Borscht 7: The Good, the Bad, and the Pageant Diva

By | April 24th, 2011 | 17 Comments

A packed house hungry for Borscht falls under the spell of a Coral Morphologic projection at the Arsht Center downtown.

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.

17 Comments on “Borscht 7: The Good, the Bad, and the Pageant Diva”

  1. 1 jerry said at 11:40 am on April 25th, 2011:

    it WAS weak this year.
    Sick of the Otto thing already..

  2. 2 Jordan Melnick said at 11:41 am on April 25th, 2011:

    Was he in the last one?

  3. 3 LDM said at 12:51 pm on April 25th, 2011:

    really good review, very tough but fair

    and congrats on your 20 minute cameo in chlorophyll

  4. 4 Dude said at 1:46 pm on April 25th, 2011:

    THUMBS DOWN These Kids running the show are always making comments on their facebook page about Jesus. Just because you all are wanna be snobs/ hialeah Jews doesnt give you the right to be offensive. What comes around goes around. As for your production… your story lines blow. Smoke and mirrors isn’t enough!

  5. 5 Jordan Melnick said at 1:50 pm on April 25th, 2011:

    @LDM Thanks man. Best scene of the night!

  6. 6 Kdrizzle said at 4:15 pm on April 25th, 2011:

    With extremely low expectations upon arrival, I thoroughly enjoyed the heck out of myself. Because, while Miami is known internationally as some kind of tropical New York-ish thing, its home grown art/media/creative grounds scene is somewhat in its infancy. Its more of a small town in that way, so the fact that they were able to pool their resources into an event this shiny and promising I think bodes well as a good start for what may become a legitimate scene in the next five to ten years.

  7. 7 Jordan Melnick said at 4:57 pm on April 25th, 2011:

    @Kdrizzle The shininess is due to the hefty Knight grant, which funds so much (maybe too much) of Miami’s culture right now. Don’t get me wrong, Knight is doing great things and genuinely trying to get new money coming into Miami for cultural projects, but it concerns me that we are so dependent on one organization right now.

    Another thing I didn’t mention in the review is the apparent clubbiness of Borscht. So many names repeating film after film. Does a terrible film like Pageant Diva get in because someone knows someone? I don’t know, but I definitely want to see new names next year. Borscht needs to live up to the “fresh” in their tag line, not just the “local”.

    Again, the cliquishness may be a result of the rushed schedule — it would have been damn hard to find hidden talent in three months. With Knight funding and a whole year to plan, Borscht 8 should be a lot better.

  8. 8 Dude said at 7:08 pm on April 25th, 2011:

    Yup sick of the “otto thing”
    sick of the double standards…

    Last year they funded a short(velvet) “written & directed”-LOL by some joker who left miami and now resides in new york whose film is a wannabe Woody Allen type.

    Miami sucks in that it wants to be like New York/ California yet it just can’t…Nothing will ever be it’s own till it starts wanting to be something it’s not. Bercht I mean “borcht” is prime example of Jokers who get grants because of perhaps the Jew thing as so they make it be known on their FB page, who hook their cuban/jew hommies up and make asses of themselves. Wake up James L Knight… there is a lot of young raw talent out there… not these film class jokers.

    And the young crowds who are supporting these fools… wake up too!! instead of kissing their asses make your own thing and forget this lil sub culture.. of snoby kiddos whose founder doesn’t even know “back focus” or “xml file” is yet is taking advantage of the grant by making him and his bros a Reel.

  9. 9 Jordan Melnick said at 8:00 pm on April 25th, 2011:

    @Dude What the hell are you talking about? I’ve been following Borscht pretty closely and I didn’t even know there were any Jews involved. Who cares any goddamn way? You sound embittered and ignorant . . . except re your feelings on “Velvet”. It was a shameless Woody rip off.

  10. 10 CBD! Historic Downtown Miami said at 7:10 am on April 26th, 2011:

    We’ll weigh in on Borscht Film Festival. Since is conflicted regarding ‘Chlorophyl’, let us add that it was a horrible film, possibly the worst 20 minutes of my life, and I want that time back.

    Otherwise, GREAT festival . . .

