Now in its 12th year, the Belize International Film Festival [BIFF] can claim kudos for many things not usually associated with the film festival world.
The brainchild of Belizean native Suzette Zayden, not only has BIFF put Belize on the film map but it has also changed the lives of hundreds of natives who have since pursued careers in film, culminating in more than 12 locals appearing on camera or behind the scenes in this year’s festival opener, Inheritance.
“It’s really quite remarkable that so much home-grown talent was able to participate in this film,” says Zayden, who enjoys a small role in the film herself.
“Nothing gives me more joy than bringing film to my people and seeing how it has changed lives and opens horizons,” says Zayden when we met with her in Belize City during the five-day annual festival featuring films, documentaries, music videos and shorts from around the world, with a special focus on Central America and the Caribbean.
“Several of the festival volunteers used to live in the ghettos of Belize City and Suzette and BIFF have played a major role in changing their lives,” comments festival juror and filmmaker Marianne Pletscher.
“Featuring in a major role in Inheritance really opened me up to a career in film,” says local actress and performer Shamira Gill-Card who made her debut in the film which, despite its uncomfortable topics of abuse, really serves as a love letter to Belize, featuring its teak forests and magical underground caves.
“It’s pretty amazing that we get to open the festival with a Belizean film as well as showcasing three other Belizean entries,” she says, referring to Short Documentaries Whale Shark and The Wood Thrush Connection as well as Michael Flores’ feature film, Just a Little Luck.
“I first heard about the Belize International Film Festival about ten years ago,” recalls Flores. “I ended up attending one of BIFF’s filmmaking workshops and learned how to write my own scripts and all the mechanics of filmmaking. At the time I was publishing a local newspaper called The Belizean Liberator, which was all about cutting and pasting for print – but now I am cutting and pasting audio visuals.”
Flores embraced filmmaking with a passion, later going on to win two awards at BIFF, last year debuting a film about domestic violence called I Had To Do It.
His current movie, Just A Little Luck, tells the story of two Belizean fishermen who find a bale of cocaine while out fishing, dramatically altering the course of their lives. It’s a phenomenon which is not as uncommon as one might imagine, such instances referred to in the Belizean community as “sea lotto” or “white snapper”.
With 13 production companies springing up in Belize, Flores’ is the only one specialising in film. “My biggest concern is making Belizean movies for Belizean people, featuring Belizean talent. I’ve started to create change by talking to people about making movies instead of resorting to violence. There’s a real awakening,” says Flores who showcases charismatic local actors, Eazzybrezzy and Vanessa Castillo.
BIFF’s Special Liason, Deborrah Fairweather is a Belizean former model who parlayed her career into film, becoming an in-demand costumier, working on Black Panther, Godzilla and Dirty Grandpa. “BIFF and especially Suzette Zayden has opened a real dialogue about film and it’s exciting for our people,” she says.
A one-woman force, Zayden has spent the past 20 years immersed in the growing Belizean film festival, lobbying for government incentives while holding positions at the Film and Media Arts Unit, and running her own Fer de Lance production company.
Oftentimes it has been frustrating, with BIFF paving the way for subsequent film festivals in Bahamas and Trinidad & Tobago all which have received greater prestige due to bigger budgets.
“But Belize has so much more to offer,” she insists. “Not only do we speak English but we’re small enough to be intimate where we literally know everyone’s telephone number and how to get things done. Our people are ready and willing to work and, in terms of locations, you can’t beat Belize,” she says, pointing to the country’s rainforests, beaches, Mayan ruins and network of underground limestone caves.
“Networking and workshops has become an important part of the festival programming. I knew I was on to something when we were able to show City of God at our second festival. Every year, more and more people want to get involved,” she says.
Fortunately, Zayden has friends who want to help; producer Tracey Bing and Fairweather soliciting their Emmy-winning actress friend Lynn Whitfield to not only join this year’s jury but to use her celebrity to meet with the Belizean Prime Minister and talk about incentives to persuade foreign filmmakers to film here.
Taking home BIFF’s Best Feature Film Narrative this year was the Sound of Things from Costa Rica’s Ariel Escalante while Best Feature Documentary went to Mexican-German co-production, Made in Bangkok directed by Flavio Florencio.
Three Belizean films earned top honours in other categories, Sean Sullivan’s Whale Shark winning Most Notable Environmental Film and first-time filmmaker Dayna Regerro winning Best Short Documentary for The Wood Thrush Connection, a delightful story about the migratory path of this beloved songbird. Meanwhile, Xavier Burgin won Most Notable Belizean Film & Best Short for On Time.
“When I first begun BIFF, very few people in the community were even interested in film but now there’s a real enthusiasm and a dialogue. Not only an appreciation of film but a desire to be part of the process,” says Zayden, noting how three films were filmed in Belize during 2016 including Christopher Coppola’s Torch. “Since the film festival began, quite a few young people from Belize have since gone off to study film in the US, Caribbean and Canada. A career in film would have been unheard of a few years ago.”
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