October 26, 2012 7:20 pm

Expat lives: Split screens

After setting up the Toronto International Film Festival, Henk Van der Kolk moved to Panama and did it all again
Henk Van der Kolk, founder of the Toronto International Film Festival and the International Film Festival Panama©Tito Herrera

Henk Van der Kolk, founder of the Toronto International Film Festival and the International Film Festival Panama

A life in three acts is an apt way to describe the journey of Henk Van der Kolk. Born in the town of Zwolle 80 miles north-east of Amsterdam, Van der Kolk now lives between Toronto – where he emigrated in 1967 to avoid Dutch military service – and Panama City, his part-time residence for the past two years. “Canada had a strong wartime relationship with Holland back then,” says Van der Kolk, who was a husband and father of three within five years of his arrival in North America.

In both Canada and Panama, Van der Kolk has used film as a vehicle for professional success and cultural integration. In 1976, Van der Kolk – then a small-scale film-maker – co-founded the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), which now rivals Cannes as the cinema industry’s most important annual gathering. More than 35 years later, Van der Kolk helped launch the International Film Festival Panama (IFFP) this past April and May. Inspired by Latin America’s under-appreciated cinema industry, the inaugural IFFP attracted more than 17,000 viewers to some 50 films from throughout the Americas, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

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Developing a film festival was the last thing Van der Kolk intended when he first arrived in Panama in 2010 to see his adult daughter Yolanda. “My wife Yanka and I fell in love with the place and immediately felt like we wanted to stay here,” explains Van der Kolk. “Unlike in Canada, it never gets cold in Panama,” he adds, “and the country has this easy, Caribbean-like pacing.”

Within a year, the Van der Kolks had made Panama their winter base and the third country they would come to call home. Owing to complex anti-laundering laws, basic tasks such as opening a Panamanian bank account proved tortuous. But finding a place to live was relatively straightforward. “I absolutely hate living in high-rises,” says Van der Kolk. So rather than settle in Panama City’s skyscraper-filled downtown, the Van der Kolks opted for the Casco Viejo – or “Old Town” – the capital’s compact, Unesco-lauded historic core some 45 minutes from the Panama Canal. Set on a slim peninsula, the Casco’s colonial-era architecture and sophisticated culinary scene are increasingly luring anglophone expats and tourists.

“Our home is relatively simple; two floors in a restored Casco building with a traditional garden courtyard, a small pool and waterfall,” says Van der Kolk, whose low-slung residence is a short walk from most of the IFFP’s event and screening spaces. “It’s extremely tranquil here, we feel like we have our own chunk of jungle.”

From their Casco casita, the Van der Kolks – who are avid boaters – quickly established a leisurely routine of weekday power-walks along the oceanfront Cinta Costera (coastal beltway) and weekend sailing escapes to Santa Clara. They bought a Mini Cooper – “a convertible”, Van der Kolk enthuses – and explored Panama’s verdant hill towns and the easy-access beach communities on both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts. “Panama may be tiny but the country is really a series of microclimates,” Van der Kolk says. “The shifts in temperature and seasons are truly beguiling.”

Panama was never intended as a formal retirement. Curious and energetic, Van der Kolk almost immediately took an interest in Panama City’s cinema scene, which reminded him of Canada’s own film industry four decades ago. “Back then, the film world was dominated by Hollywood, and Canadian-made films were almost non-existent,” recalls Van der Kolk, who retired from TIFF in the mid-1980s to help oversee his wife’s photography business. “Today, Toronto has a vibrant film production industry and TIFF pumps some $175m into the local economy each year.”

Van der Kolk quickly realised that film could also help transform Panama’s economy, which is heavily dependent on Canal fees and tourism, with little investment in the arts or culture. The film festival is the most immediate part of this process, complemented by longer-term goals such as the establishment of a formal cinema school and increased government funding for local film production. Van der Kolk is involved in all of these endeavours, which have kept him and Yanka in Panama for most of the past year.

Despite the satisfaction of a successful new film festival, Van der Kolk’s Panamanian third act remains a work in progress. “Creating friendships with Panamanians has definitely been challenging,” says Van der Kolk, who has stepped down from running IFFP and will now split his time equally between Panama and Canada. “I do miss our friends back in Canada.” Nonetheless, lobbying government ministers for funding and local business leaders for support has rapidly integrated Van der Kolk into the highest rungs of Panamanian society – despite his poor Spanish. “I’m 70 years old now, and new languages just don’t come that easily to me any more,” concedes Van der Kolk, who speaks Dutch, French and English.

Still, Van der Kolk spends little time in Panama City’s English-speaking expatriate scene, which he says “is filled with folks moaning about Panama’s problems”. Instead, he and Yanka can usually be found enjoying cocktails at a cosy Casco lounge or mentoring a young Panamanian photographer or film-maker. “There’s nothing to be gained from this kind of negative thinking,” continues Van der Kolk, who himself occasionally bemoans Panama’s sluggish bureaucracy and rigorous class structure. “Panamanians are not going to ‘change’; we have to change if we are going to live here happily.”

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Buying guide

Pros

A street in Casco Viejo in Panama City©Robert Harding

A street in Casco Viejo in Panama City

● Vast range of natural environments within easy access of Panama City

● The capital’s Casco Viejo is rich with world-class restaurants, bars and music

● Increased cultural offerings including the new film festival and Frank Gehry’s soon-to-debut Biomuseo

Cons

● Panamanian society can be insular and expats stick to themselves

● Spanish is essential for full integration

● Panama’s class stratification can be jarring for newcomers

What you can buy for ...

$200,000 A one-bedroom, 800 sq ft apartment in a restored 75-year-old former hotel with a communal rooftop pool

$1m A three-bedroom, three- bathroom home in the Casco Viejo with ocean views from a private roof terrace

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