Big, Bold Dreams: The Belize International Film Festival brings the world to Central America

ScreenerBlog

There’s no shortage of film festivals in the world. From the prestige of Cannes, Toronto and Sundance to more regional affairs, on any given weekend any film fan with enough money and free time can hop on a plane and touch down in some city or other where the local cinephile set is celebrating movies from both near and far. But no other festival has a goal quite so noble as that of the Belize International Film Festival: jumpstarting the film industry of its home country.

Granted, that’s only of the goals of BIFF, the 12th annual incarnation of which took place in Belize City Nov. 9-12. The plain and simple act of showing good films—like Ryan Suffern’s Steven Spielberg-executive produced documentary Finding Oscar, about Guatemala’s Dos Erres massacre, or Flavio Florencio’s intimate, passionate Made in Bangkok, about the journey of a trans opera singer to undergo sexual-reassignment surgery—is priority number one. But speaking with those on the ground at BIFF—the staff, the volunteers, the attendees—two things come across more than any other: love of Belize and love of film.

No one exemplifies that attitude more than festival director Suzette Zayden, a filmmaker herself and the coordinator of the National Institute of Culture and History’s Film and Media Arts Unit. Born in Belize, Zayden went abroad to study filmmaking, obtaining a trio of degrees in various elements of film and TV. But staying away was never an option. Zayden came back to her home country, bringing with her knowledge and connections as well as a drive to encourage others with an interest in filmmaking.

“There wasn’t much of a film community” when BIFF started, Zayden explains. For the first few years, “people would ask, ‘What’s a film festival?’ Now the question is, ‘Who’s coming? What films are you getting?’ So the public is more educated now.” The same is true of the Belizean film community, which in 2017 contributed a record number of films to their hometown fest.

One of those was opening night film Inheritance, a Belize/U.S. co-production that was written and directed by a pair of U.S.-based filmmakers—Jessica Kaye and Laura E. Davis—but was shot in Belize with a largely Belizean crew and supporting cast. Much of that cast and crew was on hand for the festival’s opening-night ceremony, which along with the film’s Belize debut featured a handful of musical performances. Contributing to one of those was local talent Shamira Gill-Card, a dancer/poet/actress with a large supporting role in Inheritance. In speaking with Gill-Card about the Belizean film industry, she would echo what Zayden told me earlier: There are talented filmmakers in Belize, but by and large the projects just aren’t there to support them.

Slowly but surely, Zayden and BIFF are changing that. You can see it in Zayden’s approach to organizing the fest. In its early years, it was held in the picturesque town of Placencia. Great for international visitors…but not so much for local filmmakers. “We were isolated at a resort,” Zayden explains. “I started feeling after a couple of years that all I was doing was providing a holiday for people… Connections were being made, but they weren’t being made within my community, which I’m supposed to be here to assist.”

Located as it is now in Belize City, the festival is a boon for the local community. And not just filmmakers—a bevy of students showed up for a high-energy screening of Michael Mooleedhar’s Green Days by the River, an adaptation of a book that’s required reading in many Caribbean schools. The book is set in Trinidad, from where Mooleedhar also hails. Other countries represented in the BIFF lineup included Cuba (Closing Night film Cuba Libre), the Netherlands (Amsterdam: Traces of Sugar), the Bahamas (Cargo), Panama (Salsipuedes) and Costa Rica (Best Narrative Feature winner The Sound of Things).  

“I want [festival attendees] to see other, different cultures,” Zayden says. One of her proudest moments as BIFF’s festival director came early on in the fest’s run, when she was able to invite Brazilian film City of God, which would go on to be nominated for four Oscars. All of Zayden’s hustle—and believe me, seeing the fest come together, Zayden has a lot of hustle and seemingly limitless energy—has had measureable impact. Just look at BIFF’s music-video category, which is the only category solely open to Belizean filmmakers. Early on, Zayden explains, the submissions were by and large lacking in innovation. Now, with technological options expanded and connections made—not to mention the motivating power of good ol’ competition—that same category is seeing submissions of vastly improved artistry. Those directors will go on to make shorts, then features—all to represent the glory and the heritage of bold, beautiful Belize.