Spanish Sundance

The Miami International Film Festival wants to be a Latin movie marketplace

Every film festival wants to be mentioned in the same breath as Sundance.

After spending five years trying to earn the Miami International Film Festival (MIFF) the kind of global recognition it takes to attract the best in world cinema, festival director Nicole Guillemet now leaves the MIFF closer than ever to that storied, snowbound celebration of celluloid — with one important distinction. Once supersized, sprawling, and unfocused, the Miami festival now is on the verge of becoming an Ibero-American Sundance.

"I made the decision not out of crisis or politics, but on potential," says Guillemet, who is presiding over her last festival. "There was a need for it in Miami."

Carice van Houtenstars as a Jewish torch singer who joins the Dutch resistance in Paul Verhoeven's Black Book
Carice van Houtenstars as a Jewish torch singer who joins the Dutch resistance in Paul Verhoeven's Black Book

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March 2 — 11 at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, Regal South Beach Cinema in Miami Beach, Tower Theater in Little Havana, Sunrise Intracoastal Cinema in North Miami Beach, the Bill Cosford Cinema at the University of Miami, and the Colony Theatre in Miami Beach. Visit www.miamifilmfestival.com for a complete schedule.

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In 2003, Guillemet hastily organized her first MIFF after inheriting the role of director from David Poland, an online journalist who had the unenviable task of replacing much-loved founder Nat Chediak for one year. Chediak, a University of Miami grad who worked as a film editor at WTVJ (NBC-6) in the Seventies, had parlayed a sideline screening movies in a Coral Gables art house theater into starting the Miami Film Festival in 1984. He ran the festival for nearly two decades, and by 2001 the event had attracted more than 16,000 moviegoers.

As a former Sundance co-director, Guillemet knew the perils of invoking comparisons to what Tom Prassis, Sony Pictures Classics' vice president of sales, calls "an agents' gathering."

You don't need to have read Peter Biskind's Down and Dirty Picturesto know that Sundance is the most famous — and overhyped — film festival in the world, second only to Cannes. Every filmmaker wants Sundance to premiere his or her new work. Hollywood executives descend on Park City, Utah, salivating over the prospect of snapping up rights to the next sex, lies, and videotape. Trying to attain a Sundance-like reputation is a seemingly impossible task, one that often raises false hopes and creates pale imitations.

Guillemet's goal to spotlight the cinema of Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries resulted in juried dramatic and documentary competition categories, and a mini-market for Ibero-American filmmakers to develop their projects.

It also was a means to lure back long-time supporters pissed off by Poland's programming choices, including his infamous screening of Seven Men from Now, a 1956 film by Budd Boetticher, the director of a slew of low-budget westerns who never earned anything close to the acclaim enjoyed by genre giants John Ford and Howard Hawks.

"To have that emphasis on [Ibero-American] films is what makes the festival special," says film director David Munro, a Coral Gables native whose South Florida-shot comedy Full Grown Menscreens during the MIFF.

Under Guillemet, the MIFF mandates that close to half of its films are produced by companies in Spanish- or Portuguese-speaking nations. The rest of this year's 112 features and shorts come from every nook of the globe, including Iceland, Iraq, and Rwanda.

The quota allows for the possibility that the MIFF may occasionally sacrifice quality for quantity. The festival has gone from 26 features in 2001 to 92 this year. Perhaps tellingly, Chediak resigned in 2001 over Florida International University's plans to double the number of feature films to more than 50.

To assure "quality control," Guillemet says, the MIFF hired Monika Wagenberg this past July as its senior programmer for Ibero-American films. Wagenberg was the founder and director of programming and acquisitions of the New York-based Cinema Tropical, a nonprofit dedicated to distributing and promoting Latin American films.

"We brought her in for her expertise," Guillemet says of Wagenberg. "Monika's passionate about Latin and Ibero-American cinema. And she's got great connections. She got to talk [in her capacity with Cinema Tropical] with the filmmakers we would want to be in the festival. So she has those connections we need."

This year's Ibero-American selections include the closing night film, The Heart of the Earth, a Spanish costume drama starring Catalina Sandino Moreno, who was nominated for an Oscar in 2005 for her lead role in Maria Full of Grace. Antonia, a film about an all-girl hip-hop group, is Brazil's answer to Dreamgirls. The historical epic Alatriste — at $28 million, the most expensive Spanish-language film ever made — stars Viggo Mortensen. Documentaries range from Ghosts of Cité Soleil, which examines gang warfare in Haiti, to The Railroad All Stars and its soccer-playing hookers of Guatemala City.

Alejandro Landes's Cocalero follows Juan Evo Morales's rise from union leader to winner of Bolivia's 2005 presidential election. Landes shows how the U.S. war on drugs, in its effort to eradicate most of Bolivia's coca production, gave rise to anti-American sentiment and allowed Morales to become Bolivia's first indigenous head of state in almost 500 years. That Morales stirred up crowds with the taunt "Death to the Yankees," and jokingly declared himself, Fidel Castro, and Hugo Chávez "the axis of evil," may raise the ire of Miamians, exiles or otherwise.

Landes, who previously interviewed Morales in 2002 while interning at the Miami Herald, says he was "taken by [Morales's] tireless work ethic, his boyish sense of humor, and Bolivian charm." He suspects his documentary will generate "heated" discussion. But he hopes Cocalero (a term for a coca leaf grower) can be seen as a "human portrait" of Bolivians affected by a "failed" U.S. policy, and that it will serve as "a catalyst for a worthwhile and meaningful debate" on the political developments and increasing anti-American sentiment in the region.

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