Democratizing Panamanian Cinema with Said Isaac

Co-founder of a film production company, and director of a popular film festival, Said Isaac wants to change the audiovisual landscape of Central America. Fueled by an ethos of authenticity, co-creation, and community engagement, he and his collaborators have been carrying out their mission by challenging the way Panamanians view and make cinema.

C& América Latina: What role do you think Panalandia and Mente Publica play within the current film industry in Panama?

Said Isaac: I think both spaces play a very important role. In the case of Panalandia, our work has been with changing the negative perception people had of Panamanian cinema in a way that allowed them to appreciate cinema in a different way. It’s easy to criticize an audiovisual work but, for you to appreciate it, you need to understand the circumstances in which it was made. I find that – because of the way it’s often portrayed – many of us have this idea that filmmaking is something for those with money and resources. But here that’s not the case. Here, the person filming in a certain neighborhood, for instance, is most likely from there and very much involved or affected by the themes of the story they’re telling. So I think raising that awareness was an important achievement.

Another positive in that sense is that more people feel inspired to create. That’s important because it also happens at times aspiring filmmakers are simply waiting to be hired by a foreign producer, for instance, as opposed to aspiring to create. Nowadays there are many filmmakers who got their start at Panalandia and are now graduating onto larger, more commercial circuits. These are very important steps which I think would not have happened had Panalandia not existed.

Our production company – Mente Publica, is a great example of what we’ve been preaching. One of our first and most successful films, Kenke, was a low-budget production which at its peak was picked up by HBO. We were a group of friends who got together and counted on little more than a low-budget DSLR camera and a team of inexperienced actors. So, I think these kinds of examples showed that, far more important than the latest gear, the key is really what you’re saying and why you’re saying it. It allowed other producers and filmmakers to realize “if they can do it, so can I”.

C&AL: Are there specific themes you look for in a film when deciding to produce it?

SI: Definitely. I have never been a producer who produces a film for the sake of it; all projects I choose to produce must have something that moves me, something that connects with me and something where I feel I can contribute. At the moment, for instance, I am producing three documentaries, Baba by Harry Oglivie, Cuscú by Risseth Yanguez and Dadjira De (Nuestra Casa) by Iván Jaripio, revolving around themes of identity, marginalized experiences, social injustice and institutional racism in Panama. People are not always ready to engage with such dense discourses, but I feel that it’s our duty to talk about them because, well, we have to and because we are immersed in these stories on a daily basis.

When thinking of a film, we [Mente Publica] always think of how it could be a universal story: a story that anyone can identify with, in any part of the world. Obviously, that’s always a challenge but, for me, films are interesting when I can immerse myself in the cultural setting where they take place. That, as well as the story, of course, are what make a film that much more interesting. In this sense, I think the more local it is in terms of its cultural richness the more global it becomes.

C&AL: What do you see as some of the main structural challenges for creatives in Panama, both in cinema as well as in the arts more generally?

SI: For one, because movie theaters are driven by profit, it is difficult to find a space where you as an independent filmmaker or producer can exhibit your film. Given Panama’s low consumption of independent cinema, there is a lack of alternative spaces for such productions, and we need to access international markets for our films to be exhibited. For that, it would be great to count on legal agreements that can support us in this process; it would open many doors, allowing Panamanian cinema to cross borders with more ease. To be fair, there are some funds and initiatives such as DICINE, the Ministry of Culture’s branch for cinema, but they are still fairly new and limited in terms of funding as well as seeking out these partnerships. That is something we have to work on.

In the private sector the situation is equally difficult, people are reluctant to invest their money in a film. In a country where everything revolves around commerce, can you imagine saying “I am making this film because I want to change people’s mentality”? It’s very poorly seen. So, it’s really a constant process of social, cultural and mindset transformation that we must sustain for this to change. Amid all of this, it’s easy for you to feel discouraged, to take off your gloves and decide to not make films anymore since you can’t make a living from it, reinforcing the notion that filmmaking is meant for those with resources only. That said, we must build these avenues for filmmakers who need that support and assistance in this regard because otherwise it really does become exhausting. It’s not impossible, but it does require you to be extremely strategic, creative, and resourceful, to knock on many doors, to guide people towards your vision and to know, very clearly, what it is that you want.

C&AL: You and Mente Publica have also been involved with a growing social initiative – InGueto, the social project providing youth with a creative and educational outlet through cinema. How did the project originate and why did you find it important to partake in it?

SI: Since our beginnings, we [Mente Publica] have always sought to reach out to communities where cinema has never been of interest: neither making it nor watching it. In the case of InGueto, it was inspired by a Colombian project named Potocine where I was intrigued by the concept of a movie theater managed by the very community in which it was built. We chose to work in Curundu – a neighborhood in Panama City which has been historically segregated and marginalized against for its predominantly afro-descendant population that arrived with the construction of the Canal.

It all started in 2017 with the idea of a one-year trial where we would give training in project management and things of the sort. At first it was hard to find people who were willing to partake in the project. No one seemed to have the time and plus everyone expected to get paid because those are often the dynamics of projects that take place there. With time, however, we found precious people who to this day are part of it. After that initial year, we began to complement this with training on how to make short films and documentaries. With this also came a small physical space, created so that people could watch films and continue with the practice of filmmaking.

So, in 2019, InGueto was officially born, and it remains active today, becoming a space for co-creation led by local youths, for the sake of empowering their community. The freedom and autonomy that they were given – to create, manage and make decisions – is extremely important for a young person: the notion that you have a say in what is best for your own community.


Said Isaac is a film producer and cultural manager who has been involved with multiple audiovisual-related projects in Panama. Some of his work includes his role as the co-founder of the production company and foundation Mente Publica, as well as director of the Panalandia film festival.

Afonso Ivens-Ferraz is a journalism student interested in the intersections between the arts, culture, and society. His work mainly revolves around music and film, with a nuanced inquiry into themes as varied as marginalized identities, urban subcultures and postcolonialism.