‘Plaza Catedral’ Director Hopes His Panama Oscar Entry Will Continue Legacy of Lead Actor, Who Was Killed Before Film Premiere

In a new series, Variety catches up with the directors of the films shortlisted for the International Feature Oscar to discuss their road to the awards, what they’ve learned so far, and what’s taken them off guard.

Two of Abner Benaim’s films, documentaries “Invasion” (2014) and “Ruben Blades Is Not My Name” (2018), were Panamanian entries to the Oscars, but his “Plaza Catedral” is the first time a film from the country has been shortlisted. The film, which portrays a violent society with a gulf between the rich and poor, won major awards at the Guadalajara and Panama film festivals. It follows a grief-stricken woman (Ilse Salas) whose life changes when a wounded teenage street kid (Fernando Xavier de Casta) shows up at her doorstep. Tragically, Xavier de Casta was shot dead months before the film’s premiere.

What does it mean to you to be shortlisted for the best international feature Oscar?

It’s very good news of course for the film, for me, and for Panama — it’ s the first time ever for a film from Panama to be shortlisted. As a director, it’s a big honor to be shortlisted because it means many peers at the Academy liked the film, and connected with it on a human level. I’ve gotten very beautiful feedback from people who saw the film, and that means a lot to me. What it means for the film to be shortlisted for the Oscars is that it gains visibility worldwide — this is very important to us. “Plaza Catedral” is a small film from a small country, with a big heart, and we want to share it. We want to have the film be watched and appreciated by as many people as possible, and for its message to impact its audience, to hit home.

What’s been the most challenging aspect of your campaign thus far?

I don’t like complaining about things that are in general so positive, like having the privilege to campaign for the Oscars. I’ve found the process to be interesting, with a very steep learning curve, which is stimulating. And I’ve been lucky to have very good and caring people with me on the team, so it’s been rewarding — especially since the film itself is doing most of the work. We can only do so much to try and get attention to the film, and then when Academy members hit play and watch it, the film is on its own, and fortunately it’s got good results so far.

Although you’re shortlisted in international feature category, the best picture category has been devoid of non-English language features. “Parasite” (2019) was the first winner in history. Do you feel international voices are siloed in media and film criticism?

Well, in general I just see the Oscars as an extension of what goes on in general culture and specifically in the film industry. For so many reasons. U.S. movies, in English of course, are positioned in the world as the standard. Even in your question you use the term international for everything that’s not U.S. I think that’s a result mostly of the traditional distribution channels for film — and it’s all changing rather quickly since the pandemic and the upsurge of platforms who do play more “international” productions globally. I’m very pragmatic in these matters and think that as long as the culture keeps shifting towards globality, so will the attention international voices get. It seems unavoidable at this moment, because of the market and the technology, that more and more voices will be heard, not only from different nations and cultures, but also from underrepresented parts of the society. I hope it’s true and not just me being optimistic.

Are there ways to improve this process when it comes to awards season?

I think the best way to improve the process is to continue with the spirit of opening up to new members from around the world, which is what the Academy has been doing in recent years.

When trying to get consumer audiences to watch an international feature, there seems to be a focus on the length of a movie, but when something like “Avengers: Endgame” gets a three-hour runtime, Marvel fans are ecstatic and say they could go longer if they wanted to. Is that fair?

I think everyone should choose what to watch and that duration is not important at all. If something excites you, you can watch as many hours of it as you want. What better proof than people (including me) who aren’t sleeping at night because they are binging on a series? And on the other end of the spectrum, millions of people are engaging with 30-second clips on Instagram, TikTok, etc. Duration, more than ever, is just a convention.

The Academy has favored European countries, with Italy and France winning triple the number of times than a country like Japan. How can we encourage more diversity from all countries globally?

By continuing to diversify the voters in the Academy.

You are representing your country to an American awards body (although there are voters who are international). How do you feel about being that representative?

Cinema for me is one of the most efficient ways to tear down, evade or simply forget barriers like borders, languages, ideologies. I think cinema has the capacity to break through all of that and communicate directly with the person who is watching a film. I know I have been affected in my life by so many films from different places, and I have them all with me as part of what has shaped me, it’s been my nutrition, my source of inspiration, stimulation, and so much more. So I feel truly fortunate to engage as a filmmaker in this global conversation, and to be able to put forward my own thoughts and feelings through my films.

As your country’s representative film, is there any government grant or fund you can access for the campaign?

Yes, we have the support of the Ministry of Commerce and the Ministry of Culture of Panama.

Members have to opt in to vote for nominees for international feature. On the Academy Streaming Room, they separate those films, and there is no charge for placing them on the platform. However, for $12,500, a film will be placed on the best picture section, adding an increased chance of viewing, which benefits financially lucrative movie studios. Not every filmmaker or country has the means to pay that fee. In addition, the Academy charges for email blasts to members with reminders to vote, and hosted Q&As. Do you find the process of getting nominated fair? If no, how would you like to see it change?

It is harder for smaller films to get attention, and yes it would be nice to make the playing field a bit more level, but in general, I feel it’s a fair process because so many members of the Academy vote. So in the end, it is about the films and how they impact the Academy members. Proof of that is that we are shortlisted with “Plaza Catedral,” a small film from Panama that no one had heard of, which only just premiered months ago and until recently had no distribution (now Samuel Goldwyn Films is taking care of North America). That means that the voters connected with the film, and that’s what it’s all about.

This is your third entry at the Oscars, with the previous two being documentaries. What was it about this subject that made you want to narrate it as a fiction feature and not a documentary?

From its origin, I thought of “Plaza Catedral” as a drama. It is of course informed from so many things I have experienced in the documentary world and in my personal life beyond cinema, but it always was meant to be a fictional film because the essence of it is the answer to a “what if?” question. What if Alicia, a well-off architect, lets a wounded kid from the street into her house. In reality, situations like these are very rare. It is the stuff of stories and films because it doesn’t happen everyday. I think fiction is a great medium to play out those “what ifs.” What if we open up to others? What if we ask for help when we need it? And what if we are brave enough to help others even at the risk of putting ourselves in danger? These are the kind of questions I wanted to deal with in “Plaza Catedral.”

And as in a dream, you are confronted with the imaginary, although it is presented as reality. For that I did employ many elements from my documentary background. I wanted to create realistic situations with realistic acting and enclose them in a fictional world. Most of the cast in the film, except for Ilse Salas who is one of the best actresses in Latin America, had never acted before, including Fernando De Casta, the co-protagonist.

Fernando was shot and killed months before the premiere of the film. The eerie and tragic end that real life brought to us tells us just how real the subject matter we were dealing with is, way beyond the lines of documentary or fiction, and beyond the line of cinema itself. The film came from an imaginary place and became real in the most tragic way. We can only hope now that the film serves to give out a message against juvenile violence and that Fernando’s light shines on.