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A Guide to Caribbean Film Festivals

Dan Mirivish on the Bahamas pier at the Bahamas International Film Festival

Whether you’re still defrosting your nether-regions from waiting in line for a Park City shuttle, or sitting in your Bushwick studio apartment eating ramen and surviving the polar vortex, you could probably use a little time on a tropical rum-soaked beach right about now. With all the indie-film attention focused on Sundance/Slamdance (not to mention the chilly, angst-ridden fests in Rotterdam and Berlin), it’s worth remembering that there is an entire circuit of film festivals ringed around the Caribbean Sea. From internationally revered fests like Havana that focus on the biggest Latin American cinema premieres to new local upstarts in Barbados, Bahamas and other islands that support regional filmmaking from a unique cultural perspective, there’s a festival for everyone! And for industry execs and entertainment journalists looking for truly diverse new voices, the Caribbean circuit is the place to find them.

The good news is because of their remoteness, many of these festivals will pay for at least the feature filmmakers, jurors and sometimes other industry-types to fly there, and most will put you up, often in resort hotels just steps away from the beach (and if they don’t put you up, just sleep on the beach). But every festival has its ups and downs with airline and hotel sponsorship, not to mention for many of these fests essential government support, so these perks range from year to year and festival to festival.

If it looks like your film may be a good fit, by all means, apply! Many of these fests are on Film Freeway and other festival aggregators, but some might not be, so you need to do your research and apply directly. After years of struggling on your film and straining every relationship you have, these are the kinds of festivals that are perfect for bringing your long-suffering spouse, partner or children with you. And if you’ve already lost those kinds of relationships, these festivals are even better for finding new ones.

Between the two of us, we’ve covered most of these fests one way or another: Emilie’s recent film, Moving Parts (which was filmed in Trinidad) has been playing on this circuit, and Emilie was the Artistic Director at the Trinidad + Tobago Film Festival for many years. Dan’s recent film Bernard and Huey had its Caribbean Premiere in Barbados, and his film Between Us won the Grand Jury Award at the Bahamas. He’s also been on festival juries and done workshops at fests in Trinidad + Tobago, Barbados, the Bahamas and Belize.

Festival Internacional del Nuevo Cine Latinoamerican Festival (Havana, Cuba)

Now in it’s 40th year, the Festival Internacional del Nuevo Cine Latinoamerican is an absolute must on any filmmaker’s festival circuit list. Housed at the Hotel Nacional, with films hosted at 15 theaters (with names like Charlie Chaplin Theatre and the Karl Marx) and venues primarily in La Habana, the festival hosts an international program. In addition, they have a film poster competition and host a number of retrospectives and panels. Although, many of the offerings are in Spanish only, some theaters provide headphones with films dubbed in English. The festival director Ivan Giroud has brought the festival into the international spotlight by developing relationships with international organizations and hosting a number of the most well-known filmmakers, supported by his tireless head of programming, Zita Morriña.

With over 200 plus films in their program, the Festival Internacional del Nuevo Cine Latinoamerican includes sections and competitions for shorts and features in animation, documentary, experimental and narrative films from every continent. The festival focuses on auteur films and filmmakers like Cuba’s own Carlos Lechuga, Argentinian Julia Solomonoff’s Nadie Nos Mira and Ava DuVernay’s 13th to experimental voices including the great Stan Brakhage (wink wink – yes Emilie teaches at the Department of Cinema Studies & Moving Image Arts at the University of Colorado, Boulder, former home of Brakhage).

Personal Highlights
Having lunch at the festival office with one of my personal filmmaker heros Daniela Thomas; presenting Moving Parts in a 2,000 person theater (that included a balcony and burgundy velvet curtains) and having audience members ask to take a picture with me afterwards; arriving at 10:00 PM on a Monday night, asking the taxi driver if anything is happening that late and having him say, it just started; putting down my luggage and bumping into the director of the Vancouver Latin American Film Festival, Christian Sida Valencia, who took me and Moving Parts publicist Willow King to the Sundance Institute party at the Art Factory, where Paul Federbush greeted us at the front door; going with fellow filmmakers to a Rhumba at the Writers Union the following night after sipping Cuba Libre’s on the breezy deck of the Nacional; meeting Annette Benning at the lunch buffet. Oh the list goes on and on!

