Kids in Exile: Right-winging it

The FIU Miami Film Festival unfolds this week at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts amid a novel dose of controversy. The subject of contention? Surprise, surprise -- Cuban-exile politics. In a nutshell: Kids in Exile, a local filmmaking trio composed of Joe Cardona, Mario de Varona, and Michelle Zubizarreta, submit their feature -- Water, Mud & Factories, a drama focusing on the trials of a Cuban-American family in Hialeah -- to the festival for consideration. Festival head Nat Chediak, who personally vets each selection, rejects it as a substandard work. Incensed, the Kids in Exile head for the warpath. Charging the festival with neglecting Miami filmmakers and calling for Chediak's ouster, they begin assiduously working behind the scenes, contacting virtually every elected official in South Florida.

The Kids in Exile's first point -- the festival's lack of attention to Floridian talent -- seems a bit bizarre. After all the intention of the Miami Film Festival has never been to showcase back-yard talent, particularly since that role has been ably filled by the Alliance Cinema, which stages its own locals-oriented festival, in addition to providing resources for aspiring auteurs. One hardly expects the New York Film Festival to devote itself to New York filmmakers, or Sundance to give itself over to Utah talent. Perhaps a more suitable home for the Kids in Exile would be the Cuban Film Festival, an exile-only forum in everything but name. Inaugurated this past year under the auspices of the University of Miami, the Cuban Film Festival's founders certainly have no qualms about quality issues, happily displaying all manner of dreck on projected video. Their only litmus test for inclusion appears to be a political one: denounce Fidel with the appropriate level of venom and you're in.

As for the Kids in Exile's second thrust -- demanding Chediak's removal from the very festival he founded back in 1983 on the grounds that "he has no formal training in film and has no significant work in the field" -- it's downright ludicrous. In fact it's hard to imagine another individual more suited to chairing the Miami Film Festival than Chediak, a man who has spent the past three decades tirelessly championing truly exciting cinema, often at great personal expense. Anyone who caught Miami's first peek at François Truffaut's Day for Night back in 1973 at Chediak's Cinematheque theater, might also have spied him sweeping up the joint afterward; it was hardly a glamorous calling. Rainer Werner Fassbinder's pictures may have played to near-empty houses in the late 1970s, putting the Cinematheque in ominous financial straits, but Chediak never stopped booking them. Money wasn't the issue. Instead, it was, as the festival's slogan now attests, "for the love of film."

"Make some noise for Grandma": Cedella Marley passes the cultural torch to Lauryn Hill
"Make some noise for Grandma": Cedella Marley passes the cultural torch to Lauryn Hill

So what of Water, Mud & Factories? Despite repeated pleas the Kids in Exile refused to allow Kulchur to view their movie. Consequently we'll have to rely on Herald film critic Rene Rodriguez, who wrote, "Chediak would have been nuts to include Water, Mud & Factories in the festival. The movie is a hollow exercise in nostalgia that speaks to very specific viewers -- and tells them only what they want to hear.... Take away the Spanglish dialogue, the references to arroz con pollo and café con leche and the loving abuelita who demands the grandkids speak Spanish at the dinner table, and what you're left with is a dull, technically proficient but weakly written film made by people who have seen a lot of movies but have nothing new to say themselves." Shortly after Rodriguez's assessment was published, the Kids in Exile diligently repossessed almost every copy of the tape previously sent out for review. Coincidence? Or damage control?

Kulchur is however, familiar with the Kids in Exile's previous oeuvre -- painfully so. Their earlier "documentaries," such as Adios, Patria, are so blatantly one-sided, so extreme in their right-wing bias, they stand simply as a reverse mirror image of any state propaganda you might find on Cuban television back in Havana. It's hardly surprising then, that while other independent filmmakers struggle to raise funds for their pictures, the Kids in Exile have been extensively bankrolled by several of el exilio's financial heavyweights, including the liquor giant Bacardi-Martini U.S.A., Sedano's supermarkets, and Zubi Advertising Services (whose Michelle Zubizarreta apparently joined the Kids in Exile sometime after her family's ad agency cut the group a check), all of whose aging owners appear thrilled to finally find members of a younger generation willing to carry on la causa while wearing the same set of blinders.

Even PBS television affiliate WPBT (Channel 2) has signed on, ponying up thousands of dollars to air Adios, Patria, apparently unconcerned with the program's laughable sense of objectivity, as long as it keeps the phones ringing from like-minded viejos during pledge drives. Then again considering WPBT's similar use of motivational speakers and self-help gurus on loan from infomercials, the station obviously isn't too concerned about to whom it gives the PBS stamp of credibility.

What makes this entire affair more than just another case of artistic sour grapes, is its chilling reminder of the precarious position arts organizations hold in Miami. The Cuban-exile community still exerts a hold of de facto censorship over local cultural efforts, and where threats of outright violence aren't enough to deter dissenters, financial blackmail comes into play. As Michael Spring, executive director of the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs, told the New York Times: "The psychological and real wounds of Cuban exiles here in Miami are still so fresh that artistic decision-making takes that into account.... You're certainly not going to program against the grain as a practical matter."

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