  11. 11 Jordan Melnick said at 8:49 am on April 26th, 2011:

    @CBD Your abstention from hyperbole is appreciated.

  12. 12 Leah said at 12:36 pm on April 27th, 2011:

    I appreciate your abstention from comment on Chlorophyll, but I think that it was probably the weakest film on the lineup. It was just 20 minutes of ennui and no substantial narrative. Also, I didn’t really understand how the scientific descriptions in Spanish really tied into the film as a whole. 100% agreed on With Me, as well. I think it would make a great commercial for something, though.

    The opening piece, as well as the short, I Am Your Grandma were hilarious, and I also enjoyed the film with Uncle Luke in it. I’m a little bit mixed on his little stump speech. On one hand, I suppose it’s a gesture of his support for the arts and the film industry (a good thing)–something that would be refreshing from an elected official in Miami. On the other hand, his mayoral candidacy seems to be more of an ironic celebrity charade — aren’t we trying to counteract that reputation in this town?

    Overall, I enjoyed the short pieces much more. I suspect that you are right about the rushed timeline. Given a little more time to tighten up the writing, the longer films may have performed a little bit better in my book. Still, the evening was beautifully executed and I am proud of the the people who produced the event, even if the festival was a little cliquish. It’s a worthwhile effort which will hopefully become sustainable when the Knight Foundation Grants run out in a couple of years (we’ll see…).

  13. 13 Jordan Melnick said at 12:55 pm on April 27th, 2011:

    @Leah Many thanks as always for the thoughtful comment. I will say this for Chlorophyl, most of us have felt that heavy emptiness when someone we love doesn’t give a shit in return. I think Jenkins was going for that with the pacing and color scheme of the film.

    As for I Am Your Grandma, I’d already seen it at the David Castillo Gallery during April Art Walk. Ditto for the “3-D” short. A gallery — not a film festival — is the appropriate venue for both, in my opinion.

    Re Uncle Luke, at a time when we have Donald Trump running for president (not to mention Sarah Palin), I have no patience for an “ironic celebrity charade”. Given Campbell agreed to perform at the Borscht after party only if three girls in bikinis joined him on stage, he has a long way to go to convince me he’s serious, no matter how seriously the Herald and the New Times’ choose to take him for the sake of their respective pageview counts.

  14. 14 Dud Bertigan said at 6:09 pm on April 27th, 2011:

    Candidates dont make ironic celebrity charades, the media does. do you really believe everything you see? Luke is a real candidate, not a real politician, but there are plenty events taking place now thru May 24th for you to bring your camera out to and decide for yourself

  15. 15 Adam said at 8:23 pm on April 27th, 2011:

    @Jordan – excellent review – very fair, if anything a little too positive. You nailed it on the head with your comment on the pervasive use of a narrator voice. This emphasis on exposition shows very weak screenwriting – film is a visual medium and having someone tell us in the background the theme and meaning of a film reflects poorly on these efforts. “Birdwatching” and “Chlorophyll” were painful.

  16. 16 Leah said at 8:44 am on April 28th, 2011:

    @Dud – Point taken re: the media.

  17. 17 Gabriel Paparoni said at 11:51 am on December 14th, 2011:

    Funny I should find this, the guy in the photo with the yellow shirt is me & the girl next to him was my lovely date. As for the festival, I felt that the shorts were better then the featurettes. The ones that really left an impression weren’t the big hits. The Pageant Diva was a flop to me, with cheap humor and too much repetition. The Birdwatchers had potential but the restless leg syndrome was definitely provoked. The main complaint would be Chlorophyll, which in my opinion was a terrible waste of budgeting. It was dry, meaningless (not in a good way) and the cinematography was cliche’ and pretentious. The overly exclusive appeal to the cuban subculture also was really annoying as it made anyone who wasn’t cuban but understood the joke feel as though they tried to segregate a GENERAL audience. I came to the Borscht, not the Cuban Film Festival.

    However the Hitchcock short (amongst my favorites) and the Burrito Sabanero short revitalized the show. As well as Uncle Luke, the dog one, and Piratas. They were little snippets of what a short film should be.

    Overall I enjoyed it quite a bit and it being my 3rd year going, it was the most impressive lineup so far (although I wished to see more from the director of Velvet).

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