From Sundance to Toronto to South by Southwest, Miami filmmakers have made their mark on the festival circuit. The city's most buzzed-about collective, Borscht Corp., has had work accepted at major gatherings around the world — but never at the Miami International Film Festival (MIFF). Until now.
MIFF, which returns this Friday and runs through March 20, changed its requirements for submissions this year, in part to allow films like Borscht's to be screened. Before this year, every MIFF screening had to be at least a Florida premiere. "But obviously the Borscht festival is a different forum," explains Jaie Laplante, MIFF's executive director. "They're involved in production, and we're not... We don't want to exclude any of the great work being done here on a technicality."
Two Borscht films — the documentary Papa Machete and short feature The Sun Like a Big Dark Animal — will screen at MIFF this year. "We should be proud of these films," Laplante says. "Papa Machete was at Toronto and then at Sundance; those films should be in the Miami International Film Festival. It's good for the festival, and it's good for our filmmakers here in Miami too."
MIFF, now in its fourth decade, has long been committed to showing films specifically for Miami audiences. The difference this year, Laplante says, is that the quality of films with Miami connections — made by local filmmakers, set or filmed in Miami, or even just about localized topics — has skyrocketed.
"[Usually], a lot of the content that comes to us is a little bit amateur and not really appropriate for a national festival. But the films this year that touched on Miami were all of international breadth and interest," Laplante says. "That's exciting, because it shows that all the work that the film festival has done to foster appreciation of the cinematic arts, and all the work that many, many people have done, like the Knight Foundation and Borscht, and all the artists who've tried to encourage creativity with the cinematic arts, it's starting to pay off. Art is maturing. This art is complex and deep, it's authentic to us, but it also stands with any of the other work that's being done globally. It's thrilling to watch that evolve."
Among the other filmmakers representing Miami at MIFF this year are Rakontur, the duo of Billy Corben and Alfred Spellman, whose Dawg Fight screens March 12, and former Miami Herald employees Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus, whose Hot Girls Wanted examines South Florida's amateur porn industry. It screens Monday, followed by an afterparty at the new Edition hotel.
Meanwhile, Cuban film is experiencing a renaissance of its own. Filmmakers working without financial assistance from the Cuban government have produced standout work in recent years, Laplante says. "For me, it started crystallizing a couple years ago, when we showed this film called Juan of the Dead," he recalls. The film, funded by foreign investments, earned filmmaker Alejandro Brugués a Goya Award for best Spanish-language film. That same year, Cuban director Carlos Machado Quintela's La Piscina (The Swimming Pool) took MIFF's Opera Prima Award before winning the top prize from a Martin Scorsese-led panel at the Marrakech Film Festival later that year. Most recently, the Cuban film Conducta (Behavior), by director Ernesto Daranas, screened as part of MIFF's festival pre-event, MIFFecito.
"It's difficult to make independent films anywhere. But in Cuba, to the nth degree, it's even more difficult," Laplante says. "And these artists are doing it. We wanted to call attention to the whole group of them that have been working this way."
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The Cuban artists representing indie filmmaking on the island this year are Kiki Alvarez, whose Venice explores contemporary Havana; Maryulis Alfonso Yero, with The Windows; Edouard Salier, with Habana; and Pavel Giroud, whose documentary Playing Lecuona will screen at the festival's Cinedwntwn Gala. Also on the agenda are talks with Cuban filmmakers Jessica Rodriguez, Marcel Beltrán, and Claudia Calvino.
Another film Laplante recommends for Miami audiences is Sweet Micky for President, a documentary about Michel Martelly, better known then as pop star Sweet Micky, and his campaign to become the president of Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake that devastated the nation. "The film steers clear from the ideological," Laplante says. "It's more about what happens when pop stars get involved in politics... Watching pop stars trying to play the [political] game is very, very funny." Pras Michel, the former Fugees member who mobilized Sweet Mickey's campaign, will present the film.
Three MIFF films — Wild Tales, The Salt of the Earth, and The Bigger Picture — were also up for Academy Awards at last month's ceremony. None of them took home a golden statue, but if you can't take Miami to the Oscars, bring the Oscars to Miami. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences President Cheryl Boone Isaacs will host a discussion during MIFF. Given the lack of diversity among this year's Academy nominees — no one of color in the acting categories and no women in directing or writing categories — it should be an eye-opening talk.
Plus, Laplante says, "She'll bring some of that Oscar glamor to Miami."