Abner Benaim interview: ‘Plaza Catedral’ director and writer
Panama’s entry for Best International Feature Film at the 2022 Oscars, “Plaza Catedral,” tells the story of Alicia (Ilse Salas), a 42-year old grief-stricken woman who has become estranged from society. Her world is turned upside down when a 14-year-old boy named Chief (Fernando Xavier De Casta) stumbles into her house, bleeding. Abner Benaim wrote and directed the film and says he is honored to be selected to represent Panama for the first time on the Oscar shortlist. Watch the exclusive video interview above.
“I thought I was having a heart attack for a little bit,” Benaim recalls about hearing “Plaza Catedral” had been shortlisted for the Oscars. “It’s really good for the film. We were a very small film from a very small country and, like any independent film, just struggling to get some visibility. All of the sudden we have that visibility. We’re on the shortlist. The rest of the names [on the list] are very important films from all over the world. It was an important moment for the film, for me and for Panama.”
The breakout star of the film is De Casta, who plays Chief. The teenager tragically died from gun violence shortly before “Plaza Catedral” was released. “He was outstanding,” says Benaim. “He was charming, he was smart, a natural. He was a contemporary dancer and he played soccer. He was very little, but he acted like a grown-up. It’s just horrible that he’s not here with us.”
“He was the victim of the pandemic in a way,” Benaim says of De Casta. “He was on his way to being saved with the dancing, with this film and a lot of people who cared for him. During the pandemic and going so long without school and not being able to go to the dance academy, he got in trouble. It’s a problematic package. There’s so much lacking for a kid growing up in a neighborhood like that. The support from family can’t carry you all the way. If you slip it’s very hard to get back out. The destiny for those kids is usually to end up in jail or to be killed and they know it. Once they get into gangs, they know it. They act like they don’t care, but we should care.”
In addition to directing the film, Benaim also wrote the screenplay. “A large part of the inspiration was to talk about that divide that happens between people of any different background,” he says. “You feel that you want to say something or you feel that you want to be closer to the other person and open up, but you don’t. That feeling was the starting point for the film. Then it became about this woman who meets somebody and a kid who needs somebody. They don’t really know it or accept it, and they sort of stumble upon each other and end up opening up. That changes their life.”