Before the Lights Go Down

Poland versus Chediak: There was plenty of drama at the Nineteenth Annual Miami Film Festival

"They should change the name; this isn't the Miami Film Festival anymore," complains Miami-Dade Community College's Alejandro Rios, one of the city's foremost experts on Cuban film. Rios is no stranger to animus from the old guard's cultural commissars -- his acclaimed Cuban Cinema Series is set to relocate from MDCC to the Tower Theater in April, a move many cite as the cause of Commissioner Regaldo's recent fit over that venue.

However, Rios charges Poland with shirking the festival's core mission: to spotlight outstanding foreign directors. Where are all the new films from Iran? he asks. Chediak gave Miami its first look at heavyweights such as Hong Kong's Wong Kar-Wai and Spain's Pedro Almodovar. And now? "The selection is anarchic; there's no overall personality," says Rios.

On the other hand, if American independents and edgy documentaries are your passion, Poland's new direction is a welcome one. It's hard to imagine Chediak opting to include the rip-roaring Dogtown & Z-Boys -- a visceral profile of Seventies skateboarders in Los Angeles, with Sean Penn's narration adding a surreal Jeff Spicoli touch -- or Raw Deal, a gripping account of an alleged rape at a University of Florida frat house that climaxed with an even more tense Q&A session afterward. Prowling the Colony's stage with a microphone in hand, director Billy Corben lashed out at the audience for being the first in the world to insensitively laugh at what he considered the "wrong" parts.

David Poland ushers the festival onto its new South Beach stage
Ryan Miller
David Poland ushers the festival onto its new South Beach stage

"Would you like a couple of words to describe my feelings about the new festival?" offered Independent Feature Project/Miami head Joanne Butcher. "How about: Overjoyed! Astounded!" For Butcher, who freely admits she didn't even bother to attend last year's festival out of disinterest, giving attention to local filmmakers -- the IFP's raison d'être -- is long overdue. Accordingly the IFP shepherded several made-in-Miami films to the fest, including the campy Satan Was a Lady from cult legend Doris Wishman, and the Mariel boatlift-themed 90 Miles. Butcher is hoping to continue that momentum when the IFP begins screening indie fare every weekend at Miami Shores' Performing Arts Theater, beginning February 15 with Downtown '81 (featuring the late NYC artist Jean Michel Basquiat and a slew of postpunk outfits), as well as the locally produced doc Acts of Worship.

Is it possible to satisfy both camps? Can an expanded Miami Film Festival serve both topnotch foreign fare and homegrown indies? Back at Balans Poland says he certainly plans to try. "But you can't be all things to all people," he cautions. He further reminds Kulchur that he's only had five months on the job instead of the usual twelve to assemble his debut slate. Next year -- the 2003 fest -- is the one he'd prefer to be judged on.

There are ominous rumblings, however, that Poland may not get that chance. While these rumors may only be wishful thinking on the part of Chediak's friends looking for a little FIU payback, Poland says he's well aware there's a contingent rooting for his failure.

"You are taking over someone's life," he explains gingerly of his current job. "You didn't mean to, but it's what's happened."

At this point Poland reveals he has yet to actually meet Chediak, or even speak to him. Given the playground-fight status being built up around the two men, a little ice-breaking would seem in order.

Why don't you just pick up the phone and call Nat?

"People on my staff talk to him all the time -- I can get the number," Poland replies sheepishly and then looks away, scrunching up his face uncomfortably. After a long pause -- his first of the day -- he says, "You make a phone call like that ..." He trails off with a sigh and then starts again. "Look, ultimately I'm going to pay a price for not calling him. Just like I'm going to pay a price for FIU not extending an invitation to him."

Is there anything you'd like to say to him?

"I'd tell him that it's not all about me, and it's not all about him. It's not about egos; it's about the films."

Sheesh, why don't you just cut all the drama, ring him up, and say that?

Poland's tone sharpens. "If I were him, I would've called me," he admonishes, tapping a finger against his own chest. "He was here for eighteen years. He's the one who is beloved. He's the one who had editorials written in the Herald about how wonderful he was. He has the power."

But you're the new festival director. Nat is, ahem, semiunemployed. You've got the power now."

"No," Poland corrects. "He's still Nat Chediak. And I'm not the festival director yet." That distinction won't be bestowed until closing night, he says, breaking into a grin. "I've still got my cherry intact. It's been pushed, but I'm still a virgin festival director."

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