L.A. Film Festival: ‘Paraiso for Sale’ documents trouble in a Panamanian paradise


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Turn on the TV news or pick up a paper in the United States, and it’s hard not to find a story about the social and economic impact of Latin Americans migrating northward. But many Americans might be surprised to find out that tens of thousands of Yankees are themselves leaving for Latin America –- many to retire on the cheap -- and stirring up conflicts of their own in their new countries.

“Paraiso for Sale,” a documentary playing at the L.A. Film Festival this week, looks at the issues caused by an influx of foreigners to Bocas del Toro, Panama. A cluster of small islands situated on the Caribbean coast, Bocas boasts sandy beaches, palm trees and a multicultural, multilingual populace that includes indigenous Panamanians, people of Afro-Caribbean heritage and American baby boomers looking for their own slice of paradise.


But conflict has set in as the wealthy newcomers buy up property for development and some seek to evict locals -– many of whom have been living on the parcels for generations and also have some claims to the land. The crush of retirees and tourists has created jobs but also strained local utilities, leading to problems with water and electricity supplies. The situation is complicated by the vague nature of property laws in Panama, lack of government infrastructure and alleged corruption among local officials.

The film (which you can catch at L.A. Live on Monday at 4:45 p.m. and Wednesday at 9:50 p.m.), was directed by Anayansi Prado. Prado is a 37-year-old native of Panama who moved to the United States as a teenager and has made two other films about immigration: 2005’s “Maid in America,” about domestic workers in the United States, and 2008’s “Children in No Man’s Land,” about minors who cross the U.S-Mexico border on their own to reunite with family members in the United States.

“I wanted to tell a story in my home country, and I found it interesting, this reverse migration and the issues that were arising,” Prado said Sunday at the festival.

Prado’s film follows three main subjects. One is an American couple who dreamed of retiring in Bocas, built their dream home there and got involved in charitable activities such as raising money for schools for indigenous children. But then they become involved in an expensive legal dispute over their property.

Another is Dario Vanhorne, a charismatic Afro-Caribbean tour-boat captain, restaurant musician and devoted churchgoer who is inspired to launch a grassroots campaign for mayor as the property disputes mount. A third is Feliciano Santos, a young, determined indigenous man who is trying to organize impoverished native Panamanians so they can stand up for their land rights.

Though the film is unlikely to win any stylistic awards, and you may like to hear more from the government, “Paraiso for Sale” does give a glimpse into the situation’s maddening intricacies and ambiguities –- it’s hard not to empathize with all of her subjects at various points. The incumbent mayor and a Texas group that wants to build a giant marina in the area despite the objections of some residents recieve the most unflattering portrayals -– but then again, as even a few locals point out, such projects would offer the prospect of more jobs for the community, parts of which are incredibly poor.


Prado hasn’t yet screened the film in Bocas, but she’s already planning her next project, also set in Panama and also examining a thicket of controversy: the 1989 U.S. invasion of the country and conflicting recollections and reports about its duration and death toll.


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Photos, from top: The beach at Bocas del Toro, Panama. Dario Vanhorne, who ran for mayor after becoming alarmed by property disputes. Feliciano Santos (center) helps to organize a roadblock by indigenous Panamanians upset about property disputes. Credit: L.A. Film Festival