The Borscht Film Festival is a love letter to Miami, one covered with lipstick kisses and a few other suspect stains. Last night's seventh edition at the Arsht Center's packed Knight Concert Hall was a three-hour showcase of 305 talent. Of the 23 shorts, 97 percent were shot in, edited in, or inspired by Miami. The varied crop is proof our city is not only a worthwhile muse, but has particularly rich soil for filmmaking.
The festival shakes off Miami's "insipid exterior" (as they phrase it) by featuring the real 305 -- the one that pisses you off, stuns you, and fills you with pride. This Miami is not all sea shells, mojitos, and nights spent at Mansion. As one of the filmmakers, Barry Jenkins, told us in this week's feature story, someone growing up in a neighborhood like Liberty City can probably count on one hand the number of times he or she has been to the beach. Borscht shorts scrape beneath our city's Deco-pink layer of paint.
The first three shorts established the tone of the night: 1.) Living in Miami means dealing with some crazy shit. 2.) We're immensely proud of this crazy shit. 3.) Said crazy shit is really quite beautiful if you think about it.
In the first short Piratas, a West Miami resident recounts a hilarious only-in-Miami tale about two Cuban pirates who tried to steal his boat. It's an improbable story involving underwear, rifles, and vigilantes on jet skis. Next, clips featuring director Werner Herzog are spliced together to reveal a hearty defense of Dade: "I know they see Miami, they think beach, palm trees, lights -- that's why we call it the Magic City. But once you cross the bridge, it's a whole 'nother life." And then Macro Ramirez's A Toast, an ode to Miami read over images of our strange city, invoked nostalgic serenity for busted-up Botanica storefronts.
With few exceptions, the festival steered clear of those tired clichés Miami seems to inspire like Scarface and speedboats. Instead, the filmmakers mined our city's deeper stories: tales of Spanish conquistadors mingling with indigenous peoples, the living coral history of the land under our feet. In Reinaldo Arenas, the grotesque news story of a shark left in the middle of downtown became a beautiful metaphor for an immigrant's displacement in the Magic City.
But last night, we weren't just proud and inspired, we were entertained. Crowd favorites included the wonderfully whimsical Otto and the Electric Eel, the insanity of I Am Your Grandma (read more about Jillian Mayer's work here), La Pageant Diva (Black Swan meets The Birdcage), Correctamundo (a sort of black comedy Benny Hill via Telemundo) and of course, The Life and Freaky Times of Uncle Luke (which the crowd began chanting for as soon as the house lights went down at 8:30 p.m.).
The 2 Live Crew frontman and mayoral candidate was in attendance and ended the night by seconding the importance of the arts and promising the Borscht folks lots of work if he should become mayor.
We enjoyed the narratives and visuals of Bird Watchers and Play Dead, although both felt like working cuts and not final films. Chorophyl, Barry Jenkins's short about a woman in the midst of a break-up, lacked the smart dialogue of his feature-length Medicine for Melancholy and was perhaps too meditative for last night's raucous crowd. (Plus, afterward, we were overwhelmed with a hankering for something called BeachedMiami.com. How strange.)
Come to think of it, there was a hell of a lot of product placement in the shorts from Luke Campbell's honeys cradling 2 liters of 7-Up against their breasts to canines taking a break from the zombie apocalypse to watch a commercial for Dog Bar in Play Dead. And although it was beautifully shot, With Me seemed like a 12-minute commercial for Oreos. Was this social commentary a la the Greatest Movie Ever Sold? Or was it just a way wrestle up more funding?
So which of the 23 shorts has the legs to rep Miami in the Cannes, Sundance, and Tribeca festival circuits? We keep thinking about Barry Jenkins's Chorophyl, Lucas Leyva's Heptalogy series (two installments of which screened last night), and Waverly Film's Otto and the Electric Eel. If you were among the thousands in attendance last night, leave a comment and let us know which film you think could be a contender in the international film scene.
See the full slideshow here.
Here's a teaser of Otto and the Electric Eel:
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And a teaser ofLife and Freaky Times of Uncle Luke