Aruba Film Festival Showcases Local Talent Against Beautiful Backdrop

When was the last time you saw a film by a Caribbean filmmaker? Exactly. While blockbuster films like the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise use the islands' stunning scenery as the backdrop for adventure, actual filmmakers from the Caribbean struggle mightily to get their stories seen, even in their own island nations.

Last week, the fifth annual Aruba International Film Festival highlighted the triumphs and challenges of Caribbean talent.

The white sands of Palm Beach in Aruba - Photo by Gina Hall

Oscar-nominated actress Virginia Madsen (Sideways) was in attendance and serves as what she calls "the unofficial ambassador" of the fest. She hopes to drum up support for the films among locals and tourists from South America, Europe and the U.S. She told me that while no one really has to twist her arm to come to an island as beautiful as Aruba, she really loves coming each year to see films from local talent, which she would otherwise miss back in the U.S.

"Especially the short films," Madsen tells me. "I just love seeing the filmmakers see their names up on the screen. They get so excited."

The festival also featured some Hollywood fare, such as Eli Roth's new film, Knock, Knock, starring Keanu Reeves, and Zachary Sluser's The Driftless Area, starring Zooey Deschanel. Tyrese Gibson appeared at the fest to screen his new short film, Shame, co-starring Jennifer Hudson, and producer Cassian Elwes was on hand to screen Knock Knock.

I was fortunate to host the panel with Best Caribbean Spotlight Series Film winner Shamira Raphaela, whose documentary, Deal With It followed her father, Pempy, a drug dealing addict, and her brother Andy, who's following in his father's footsteps. While the topic could have been difficult to watch, Raphaela's film is filled with humor and hope. The film won the jury's Best Caribbean Spotlight Series Film and the Audience Award for Best Caribbean Spotlight Series Film.

Shamira Raphaela (in yellow) won Best Caribbean Spotlight Series Film - photo by Gina Hall

Originally from Aruba, now living in the Netherlands, Raphaela told me that it was a difficult decision to insert herself into the narrative, which made the film all the more personal and compelling. However, she found that after portraying her family in such a raw and honest light, many viewers of the film approached her with similar stories.

Another charming film at the fest was "Viaje," the tale of a new couple discovering each other during an impromptu trip to a Costa Rican forest. I bumped into the film's lead actor, Fernando Bolaños, over tropical cocktails on a pier overlooking a Caribbean sunset. Just a short time later, I was able to see an entirely different person on screen doing some really wonderful work.

It highlights one of the amazing things about the fest, and that is just how easy it is for attendees to mingle with the filmmakers and talent. It's an excellent way to familiarize yourself with Caribbean cinema -- and enjoy some tropical sunsets (and cocktails) in the process.