In an effort to showcase Panama’s diverse culture, the Panamanian government invited several entertainment industry professionals on an eight-day tour of the country. The familiarization trip included tours of old and new Panama, the Canal, rivers, lakes, former military bases, a host of diverse cities and the Caribbean region. Our Panamanian hosts transported us by air, train, van and boat so we could see the splendor of the country, which is surrounded by two oceans that are bisected by the Canal, featuring a large man-made lake and many short rivers.
I covered the tour with several guests who were mostly from Los Angeles, including Location Managers Ron Carr, Mark Indig, Gregory Alpert, Nancy Haecker, Kent Matsuoka and Sam Tedesco, Location Manager/Production Manager Stuart Neumann and Casting Agent Mamie Indig. Monica Planas of the Panama Film Commission and Vigilio Sousa Valdes, an attorney from the Republic of Panama, both of whom streamline the cinematography process in Panama, accompanied us on our trip. Government officials Aelleen Velarde and Ana Cecilia Gordovez also spent many days touring with the group, and were instrumental in answering questions and providing insight on the Panamanian culture.
A trip to Panama City and the office of Vice Minister of International Trade Severo Sousa left no doubt in our minds that Panama is willing to roll out the red carpet for filmmakers. Sousa said that his government was very happy to have filmmakers visit Panama and wants to support film production. “Wherever you want to go, we can do it,” he said.
Panama’s history and culture tour guide, Teofilo (Teo) Jolly, was knowledgeable and gracious. “We have a great deal of diversity,” he remarked, as we set out on the tour. Over the next eight days, Teo and the other Panamanian representatives provided a convincing demonstration of the country’s diversity and value for the entertainment industry.
Panama is an isthmus that faces the Caribbean Sea with the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other. The first stop on the tour was on the Pacific side at the site of old Panama City, which traces its history back to the early 16th century. We could feel Panama’s historic past in the building foundations and ruins. Amazingly, some of the structures built as early as 1519 were still standing. The ruins were set in a backdrop of radiant skyscrapers in a new Panamanian city –– an effect so visually stunning, the guests immediately began photographing the scene.
A day trip to the Atlantic side included visits to the city of Colon, Fort San Lorenzo and Portobello. Colon is a rough-looking city with unique character. In fact, the recent James Bond movie, Quantum of Solace, shot a memorable chase scene at this location. Fort San Lorenzo was built in 1661 and was a fortress used to guard the treasure plundered from Peru. The fort was captured and occupied by the pirate Henry Morgan, who used it as his base for attacking Panama City. Portobello is a magnificent bay that forms part of a national park.
A plane ride to Bocas del Toro revealed a completely different character of the Atlantic side of this country. This Caribbean setting has beautiful coral islands, rich sea life and wonderful fine-sand beaches. An unusual mix of stilt houses and businesses built over the water provided a brilliant Caribbean backdrop. “What I find so interesting is that it’s almost like visiting two different countries,” Stuart Neumann commented. “The Spanish influence is present on the Pacific side while the Caribbean influence is present on the Atlantic. You have those two worlds coming together.”
The entire visiting team sensed that Panama is positioned to be a thriving production hub. In our discussions, we unanimously agreed that Panama could act as itself in a film or could represent a host of other countries, including Ecuador, Cuba, Haiti, Brazil, Vietnam, Costa Rica and Columbia. Its rivers and rainforest could represent the Amazon; its modern city skylines could stand in for San Diego or Hong Kong and the vacant military bases, the legacy of 100 years of U.S. military presence, could bring tremendous production value to a military-themed show. The Canal Zone itself, a 50-mile shortcut that allows more than 14,000 vessels to cross between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans each year, is one of the great engineering wonders of the world.
“It’s been a revelation, as to how versatile this place really is and how many looks there are. I had no idea of the range,” Sam Tedesco noted. “[Now with] a sophisticated film office base and a growth hub where anything is possible, it’s pretty exciting.”Panama Film Commission