On Edge

A local documentary film festival takes on topics not for the timid

"We need, in every community, a group of angelic troublemakers." So said civil rights activist, Gandhi disciple, and all-around troublemaker Bayard Rustin. If the name doesn't ring a bell, you're not alone. Although a trusted confidant and mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr., his name is rarely mentioned in the same breath as Julian Bond, Ralph Abernathy, or Jesse Jackson, all King associates in the civil rights struggle. But it was Rustin who organized King's epic 1963 march on Washington, D.C., and the subsequent "I have a dream" speech.

Rustin was also homosexual in the intolerant Forties, Fifties, and Sixties. And if being black and gay didn't make him a big enough target, he was a communist as well. So it was always deemed in the best interest of the civil rights movement that Rustin take a background, advisory role, which is why he's been referred to as the "unknown hero" of that movement.

The story of Rustin's life -- as a key civil rights figure, along with the price he paid for being openly gay -- is chronicled in the documentary film Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin, showing as part of the Florida Room Documentary Film Festival.

Being black and gay was never an easy combination
Being black and gay was never an easy combination

But the festival, along with its creator the Florida Room, is concerned with much more than screening edgy political documentaries on controversial subjects. Founded by Juan Carlos Zaldivar and Rhonda Mitrani, angelic troublemakers in this community, the Florida Room is dedicated to the cause of raising social awareness and change through the arts, specifically documentary film, in collaboration with local community groups.

"Our mission is twofold. One is to try to have an event that involves many of the local community organizations, because the thing that we found when we first moved to Miami was that there were great events but very little collaboration," says Zaldivar, who with Mitrani moved here from New York two years ago. "The second and most important thing is to create a venue for films that are being used to instigate social change."

Zaldivar points to the Florida Room's first festival, last year at this time, and the screening of Promises, a documentary about the conflict in the Middle East as seen through the eyes of children on both sides of the Israeli/Palestinian divide. As part of the event, the Florida Room brought in leaders from the local Palestinian and Israeli communities for a postfilm panel. Not only did it spark a fertile public discussion, but it helped launch a coalition of these same leaders, a group that's been meeting for the last seven months.

"We get with what the filmmakers are doing and then try to localize it," says Zaldivar, who directed the award-winning 90 Miles, a documentary that contrasts life in his native Cuba with that of the United States. "So when the film festival is gone, other things can happen here."

For Brother Outsider Zaldivar and company are working with the Miami Light Project to create a spoken-word performance, along with a panel of the filmmakers, Nancy Kates and Bennett Singer, and the Gay and Lesbian Foundation of South Florida. Other subjects covered over the three-day festival, in both short and long documentaries, are breast cancer, police brutality, and prison rape -- not exactly for the timid. "We use film to create social change, both from the filmmaker and the organization that can use it," says Zaldivar. "We get them together in the same place so that they can hook up and hopefully do something locally."

Also in November, the Florida Moving Image Archive will be screening Miami Beach newsreels prior to feature films at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. The Beach-centric shorts, most from the Fifties and Sixties, run the gamut from an interview of Jerry Lewis at the Fontainebleau Hotel to cops with bullhorns asking people not to jaywalk at Lincoln Road and Washington Avenue.

 
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