Yikes! Another Film Festival

Far be it from me to whine about how tough my job is. I learned long ago that there aren't many folks sympathetic to complaints from a guy who sits around all day watching movies and getting paid for it. Suffice it to say if it was that easy, everyone would be doing it.

But the job does have its perks, chief among them the satisfaction of viewing a great film and having a platform to let people know about it. The inaugural South Beach Film Festival, which kicks off at Miami Beach's Colony Theater on April 14, has a couple of jewels sprinkled among its many baubles, and while I haven't screened all 43 of the festival's films (culled from more than 140 entries), I have had the opportunity to preview the eight films judged best in their respective categories as well as a few selected others. The overall quality of the festival's offerings is, as that of any collection of low-budget independent cinema should be, mixed, with a decided leaning toward the quirky and the avant-garde. There are the usual assortment of howlers and head-scratchers, but there are some pleasant surprises as well. And there are two flat-out winners: Spare Me (which copped a Golden Coconut at the Fort Lauderdale Film Fest) and the amazing The Making of "...And God Spoke."

Now, I've taken some crazy financial risks in my day A heating-oil futures, stock index options, foreclosure real estate, rare coins. I'm no stranger to gambling, either. I've played blackjack in Curaaao, craps in Vegas, poker in Reno, and the dogs at Flagler, Biscayne, and Hollywood. Hell, I've even bet on jai alai. But my experience as film reviewer here at New Times has convinced me that there is one gamble I would never take: putting on a film festival. You pour hours and hours into screening hundreds of films, you negotiate with mom-and-pop filmmakers and distributors (most of whom can barely afford the postage it costs to send you their work), you hustle sponsors and coordinate parties, press releases, and previews, you spend thousands of dollars on advertising, and then you sit back and pray that somebody shows up to bear witness to the fruits of your labor. Nat Chediak, whose eleven-year-old Miami Film Festival is the area's biggest and longest-running, confided to me prior to the opening of this year's event that he suffers through the same nightmare on the eve of every premiere A a great opening film playing to an empty house. The fact that nearly every Miami Film Festival opening-night offering has sold out has done nothing to allay his anxiety.

Who needs the stress? And then there's the specter of market saturation. In recent months, South Floridians have already been treated to the Miami, Jewish, and Fort Lauderdale film festivals. It would not be a stretch to wonder if area filmgoers might not be festivaled out.

The organizers of the Black Film Festival (now in its sixth year) and the South Beach Film Festival (making its debut) certainly hope not. The former's emphasis is self-explanatory A highlighting work by black filmmakers. This year's celebrity guests include actor-director Blair Underwood (L.A. Law's Jonathan Rollins), Robert Townsend, and Malcolm Jamal Warner. Townsend and Warner will be lecturing, but only Underwood will be premiering new work A his narrative short The Second Coming, which ponders the effect that a black Christ would have had on racism.

The South Beach Film Festival's mandate is a little more nebulous. "Our intention is to provide a forum for small, independent works that would otherwise never make it to South Florida," states Rob Mills, the festival's organizer. That definition allows for a pretty broad range of entries, from experimental shorts to full-length narrative features. More than 140 films were submitted in four categories A fiction, nonfiction, animation, and experimental. Of those, 43 were selected for exhibition. (All films will be screened at Miami Beach's Colony Theater. For a complete listing of offerings and screening times, see "Film Capsules.")

The eight award winners run the gamut in terms of subject matter, filmmaking style, production values, and market potential. John Schnall's Frankenstein combines cartoon animation with stop-motion and frame-by-frame pixilation to present the Mary Shelley classic as an allegory for the stifling of creativity inherent in child-rearing. Schnall's vision is not exactly faithful to the original (although I read Shelley many years ago, I don't remember anything about a giant house-broken beetle). Ted Pratt's Strangeness in the Night is a video cartoon that involves scheming aliens, a Laundromat, and stolen socks. The premise is imaginative but the execution relies on those stock cartoon conventions of pratfalls and slapstick. And Gary Fleder's short documentary Animal Instinct covers three years in the life of a wanna-be Rocky named Phil Paolina. With the boxer's soulful, Andy Garcia-like eyes, his passion for animal rights, his fondness for women, and friends like Mickey Rourke, it comes as little surprise when Paolina's pugilistic career detours into acting, comedy, retail store management, and personal training. The 30-minute film pokes gentle fun at its often confused, always engaging subject, a guy who maybe coulda been a contenda if he'd a just got his head screwed on straight. Animal Instinct is an ironic title; Paolina's love of little critters and his lack of killer instinct doom him in the ring but endear him to viewers of the film. Smart career move, kid.

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