening his audience across borders is to zoom in on the local.

In 2012, the film commission passed a new law to financially incentivize the industry’s growth in Panama, including a $3 million fund and a rule that 10 percent of movies shown in theaters must be Panamanian.

Benaim’s production company Apertura Films won $100,000 from that fund to produce his most recent documentary, Invasion, about the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama. Pitted against 73 films from 35 different countries, Invasion won two out of three audience awards for Best Documentary and Best Central American and Caribbean film at the International Film Festival in Panama City this past April. In the film, he gathers random people off the streets to re-create specific experiences of the time: men hauling looted refrigerators on their backs, U.S. soldiers stuck in the mud, dead bodies strewn across grimy but modern streets.

Bodies on street of Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

Scene from Invasion

Victor Mares, co-editor on several projects, said Benaim’s openness to multiple pathways at a time makes him a good director, but can also “complicate” major decisions. “He puts himself under a lot of pressure,” Mares said.

Success hasn’t come easy to Benaim. He sometimes has crippling anxiety. Childhood friend Ramon Yohros recalls a disastrous middle-school drama class, in which the teacher asked Benaim to recite a poem in front of everyone. Benaim couldn’t stop moving his hands, a nervous tic. “She made him do it again and again,” Yohros said, laughing. “But practice has made him a lot better.”

Now Benaim splits his time between Panama and Israel. He just finished a fictional short film that is joining 30 others for an international series at this year’s World Cup, and is working on his next feature-length fiction film, set in Panama City. Interestingly, Benaim believes the best way to continue broadening his audience across borders is to zoom in on the local.

In the middle of Invasion, as Benaim leads a scene in the streets of a Panama City slum, an older man in a baseball cap approaches the film crew. “People have suffered a lot, and now you’re going to stir those ashes again,” the man says, trembling on camera. “This has already been forgotten.”

But maybe it shouldn’t be.

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