Miami artist Jayme Gershen is having her moment. After five years of hard work, she completed her first feature documentary, Birthright, just in time for its premiere as the closing film at Miami Dade College’s 38th-annual Miami Film Festival (MFF) next month. The film follows local electro-pop act Afrobeta as the duo embarks on a journey to perform in Cuba, the homeland of members Cuci Amador's and Tony Smurphio's parents.
Gershen met the pair while hosting a concert series. When the musicians mentioned their plans to play in Cuba, Gershen asked to film the process. The result is a thoughtful documentary that explores the complexities of Cuban-American perceptions of home.
“When relationships opened between Cuba and the U.S. in 2016, I saw my Cuban-American peers going through what can only be described as an identity crisis,” Gershen tells New Times. “They had never questioned who they were, and suddenly American pop culture was in the very place that they felt was theirs. Suddenly, people were more interested in Cuba than the Cuban-Americans who’d built a Little Cuba in Miami, and I wanted to make a film about that shift."
Gershen’s path to filmmaking was unconventional. For years, she was a competitive snowboarder with an appreciation for photography. Though she loved competing, Gershen quit the sport after her sixth knee surgery and traveled for a bit. During her travels, she leaned more into photography. Eventually, she met and married a man in Colombia, but the couple spent the bulk of their marriage separated by borders and immigration policies.
“We fought nearly ten years for his visa, which was ultimately denied,” Gershen says. “I became a filmmaker because I decided to make a film about our experience.”
The resulting short documentary, Six Degrees of Immigration, won the Knight Made in MIA Short Film Award at MFF in 2019. The film was featured on New York Times Op-Docs and PBS and eventually scored an Emmy.
Gershen is now receiving much-needed creative support through Oolite Arts Home + Away travel residency program, which offers Miami-Dade artists opportunities to participate in some of the nation's most important artist residencies. Gershen is spending five weeks at Anderson Ranch in Colorado, where she put the finishing touches on Birthright.
“Documentary filmmaking is tough because there are no answers,” Gershen says. “You have to figure out what you are trying to explore and how to process that information. Then, you have to figure out how to reach your audience.”
Also premiering at MFF is Edson Jean’s film, Ludi. (It will also screen at SXSW Film Festival later in the month.) The film is the first project to come out of the Cinematic Arts Residency at Oolite Arts. Now in its third year, the residency program awards a Miami filmmaker $50,000 to create a narrative microbudget feature film and provides access to a producer and studio space.
Like much of Jean’s work, Ludi is rooted in Haitian-American experiences. The film follows a young health-care worker struggling to support herself in Miami while sending money to family in Haiti.
“So much inspired Ludi,” Jean tells New Times. “But the core of that inspiration came from my mother’s earlier years as a recent immigrant and private caretaker making her way in Miami.”
While this is Jean’s first feature film, he is no stranger to the industry. He received a bachelor’s degree in acting from the New World School of the Arts. His thesis project inspired his first short film, The Adventures of Edson Jean, which screened at the American Black Film Festival and later aired on HBO.
Jean’s identity is integral to his filmmaking.
"As Black people in this country, our traumas have been normalized,” he says. “My work is therapy for me. Through film, I seek to fully explore and understand myself and to avoid being complicit in vicious cycles of oppression and hate.”
For his next project, Jean partnered with Joshua John-Baptiste to create #Josh, a series based on their experiences as fatherless men in Miami grappling to figure out manhood. The duo won Project Greenlight’s web series competition, which Matt Damon and Ben Affleck sponsored.
Jean and Jean-Baptiste later adapted the web series into Grown, a full-length digital series on Complex. After the show ended, Jean pondered his next move.
“I had a shift in perspective and was tired of being at the mercy of Hollywood,” Jean says. “So, Josh and I started writing a script that would cost very little so that we could make it on our own.”
At the behest of Miami producer Andrew Hevia, Jean applied for Oolite’s Cinematic Arts Residency. Winning the residency put Ludi on the fast track, but the pandemic complicated production. In the end, Jean shot the film in 14 days.
Dennis Scholl, president and CEO of Oolite Arts, hopes that Ludi will inspire more Miami filmmakers to take the leap into feature filmmaking.
“Miami has an incredible community of indie filmmakers who have won many awards for their short films,” Scholl says. “We want to help them take that next step in their career and make a feature film. Micro-budget features are a great start. Ludi proves you don’t need a ton of resources to tell a great story.”
Ludi. Starring Shein Mompremier. Directed by Edson Jean. Written by Edson Jean and Joshua Jean-Baptiste. 81 minutes. Not Rated. Screens at 7 p.m. Friday, March 5, at Silverspot Cinema; 300 SE Third St., Miami; 305-536-5000; silverspot.net; streams virtually at noon Saturday, March 6. Tickets cost $25 via miamifilmfestival.com.
Birthright. Starring Cristy “Cuci” Garcia and Tony “Smurfio” Laurencio. Directed by Jayme Gershen. 54 minutes. Not Rated. Screens at 7 p.m. Saturday, March 14, at Silverspot Cinema, 300 SE Third St., Miami; 305-536-5000; silverspot.net; streams virtually at noon Sunday, March 15. Tickets cost $25 via miamifilmfestival.com.