On Saturday night, ≈2,000 people packed the Arsht Center’s Knight Concert Hall for the Borscht Film Festival (aka Borscht 7), three hours of for-Miami, by-Miami work commissioned by a group of brash cineastes who have assumed the lofty responsibility of forging Miami’s cinematic identity.
This was the festival’s seventh run, though only its second fully above ground. The last one, back in November 2009, drew 1,600 people to the Gusman Center to watch — possibly for the first time — Miami films not directed by Michael Bay or called Scarface. Which is what Borscht is all about: transcending, subverting, and, in some cases, warmly embracing the stereotypes that define Miami for millions of people in and outside of the city.
While the 2009 fest had its hiccups — the projector showing up two hours late, for example — it’d be hard to label it anything but a success. Besides the big crowd and the beautiful venue, several of its films eventually screened in the world’s most prestigious film festivals (Cannes, Sundance, Tribeca) and the Knight Foundation was impressed enough to give the Borscht crew, spearheaded by 24-year-old Lucas Leyva, 150,000 smackers for the next two years.
Thing is, I thought most of the films at the last Borscht were terrible, particularly the infantile Of Metrorails and Megasaurs, a tale of a little girl’s first visit to the Magic City that unironically depicted Miami like it was Magic Kingdom (there were animated dinosaurs). In fact, the only film I liked was Daniel Cardenas’s short animation “XEMOLAND”, which went on to screen at Sundance.
Still, I went into Borscht 7 with high hopes. With $150,000 to play around with and 18 months riding the learning curve, I had faith in the Dudes of Borscht to deliver on the hype, and in a lot of ways they did. First of all, they jammed the Arsht with the biggest young crowd I’ve ever seen at a homegrown Miami event. It was amazing to look around that grandiose space and see so many faces from the grimy clubs and dive bars around town. It felt, in a really empowering way, like the kids had taken over City Hall.
Then there was the flow of the festival. No hiccups. The projector showed up on time and the three-hour, 23-part program — a wide-ranging assortment of shorts, musical interludes (e.g., Hitchcock lip synching “Everyday I’m Hustlin'”), and longer features — flew by without giving the crowd restless leg syndrome. In the Age of Hyperactivity — and in Miami of all places — this counts as a triumph.
But let’s be honest: One goes to a restaurant for the food; ambience and service are secondary. I already knew from watching trailers that the films in Borscht 7 would exceed their predecessors in production quality. What I was hoping for when the hall went dark at 8:26 p.m. Saturday night was that they would surpass them by a Miami mile in every other way.
The program got off to a good start with Piratas, a fast-paced, hilarious short about piracy on West Miami’s canals. Narrated with charming charmlessness by baby-faced visual artist Julian Yuri, the film was the cinematic equivalent of a shot of colada, a crude, confident sound off that put the entire crowd at attention. Unfortunately, the five-minute monologue was the last fully realized story on the bill.
From there we moved on to the festival’s first feature, Chlorophyl, a meditation on heartbreak directed by Liberty City-native Barry Jenkins. I’m disqualifying myself from critiquing this one since, much to my surprise (and delight), its protagonist was wearing a Beached Miami shirt for about 40 percent of the 25-minute-long movie.
Of the other features, my favorites were Otto and the Electric Eel, which starred local bass warrior/extraterrestrial Otto von Schirach going where even Andrew Zimmern wouldn’t dare — interdimensional space — for his dinner; and The Tragic Heptology, a series of seven microfilms that featured music by Miami’s best band (ANR), astoundingly beautiful projections by luminescent art duo Colin Foord and Jared McKay (aka Coral Morphologic), and a score by Animal Collective’s Geologist (a sick coup).
Jillian Mayer’s The Life and Freaky Times of Uncle Luke, an unlikely remake of the 1962 French science fiction film La jetée, gets one thumb up for its creatively playful set design, which drew heavily on Mayer’s Getting to know you cut-out boards. But its terrible acting and unsubtle endorsement of Luther Campbell’s real-life mayoral bid made it hard to take. (Campbell was in attendance and gave a stump speech at the end of the festival. That was also hard to take.)
Jorge Rubiera’s Birdwatchers was beautiful and boring. A voyeur’s view of two conquistadors as they roamed the Everglades in desperate search of sustenance, the film showed that Rubiera (Animal Tropical drummer and Can’t Stop lead singer) can wield the camera as well as anyone, but his weakness for abstraction (which shows up in his music, too) kept Birdwatchers and the audience at a distance from each other. If he’d teamed up with a writer even half as talented as himself, Rubiera would have stolen the show.
A few films in the program, however, were unredeemable, namely With Me and La Pageant Diva. Now I normally refuse to point out that what I write is my opinion — it’s self-evident — but in this case I will because, judging by my internal applause-o-meter, these two films were crowd favorites. I thought both were terrible.
With Me‘s trite program summary says it all: “A young girl grows up and captures her once-lost imagination.” Well, almost all. It doesn’t tell you that her “once-lost imagination” will be symbolized by two floating Pokémon or that she’ll recapture it (them?) by eating a Pop-Tart and basking in the affectionate smile of a strapping co-worker. I know this is harsh, but between the Pop-Tart, the Oreos, and the Capri Sun, With Me came off as marketing rather than film — no surprise considering filmmaker Fro Rojas’ background shooting commercials for the likes of AT&T, Ford, and Volkswagen.
Not to beat a dead horse, but I was shocked to see what could have been Of Metrorails and Megasaurs II in Borscht 7. An earnest plea to the Borscht crew: NO MORE IMAGINARY FRIENDS.
Then there was Pageant Diva, which billed itself as a “satyrical look at the glamorous world of Miami beauty pageantry”. But wit and awareness are the essential ingredients of satire and Pageant Diva had neither. Indeed, the 10-minute film may have reinforced the brutally high standards of beauty that oppress women the world over rather than exposing or invalidating them. Ditto for pernicious stereotypes of gay people.
Both With Me and Pageant Diva employed continuous voice over, as did, it seemed, every other film Saturday night. This may be a pet peeve (no less a luminary than Scorcese irks me with his overuse of the device), but voice over is often a crutch filmmakers lean on when they can’t figure out how to tell their story with a camera. I’d like to hear less of it — or none of it — next time around, especially coming out of the mouth of a very annoying character.
But basta with the criticism. Borscht 7 certainly served up more good than bad, and in a thousand ways Leyva and co improved on the 2009 festival. The achievement is particularly impressive considering they didn’t start working on films until they received their Knight funding in February. That means the whole shebang came together in three months. Amazing.
One can wish they had pushed the festival back a few months and taken more time filming; I suspect we would have enjoyed more developed story lines if they had. But the festival they did organize was goddamn impressive. In one night, they took us from the deep sea to criminal canals, from the future (or whatever epoch Otto von Shirach lives in) to the age of conquistadors, from the River of Grass to the Miami River Beauty Pageant (may God forgive them).
But where they took us on screen is not the only thing that matters. It’s way too early to judge Borscht strictly on its films, though that time will come. For now they should be judged on the entire enterprise, which essentially amounts to putting their hometown on the map in the world of cinema. Kinda like modern-day conquistadors. Bravo to them for fighting that fight.
See photos from the Borscht after party at Villa 221.