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Panama City is in the midst of massive change, and a film festival can help re-brand a city.


Snarled in traffic, rollicking to a reggaeton beat, Panama City is exploding with change. You can see it from the Dubai-style stunt architecture of its skyline, the ubiquitous construction for a new subway, an expressway and the canal expansion, but one of Panama's more quietly impressive new claims to importance is not made of bricks and mortar, but the ephemeral world of moving images. The second annual International Film Festival of Panama wrapped its second edition last week, with local glitterati at the grand National Theatre and lineups of teens in jeans at the local Multiplaza. They watched the best Ibero-American films of past year, listened to Geraldine Chaplin reminisce in Spanish about her famous father and saw local documentaries on everything from Panama's current development hell to the local passion for beauty queens.

For a country that typically screens nothing but American blockbusters with Spanish subtitles, all this is new. The thanks goes to a self-described "foreign interloper," Henk Van der Kolk, the surviving member of the three men (along with Dusty Cohl and William Marshall) who founded the Toronto International Film Festival back in 1976. Between the mid-seventies and early eighties, Van der Kolk and Marshall were producing partners, who made the cult hit, Outrageous, starring female impersonator, Craig Russell. When the Canadian film investment tax shelter ended in the early eighties, Van der Kolk left movies to work with his wife Yanka's photography business.

In 2010, he came to Panama to visit his daughter, Yolanda, and son-in-law, Rob Brown, a multitasking arts fundraiser, journalist and retirement consultant, who were part of the influx of Canadians and Americans who have been drawn to the isthmus in the past decade for its warm weather and inexpensive lifestyle. Van der Kolk, 70, decided to make the country his new home as well. He bought an apartment in the Casco Viejo, celebrated for its 18th-century cathedrals, public squares and restaurants. All that was missing was good cinema.

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So, Van der Kolk and his son-in-law decided to convince Panamanians they needed a film festival. Over a breakfast coffee in a favourite local deli last week, Van der Kolk explained how Panama in 2010 struck him as having a lot in common with Toronto in the seventies.

Toronto's original "Festival of Festivals" concept, he says, "was really a way to get Canadians to see our films."

The Panama film festival follows a similar model, but focuses on the best Spanish and Portuguese films to draw audiences to Panamanian films.

"Because of the attention given to the TIFF Bell Lightbox cinema in 2010, my name kept popping up on the Internet, so the Panamanians were under the impression I was someone important," Van der Kolk says. "So I got into the highest echelons of government in this country.¨ Through a Spanish translator, he made his case for the importance of film for both cultural tourism and education. Film festivals are often a way of rebranding cities, from signalling the renaissance of postwar Berlin, to repurposing panned-out mining communities like Park City, Utah, or Telluride, Colo. Panama, which stepped out from America's shadow by taking over its own canal in 1999, is determined to let the world know it's more than another cruise-ship stop. The government came up with more than a million dollars for a new festival, an unprecedented amount for a cultural grant.

In September, 2011, with a fistful of free tickets from Panama-based Copa Airlines, he flew a contingent of Panamanian filmmakers and sponsors to the Toronto film festival, where he sponsored a $50,000 gala (Sarah Polley´s Take This Waltz) and showed them the congruence of art, marketing and economic boosterism.

Among the Toronto contingent was Pituka Ortega Heilbron, a filmmaker (she made the Roberto Duran documentary, The Fists of the Nation), whom Van der Kolk asked to be the festival's co-director in the first year. Well connected both to the arts scene and people with money (her husband, Pedro Heilbron, is CEO of Copa Airlines, which came on as the festival's official partner), Heilbron became convinced when she saw how Van der Kolk and Brown rallied local arts support. She sees the festival as one of the cornerstones of a new wave of cultural tourism, along with the decade-old Panama Jazz Festival and the Frank Gehry-designed Biodiversity Museum, scheduled to open this year.

This year, she assumed sole directorship of the festival. "I didn't ask for this job," says Heilbron, "but my daughter, who is now 22, told me I had to do it for Panama."

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Van der Kolk also persuaded Diana Sanchez, the Toronto International Film Festival's programmer of Ibero-American cinema, to take on a second job as the artistic director of the film festival. Sanchez says she had often thought that Panama, a travel hub without a strong national cinema of its own yet, was a perfect place for an international film festival.

In its sophomore year, the Panama Film Festival grew from 50 to 60 films, surpassing last year's 17,000 attendance in its opening weekend. Brown is no longer involved and Van Der Kolk has moved to a paid "senior adviser" role. The Panamanian foundation that runs the festival has ambitious plans for a film school. A new film law, announced during last year's festival, offers $3-million each year to local filmmakers, and the Panama Film Commission's new tax incentives have jumped import productions from a rare occurrence to a half-dozen in the past year alone, bringing stars such as Robert De Niro, Benicio del Toro and Dwayne Johnson to the country.

"Henk," says Heilbron, "brought his perseverance and his prestige. He convinced the government of the importance of a film festival when the local artists couldn't."

She also adapted something else directly from the older cousin festival in Toronto:

"Local journalists were mad at me because I didn't want a juried festival but the audience in Toronto has been like a laser in detecting the breakout films without any help from an official jury. I thought, 'That's what we want here – a people´s film festival – but for the people of Panama.'"

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