Bottom Line
This festival is not only a great place to network with the international film industry, it is also a wonderful place to be a cinephile, talk about film, watch provocative and inspiring content, walk the streets of La Habana and reconnect with why you make movies in the first place. I can’t say enough about what a meaningful and important film festival Habana is! — EU

Barbados Independent Film Festival

A turtle at the Barbados Independent Film Festival

Only three years old, the Barbados Independent Film Festival hit the ground running hard, founded by American Jennifer Smith and local cultural leader Sir Trevor Carmichael. With sponsorship from local officials and the US Embassy, the festival was able to secure Jet Blue and local hotel sponsorship in its earliest years, making it easy for US and European filmmakers to attend. Takes place in mid-January, right before Sundance/Slamdance.

Primarily Caribbean-themed features, docs and shorts, the fest also highlighs several non-Caribbean indie films from the US, Australia and Europe. The 2019 festival was particularly themed to music and environmental-themed docs, including Best of Fest winner Satan and Adam, and Best Doc Into the Okavango. Narratives included some US fest favs like jury-winner Jinn by Nijla Mu’min and Little Woods by Nia DaCosta and as well as Caribbean-based films like Vashti Anderson’s Moko Jumbie and Kareem Mortimer’s Cargo. Some retrospective screenings and filmmaker workshops throughout the festival.

Personal highlights
Going on day-long catamaran excursion and snorkeling with turtles; waves crashing into Animal Flower Cave; going to Saint Nicolas Abbey to see a steam-engine powered rum distillery; touring Walkers Reserve, a globally-unique sand quarry terraforming project; going to the Friday-night fish fry in Oistins with Barbados filmmaker Shakirah Bourne; talking to director Lone Sherfing about the birth of Denmark’s Dogme 95 at a beach-front screening; seeing a screening of Robocop with its screenwriter Ed Neumeier; watching Martin Scorsese’s Hugo with an intro by Barbados-based composer Howard Shore; and seeing Sigourney Weaver and her theater-director husband Jim Simpson lead a two-hour workshop for local community college theater students.

Bottom line
A well-organized festival for only being in its nascent years. Succeeds in large part by not showing too many films. Visiting filmmakers form a tight circle of friends and the festival helps organize day-trip excursions. Festival also runs an annual collaboration grant film between one international and one local filmmaker to work on a short doc during the off-season (I was lucky enough to participate in this, which meant an extra August trip to Barbados). Venues are sometimes a little spread out, but festival does a good job of getting people where they need to go. Hotels are not all the highest of the high-end resorts, but if your expectations are realistic and low-key, they’ve all got terrific beach-side locations (with some including daily tea times, and weekly mini-golf tournaments). — DM

Nouveaux Regards Festival D’un Autre Cinema en Caraibes (Guadeloupe)

Run by Priscilla Delannay and Pascale Grenie (formally of FEMI Film Festival), these two savvy women are doing everything right. From the charming beachside hotel where guest filmmakers are accommodated to the drivers who are amiable and take filmmakers to and from not just festival activities but also to hip nightlife spots; guest filmmakers feel well taken care of at Nouveaux Regards. The festival also hosts a number of jury prizes that they present at a fancy closing ceremony.

For the Caribbean section, Moving Parts played alongside Bahamian filmmaker Kareem Mortimer’s film Cargo, as well as Dominican filmmaker Jose Maria Cabral’s Carpinteros. The international program included films from the United States and France among others and included I Am Not A Witch and I, Tonya.

Personal Highlights
Sharing Moving Parts with a French Caribbean audience was wholly satisfying. The audience allowed for an in-depth and intellectual discussion about the aesthetic and content of my film and filmmaking in general. Also, breakfast on the patio, soaking in the sun and talking to peer filmmakers after a late night at the stylish live music venue New Ti Paris made this festival one of my favorites.

