On Saturday, the Borscht Film Festival presented its eighth quasi-annual short film program to a crowd of hundreds at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. While Borscht will continue to host events through this coming Friday, the Arsht Center screening was the festival’s main event, the culmination of months of work on mostly Miami-centric films, many of which Borscht commissioned and produced itself.
Borscht says it is “forging the cinematic identity of the city” — the city being Miami, of course — but really the festival is forging a cinematic identity: Miami as seen through the very distinct, very funny, and, this year, very bloody Borscht filter.
Indeed, many of the twenty titles that screened Saturday night incorporated horror movie trademarks, perhaps because the gruesome “zombie” attack on the McArthur Causeway this year, in which one naked man chewed off much of another man’s face, made Miami feel like ground zero for the apocalypse.
There was Miami 1996, a film by Nick Corirossi that depicted a grimy chonga-chongo party in all its hypersexual grind-till-I-die drugged-out glory. With a snake on the loose, DJ Uncle Al droning in the background, and the smoke of coke-laced blunts obscuring the air, this representation of Miami made the city seem nightmarish even before the bloody beat down that closed the film.
Then there were Haunt Ed, in which a YouTube vlogger takes hallucinogens before spending a night in a reportedly haunted house, and Crackhead Katana, starring an addict whose mission is to rid Wynwood of its hipster interlopers by running them through with his sword. While furthering the horror theme and general insanity of Borscht 8, both felt like extended trailers rather than complete short films.
I’ll lob the same critique at Sea Devil, in which a fisherman attempts to smuggle two Cuban escapees into Miami by passing them off as day laborers. Eventually, the group hauls in a legless, one-armed man covered in polyps, and there’s a foreboding sense that the title character is going to come after him. But after 14 minutes the Sea Devil never surfaces — nor does the significance of this film.
On the plus side there was Waiting For Berta. Directed by Laimir Fano, this 13-minute film follows one 80-year-old Cuban woman as she stalks (at a hilariously slow pace) another 80-year-old Cuban women named Berta. As we find out during a simultaneously funny and poignant peeping-tom scene shot through the window of Berta’s home, both women once loved — and now deeply cherish the memory of — the same man. While decades have passed since this love triangle came together (apparently during the Cuban Revolution), passions still run high, so much so that Berta is in danger of taking a bullet … until the news of Castro’s death sparks a spontaneous celebration in the streets of Little Havana.
While for me Waiting For Berta was an unexpected treat, I was expectantly looking forward to #PostModem, the latest collaboration between Borscht director Lucas Leyva and artist Jillian Mayer. Already slated to screen at Sundance, the 13-minute short follows the duo’s Borscht 7 collabo, I Am Your Grandma, a made-to-go-viral music video that actually went viral (2,103,394 YouTube hits and counting), and the Leyva-produced short film Scenic Jogging, for which Mayer took home an award from the Guggenheim Museum.
In many ways, #PostModem did not disappoint. It is a sui generis piece that just about encompasses the Borscht spirit with its combination of technology-fueled neurosis, deft leveraging of internet culture in the name of critiquing internet culture, low-brow humor meets artsy theorizing meets tongue-in-cheek fear of death — and, of course, a good deal of blood thrown in for completion. I realize that that litany doesn’t tell you a damn thing about the film. That’s because it’s damn hard to describe. But I’ll try:
It starts with a montage of very young children in a playground speaking bluntly about their mortality and the futility of human life. (Side note: I found this eerie in light of the Newtown massacre.) Then it cuts to the bedroom of a despondent teenage girl, who eventually lets her friend jam a computer chip into her forehead (thus, the blood) so that she can upload her humanity to the Cloud and presumably not have to worry about dying. At some point (before the forehead jam, if memory serves), the film cuts to a close-up of Mayer, who breaks into a song called “Mega Mega Upload” whose lyrics also center on humanity’s transition from the messiness of the real world to the comfort of the digital one. Later in the film, we tune in to a Home Shopping Network-worthy pitch for a “product” called the Vortex into which a saleswoman tosses her child’s beeping Tamagotchi. For the life of me I can’t remember how, but we later land on a serene beach, where Mayer strips naked and goes for a cleansing swim in the ocean. You wouldn’t in a million tries guess that she ultimately blasts out of the water wearing a jetpack, turns into an interdimensional goddess, and, in the end, recreates (or creates?) the Paleolithic cave paintings of Lascaux with the laser beams she can shoot out of her eyes.
Sounds awesome, right? Ridiculous? Fun? Funny? Incoherent? Self-indulgent? Unforgettable? Yeah, it was all those things. And the same could be said for Borscht 8 as a whole, except for incoherent. If anything, the festival was remarkably coherent in tone and sense of humor considering that its component films are the product of so many different talents. This is a credit to the team, led by Leyva, that took Borscht from someone’s living room to a prestigious opera house.
Walking away from the Arsht Center last night, I wasn’t thinking as much about any of Borscht 8’s individual films as about the three-hour program as a whole. While it had its rough patches — films that need polishing, fleshing out, etc. — overall it came together like one long cinematic epic, complete with all of the absurd elements I’ve mentioned so far in this review and so much more, including an underground fight club in the Design District where a man in a leather horse-face mask sodomizes his defeated opponent, an animated short starring (against his lawyers’ wishes) Miami Heat center Chris Bosh as the savior of our galaxy (this one is a work of a pure genius even though it makes #PostModem look intelligible), and let’s not forget an exploding piggy bank with pork sausages inside of it.
In short, Borscht 8 was three hours of only-of-Miami cinematic entertainment. While the Borscht team might measure success in the awards its individual films rack up at other fests, as an audience member Saturday night I measured it in the numerous times I saw something I never expected to see, and may never forget.