Film in the Florida Room

A Miami couple hosts a documentary festival and tries to shore up the arts at the same time

Miamians have been hearing the same promise for years: The city is a certifiable and important center for the arts. It is on the cusp of greatness, as far as an arts scene is concerned. The city has culture, with artists, musicians, and filmmakers of diverse backgrounds creating a new American aesthetic in a wild urban petri dish. Miami-based filmmakers Juan Carlos Zaldivar and Rhonda Mitrani not only heard the promise, but they think they saw it upon their return to Miami from New York just over a year ago. Still, like the city itself, they feel the arts community is struggling for an identity.

"Whenever you go to an art opening you see so many different people," Zaldivar insists. "All the elements are here, we're a major cosmopolitan city. I know there's an audience." So how come there never seems to be a center, the filmmakers ask? Why is it that art house films -- the ones we get here, at least -- have a shelf life of about a day or two after opening (see film producer Lawrence Meistrich's take on the issue)?

Zaldivar and Mitrani, whose documentary films have won praise at film festivals around the world, are tackling this issue head-on by producing multifaceted arts and film events throughout the city with their roving cultural entity, the Florida Room. "While there's a lot of great events that happen, there seems to be a lack of a collaborative effort," Mitrani muses. "People really feel that there isn't really a center."

The fest's social-issues cinema offers a peek at kids living through Middle East madness
The fest's social-issues cinema offers a peek at kids living through Middle East madness

Details

Promises shows at 8:00 p.m. Thursday, Mai's America at 8:00 p.m. Friday, and Blue Vinyl at 7:30 p.m. Saturday. At the Cinematheque, 508 Española Way, Miami Beach (a $10 donation is optional); 305-532-8110.

The pair are hoping that the Florida Room will function as that focal point. They are organizing events from interactive performances to film festivals and art exhibits that will create an incentive for artists and thinkers of diverse disciplines to meet and, hopefully, collaborate. "We are trying to be a conduit to bring artists and institutions together," Zaldivar says.

The first Florida Room attempt at such a grand plan takes place November 14 through 16 on Española Way with the screening of three feature-length documentary films, panel discussions with their respective directors and, of course, casually cool parties afterward. The idea, they say, is not only to tell evocative and poignant tales, but to inspire viewers to get involved in social causes. Thus the theme of the mini-film festival: The Rebirth of Social Media. "Juan and I are both people who are passionate about social issues," Mitrani explains. "We believe in using art for social change."

The films being shown are new documentaries that have had limited release nationwide and have never been shown in Miami.

The festival kicks off on Thursday with the screening of Academy-Award nominee Promises. In the documentary, directors Justine Shapiro, B. Z. Goldberg, and Carlos Bolado trace the lives of seven Jewish and Palestinian children living in Jerusalem during the escalating and mind-numbing war. The filmmakers also created the Promises Film Project, a nonprofit organization that supports furthering the Middle East peace process by using film to educate audiences.

Friday night the Florida Room screens Mai's America, a quirky tale of a teenage Vietnamese exchange student who lands in Mississippi. Mai is forced to rethink her starry presumptions about America while living with her hosts, a white Pentecostal and a black Baptist family. In the course of her journey she re-examines her own identities, and in the end the only connection the vivacious Mai makes is with a fellow outsider, a Deep South transvestite. The director, Marlo Poras, is an advocate for immigrant rights and transgender issues.

Closing the festival on Saturday night is director Judith Helfand's "toxic comedy" Blue Vinyl, an obsessive tale that begins with the filmmaker's parents installing blue vinyl siding on their house. From there Helfand delves, in a manic manner, into the damaging effects that vinyl has on the environment.

Along with the screenings, 1Giant Leap, an ongoing digital installation that brings together musicians in Africa and Europe, will be shown, as well as a series of shorts that will run before the features.

Zaldivar and Mitrani, both raised in Miami, are accomplished filmmakers in their own right. Zaldivar's documentary 90 Miles won critical acclaim and awards at several international film festivals. He premiered his documentary The Story of the Red Rose at the Sundance Film Festival in 1997, and he served as a juror to the festival's short-film competition in 1998. Mitrani won attention with her short documentary Cuba Mia, about her trip back to Cuba tracing the roots of Cuban Jews with a group of exiled Jewbans. They are both graduates of New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.

Although their premiere event focuses on social causes, Zaldivar and Mitrani are planning more events that will bend toward the whimsical as well as the serious at several venues throughout Miami. But they will anchor themselves at the new Cinema-theque, a 50-seat art house theater on the west side of Española Way. "We want to create a malleable exhibit space," Zaldivar says. "A place for art, film, books, and coffee." So far at least, they get an A for effort.

 
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