Bottom Line
This festival is a great place to meet potential French industry collaborators for future projects and to explore French sales and distribution avenues. Now in it’s third year, it is still growing, but keep an eye out for Nouveaux Regards, I suspect it will become one of the most important festivals in the region in years to come. — EU

Panama International Film Festival

If Nouveaux Regards is becoming one of the most dynamic festival in the Caribbean Islands, mark my words Panama International Film Festival will be known worldwide in the coming years. Helmed by director Pituka Ortega (who brings her passion for culture and extensive network) and programmed by artistic director Diana Sanchez, (who brings her industry expertise and background as Latin America and Caribbean programmer for TIFF since 2002) this festival is incredibly well organized and funded. Pituka and Diana have a natural synergy, one I rarely see between festival director and their artistic counterpart, both are serious about the work they are doing while still managing to have fun. The festival hosts approximately 150 guest filmmakers and industry professionals including the head of FIPRESCI, Klaus Eder (who watch Moving Parts and said he liked it…) to Laura Michalchyshyn co-founder of Sundance Productions for a Roundtable Discussion on Women’s Role in the Global World.

The industry component of PIFF strategically complements the programming and includes international press in attendance and dedicated press screenings, Primera Mirada, which is a works in progress competition for Central American and Caribbean filmmakers, nightly filmmakers happy hours and late night parties and a fantastic team of staff and volunteers who work around the clock to answer filmmakers questions and connect guests with one another (PIFF seems to understand there is no point hosting film industry guests if they don’t have the opportunity to talk to one another).

PIFF shows films from all over the world, with a focus on Latin and Central American cinema and a robust Caribbean section. PIFF opened with A Fantastic Woman, with Daniela Vega in attendance. Showcasing this film in Central America demonstrated the courage and commitment PIFF brings to their programming and their audiences. PIFF also takes chances programming new voices from the Caribbean, premiering Mariel Brown’s Unfinished Sentences, while also showing master filmmaker Lucrecia Martel’s Zama.

Personal Highlights
Running into Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, who won the Cesar Award from Most Promising Actor for his role in Beats Per Minute (we had met the month previous to Panama at the entirely charming Recontres Cinema Martinique run by Steve Zabina); dancing with Algenis Perez (from Sugar to Captain Marval) on the PIFF sponsored late night barge boat party, that left at 11:00 PM and cruised around the Panama Bay until 3:00 AM (where I also met fellow Boulderite, Zackary Rago, the subject of Chasing Coral); visiting the Frank Gehry-designed Natural History Museum with Moving Parts executive producer Bonnie Kennedy, falling into my bed after each full day and night at the luxurious festival hub, Hotel Central.

Bottom Line
Why IFF Panama? Started in 2012, now in its seventh edition, this festival takes care of its filmmakers and has passionate and engaged audiences. Every film I attended had an audience and guest filmmakers were there to talk about their work and share their experience of making a film. The panels were dynamic, the parties were fun, the guests list was well curated and the whole experience thought through. I can’t wait to make another film, so I can return to Panama! — EU

Belize International Film Festival

Over a dozen years old, the Belize International Film Festival, like the country itself, straddles the cultures of both the Caribbean and Central America, as well as both US and British influences (English is the main language). Taking place in November, the festival is led by founder Suzette Zayden and government-supported through the Belize Film Commission and National Institute of Culture and History. The festival is mostly centered in Belize City, but some years has had screenings in San Pedro Town, on the scenic island of Ambergris Caye. Strong emphasis on filmmaking workshops for local filmmakers and students.

Primarily focused on Caribbean and Central American narratives and docs, both features and shorts. Many films from Mexico. Also has some films from the US, Africa and elsewhere, particularly if there’s a Belizean or Caribbean connection.

Personal highlights
Festival-organized excursion to Mayan temple Xunantunich near the Guatemalan border; helping lead a day-long screenwriting workshop for local Belizean writers sponsored by Final Draft; seeing fellow juror Flavio Florencio entrance a theater full of underpriveged students; festive closing night ceremony which saw other fellow juror Nicole Brooks singing and dancing on stage with a local Soca star; going on a post-festival excursion to the islands of Ambergris (Isla Bonita) and Caye Caulker; snorkeling with hungry sharks and sting rays (and living to tell about it); riding around Ambergris in a golf cart with deputy film commissioner Horacio Guerroro

Bottom line
If you’ve got a Caribbean or Central American-connected film, you should definitely submit your film and try to attend if you get in. But consider submitting in any case, as the programming changes from year to year. Also, if you’re thinking of filming in the Caribbean or Central America, this festival is very much organized in coordination with the film commission and is geared towards getting more international productions to film there. Belize City is not especially scenic itself, but is the hub of both formal and informal excursions to both inland jungle adventures and day-trip island snorkeling trips. — DM

Bahamas International Film Festival

Run by the indefatigable festival founder Leslie Vanderpool, and aided by a tight group of volunteers, including LA-based technical director Kerim Duran, the Bahamas International Film Festival has been kicking for the better part of 15 years. Based primarily in the capital of Nassau in December, the fest often has an extra week of screenings on more scenic smaller islands like Abaco or Eleuthra.

