Yesterday morning at Versailles, despite both the hideously scorching early heat and the impending threat of rain, a small crowd gathered to celebrate a momentous event. A ragtag band of revelers from across the Cuban-American diaspora showed up festooned with feather boas, Cuban flags, and, of course, the requisite cookware and metal spoons for maximum noise levels.
Even I, who showed up intending to cover the affair as an impartial journalist, got swept up in the action, fiercely banging a cazuela in an angry old woman's face. Fidel was dead! Someone yelled. We whooped and cheered as tourists gawked.
Then, the director yelled cut.
For better or for worse, Fidel Castro was not, in fact dead -- the size of the celebrating crowd, numbering around a whopping 15, should have been a dead giveaway. Rather, the occasion was a shoot for young, Cuban-born, now U.S.-based director Laimir Fano's film Waiting for Berta, the latest production by the young local film boosters of the Borscht Corp.
Fano first entered the Borscht radar around 2009, when his Cuban film school project, Oda a la Piña, won a special jury mention at the Tribeca Film Festival. Fano defected to the U.S. soon afterwards, when a story in El Nuevo Herald detailed his wish to make this new film.
"We reached out to him, but we didn't have the resources yet," recalled Lucas Leyva, Borscht's "minister of the interior." That changed in the past couple of years as Borscht won grants from the Knight Foundation and other organizations, allowing them to create a new visiting filmmaker program, among others.
The inspiration for Waiting for Berta, Fano said on set, was his initial impression of Miami when he first arrived here after defecting. "My first impression when I started living here two and a half years ago was that it's a crazy city where everything can happen," he says. "It's a place where people often run into each other again."
Meant as a largely wordless short, the film's plot centers on one of these encounters, and requires one of the most ambitious Borscht productions to date. The black comedy follows vengeful, wheelchair-bound Adela. She's played by 87-year-old Magali Boix, who the crew plucked, at the 11th hour before the shoot, from an assisted living facility on the recommendation of a friend of a friend. During an otherwise ordinary trip to Sedano's, she encounters Berta, now a Versailles waitress but once a sworn rival in Cuba.
The completed film will feature everything from a slow-speed chase down Calle Ocho, incited by a murderous, wheelchair-bound octogenarian piloting a smoke-spewing Buick Century. That chase then ends at Versailles, exquisitely timed with the sudden death of Fidel Castro, and the ensuing spontaneous celebration.
"Adela" and "Berta," not at all murderous between takes
So, it wasn't exactly the crowd of thousands as you would expect when the real thing finally happens. And with the restaurant operating as usual, Versailles' ventanita regulars looked on, mildly bemused.
In typical Borscht production fashion, too, nothing was entirely 100 percent serious, down to a couple extras bedecked with inner tubes and lifesavers. Among them were the fast-talking Xavier Cortes, also a prop master for the film. Though he was born in Venezuela, he grew up in Miami and said he felt Cuban by proxy. "I'm part of this whole thing by default," he insisted. "I know toda la locura esa de Cuba without actually being Cuban."
For the ride, too, he brought along his friend Allan Hernandez, who showed up in scrubs that were not, after all, part of a costume, An E.R. doctor, he arrived at the shoot fresh off a 12-hour shift at Metropolitan Hospital at the behest of buddy Cortes. "He can motivate the dead," Hernandez said. But this wasn't the M.D.'s virgin shoot -- a fan of extra work as a way to decompress, he was on his way later to a fitting for Magic City, and has appeared on nearly every Miami-shot series from Burn Notice to The Glades.
The rest of the extras comprised everyone from full-time students to supportive family members, all fired up by the prospect of free Versailles fare -- and of, perhaps, practicing a dry run for the real event. Flags waved, hips shimmied, and pots met wooden spoons, all in a perfect, boiled-down essence of a Miami street celebration.
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