A mix of narrative and docs, features and shorts. International mix, with emphasis on Caribbean content, but also a great festival to have your Caribbean premiere of your American or Canadian fest-circuit indie film. Audiences are not large, but they can be exuberant. I had one of my most favorite screenings of my film Between Us here with a small, but very engaged audience.

Personal highlights
Filmmaker paintball tournament on a remote island; conch ceviche under The Bridge; salsa dancing lessons from the Cuban ambassador; watching Soca-star Benjai’s performance on closing night, then going to 300-member-strong carnival band practice; a Heineken-branded party bus as the official festival shuttle; meeting a filmmaker who years later would tutor my daughter on her SATs (which got her into Berkeley); stumbling into a delicious rum-cake factory in an otherwise run-down part of town; seeing a local male prostitute (who called himself “The Lady’s Man”) do spoken word poetry at 2:00 AM on a rain-soaked street.

Bottom line
if you’ve been on the fest circuit for a while and want to cap things off for you and your team in a fun Caribbean adventure, then this can be a terrific festival! On the other hand, if you’ve got high expectations for your world premiere, expect a massive audience or want to sell your film to distributors, there may be other fests to consider. Likewise, if you’re accustomed to a well-oiled organizational and logistical machine for your festival experience, this might not be the one for you. Filmmakers often band together and organize their own excursions. But you’ll make lifelong bonds with the other filmmakers in attendance and be able to tell stories for years. The jury prizes will look great on your resume and on your mantelpiece. Dan’s is heavier and more colorful than an Oscar! Try to make it to one of the smaller islands, if you can, but also experience the real Nassau and not just the resorts and cruise ship traps. Nassau can be a little crowded and grungy, but also can be lively, friendly and fun if you explore. — DM

The welcome party at the Island House Film Festival photo Dede Brown

The Island House Film Festival (Bahamas)

The Island House Film Festival is an independent non-competitive film festival in The Bahamas. Now in its third year, the festival is hosted at the Island House Resort, the island’s premier luxury boutique hotel. The festival, founded by project manager and director of The Island House, Lauren Holowesko-Perez, and Bahamian filmmaker Kareem Mortimer (Cargo), showcases narrative and documentary films as well as talks, workshops and parties in February annually. The festival hosts films in its own cinema-space and celebrates the work of emerging filmmakers from the Caribbean and Latin America as well as showcases award-winning world films. The goal of the festival is to create a space where avid local movie-goers and aspiring creative artists can interact and be inspired by each other and by established masters of the medium.
Oscar-winning film Moonlight by Barry Jenkins, and Trinidad and Tobago film Play the Devil by Bahamian filmmaker Maria Govan have been featured in past editions.

Personal Highlights
Island House is an intimate festival with an enthusiastic audience and great organization. Meeting Marcus Lindeen, the director of The Raft, as well as the director of Icarus, Bryan Fogel, and chatting with them about their process added value to this festival. In addition, the screenwriting workshop hosted by script consultant Tim Paciack provided great insider information into how screenplays actually get made. The panel on the state of Bahamian filmmaking expertly moderated by Kareem Mortimer and including director Maria Govan provided me with further knowledge not only about the state of filmmaking in the Caribbean, but the struggles all creatives experience on the road to getting work made.

Bottom Line
This is one of the newer film festivals in the region, with a hotel sponsor, a budget to fly filmmakers in and its own theater. Island House Film Festival is one of the best kept secrets on the festival circuit. — EU

Rencontres Cinéma Martinique

The Rencontres Cinéma Martinique, directed by Steve Zebina, presented its 13th edition in March, showing films at a number of venues across the island including at the art center Tropiques Atrium. The festival hosts close to 20 guests annually at the charming Hôtel Batelière, and guest filmmakers get to see the Martinique that tourists rarely do. With much of the activity concentrated in the central area of  Fort-de-France, after a screening, one can wander through a park, and order fresh fish and wine from any number of sidewalk food carts with their impromptu tables set up along the causeway. 

The festival included a showcase of the winning shorts from the Cannes Film Festival as well as the French film BPM, with the lead actor Nahuel Pérez Biscayart in attendance. The festival also highlighted Caribbean films including Kafou by Haitian filmmaker Bruno Mourral, El Techo by Cuban filmmaker Patricia Ramos and Salty Dog by Trinidadian filmmaker Oliver Milne. The festival employs a jury, hosts robust audiences of both locals and visitors and collaborates with schools locally including Parallel 14, an animation school and studio run by Saidou Bernabé and Yoane Pavadé.

Personal Highlights
Lingering over the breakfast buffet with fellow filmmakers and spending a good part of the morning discussing film aesthetics and the industry in general; having drinks at the Garage Popular after screening Moving Parts; visiting the Parallel 14 animation school and speaking with students.
Bottom Line
Something about Rencontres Cinéma Martinique is uniquely special; perhaps it’s the enthusiasm of Steve the director, the commitment of his small staff and volunteers, the level of cultural and intellectual engagement of the audiences, the shabby chic hotel, the streets lit by incandescent lights — whatever it is this is a memorable place and a festival I plan to revisit. — EU

Trinidad + Tobago Film Festival

At 13 years strong, TTFF has been one of the best organized festivals in the Caribbean. The festival is based in bustling capital city Port of Spain (on the main island of Trinidad) just off the coast of Venezuela. Fest has also contained the Caribbean Film Mart for incubating new Trinidad & Tobago projects, pitches and workshops, mixing local filmmakers with some international industry members.

Primarily focussed on Caribbean and Caribbean-diaspora films, the festival shows a large mix of narratives and docs, shorts and features.

Personal highlights
Festival-led day trip to scenic Maracas Bay featuring local delicasy “bake and shark” at Tanty Rita’s; hanging out with filmmakers Benh Zeitlin and Maria Govan at the Argentinian ambassador’s house party; judging at a pitch session for Caribbean filmmakers; trying all the street food in Port of Spain; post-fest trip to Tobago for glass-bottom boat ride and spa-like cuisine.

Bottom line
A must-submit festival if you’ve got any connection to the Caribbean in your film at all. Also, worth going if you’re thinking of filming anywhere in the Caribbean (film commissioners from other islands sometimes attend, too) or if you’re a local Caribbean filmmaker and want to meet potential co-producers or mentors from the US, Canada or UK. Port of Spain is a large cosmopolitan city that eschews tourism (for better and for worse), so you’ll want to escape for a day or two to explore more of both Trinidad and Tobago. Ostensibly English-speaking, T&T is a unique mix of British, African, Indian and Latin American influences and local Creole culture. Check to see if festival is happening this year. — DM

Some other Caribbean festivals to consider:

Barbados Visual Media Festival

A half dozen years old, the Barbados Visual Media Festival is more focused on the local Bajan filmmaking scene than the ritzier Barbados Independent Film Festival. Run by local Bajan filmmakers like Rommel Hall (my partner on the other Barbados festival’s collaboration grant), the October festival includes a 48-hour film challenge, a Screenwriting Competition, workshops, and the Industry Awards for Films in Barbados (VIMAs). Definite emphasis on local, Barbados filmmaking and other Caribbean filmmakers. But worth submitting films from the rest of the world. Features and shorts; narrative and docs. As Hall writes, “The Barbados Visual Media Festival seeks to develop Barbadian filmmakers and to provide avenues for exposure which they would not normally have.” Don’t expect transportation or housing if you’re coming from abroad, but if you want to visit Barbados anyway, this might be the time to do it. A great opportunity to interact with the local Barbados filmmaking community in a meaningful and memorable way. –DM

Third Horizon Festival Miami

Curacao International Film Festival

FEMI Guadeloupe

Green Screen Environmental Film Festival (Trinidad and Tobago)

Animae Caribe Animation and Digital Media Festival (Trinidad and Tobago)

Dominican Republic Global Film Festival

St. Barth Film Festival

Timehri Film Festival Guyana

Bermuda Film Festival

Festival Internacional de Cine de Cartagena de Indias (Cartegena, Colombia)

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