In celebration of the reopening of Little Havana's beloved art house, Tower Theater, the Miami International Film Festival has announced a four-day mini-film festival featuring exclusive premieres, an opening night party, guests, and a seminar. The festival's director Jaie Laplante has dubbed the little festival MIFFecito in the spirit of the ubiquitous cafecito that defines the taste of the predominantly Cuban-American neighborhood where Tower sits.
The mini festival's film slate includes Behavior (Cuba), directed by Ernesto Daranas; The Blue Car (Germany/Cuba), directed by Valerie Heine; Carmina and Amen (Spain), directed by Paco León; I Can Quit Whenever I Want (Italy), directed by Sydney Sibilia; Lake Los Angeles (U.S.A.), directed by Mike Ott; Life Feels Good (Poland), directed by Maciej Pieprzyca; Paradise (Mexico), directed by Mariana Chenillo; Root (Chile), directed by Matías Rojas Valencia; Spanish Affair (Spain), directed by Emilio Martínez-Lázaro, and Vara: A Blessing (Bhutan/Hong Kong/Sri Lanka), directed by Khyentse Norbu.
Speaking via phone before jetting off to Toronto to scout 2015 festival films at the Toronto International Film Festival, Laplante explains the significance of Tower Theater to the festival and why this will be a one-time-only event.
"[MIFF], since it has been at Miami Dade College, has always been at the Tower Theater," he said. "It's sort of like one of our traditional venues. Of course, we couldn't use it this year because it was closed at the time, and now that it's re-open we wanted to do something special there."
The revitalized venue features state-of-the-art equipment and has chucked its 35mm projectors, which might upset some purists, but Laplante, who also celebrated the fact that the 2014 festival only projected in digital for the first time, sees it as progress.
"We reopened with Sony 4K projectors, and it's got really gorgeous sound and picture, a big improvement from the Tower before it closed when it was using 35mm, which has its own beauty," he said. "But now we're sort of in the main swim with all the mainstream, first-run theaters."
It's all for the benefit of continuing a program showcasing quality world and indie film, and the 11 films, which also include a short, span tone and the globe. The films showing include works from some veteran MIFF contributors who hail from Bhutan, Cuba, Italy, Mexico, Poland, and Spain.
"The best known is probably Mariana Chenillo," Laplante said. "She's only made one other feature before, but it won the audience award in MIFF 2009 for a film called Nora's Will, and then Nora's Will played at Tower for months afterward. They kept bringing it back by popular demand. It was a huge hit."
Laplante also has high hopes for interest in the new film by Emilio Martínez-Lázaro, Ocho apellidos vascos. Known by its English title as A Spanish Affair, the film has been so big in Spain there is already a sequel in the works. Laplante says viewers should be familiar with the comedic tone of the film. "He was our opening night film director from 2003 for The Other Side of the Bed."
Finally, Laplante points out Bhutan's Khyentse Norbu, another MIFF vet who will have premiered all of his films in Florida via the festival when Vara: A Blessing shows at MIFFecito. "He came in 2004, when he was in the Gusman, and he sold out the Gusman with his film called Travelers & Magicians. That was the first ever film shot in Bhutan, so it was a popular selection, and then his first film was in the 2000 festival, The Cup. It was about the Tibetan monks that were secretly following The World Cup."
None of the movies premiering at MIFFecito have distribution, so this could be the only opportunity to see these films on the big screen. Laplante points out that he wanted all these films for the 2014 festivals but the intricacies of negotiations, rights, and distribution, among other reasons, did not allow him to program them. In the end he hopes these films whet the appetite for attendees to for the 2015 MIFF in March.
"We're always looking for new audiences and we're hoping to bring some new people into the fold this year with MIFFecito," Laplante said. "And hopefully they will get a buzz about it and see that there's guests there and that there's parties and there's seminars and that there's different special things about a festival that are different from staying at home and watching a movie on VOD."
There will also be a retrospective screening that will feature a conversation with actor Moisés Kaufman on the 2002 HBO film The Laramie Project, which chronicles the legal aftermath of gay teen Matthew Shephard's hate-crime murder. "He wanted to take a fresh look at the film from a 12-year perspective to see the technique and the things that we learned in the 12 years since he took this look at Mathew Shepherd's hate crime to see how those lessons were applied to things that were happening in the world today.
"In America we may feel we made a lot of progress on human rights issues, particularly on gay and lesbian issues," he said. "But the news out of Africa, out of Russia, where things are so very, very horrific for gays and lesbians, is something that maybe we can extend these social changes that The Laramie Project was part of... to an international project. The conversation is going to be moderated by Dennis Scholl from the Knight Foundation."
Ultimately, for Laplante it is about the art of film, and he's just happy to share these creations. As for artier recommendations, he pointed to Mike Ott's Lake Los Angeles, which completes the director's "Desert Trilogy" that began with 2010's Littlerock and then 2012's Pearblossom Hwy. The film also has a Miami connection, as it features Miami native Roberto Sanchez in a starring role. "It's very lyrically shot, very lyrically composed from reviewing the narrative perspective."
Laplante also gets carried away describing Vara: A Blessing. "It's just an interesting meditation on spirituality and sensuality, not so much from a sexual or erotic perspective," he said. "It's more how the senses of life or the things we experience on a sensory level in life inform our spiritual perspective. I love that movie. I was falling into a trance watching it. It was just so beautiful."
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MIFFecito runs October 16 through 19 at Miami Dade College's Tower Theater. Tickets go on sale to the general public on Thursday, September 18. Opening Night Film and Party $50 or $40 for members. All other screenings $12 adults, $11 seniors, $10 members, $7 students. Call 1-844-565-6433(MIFF) or visit miamifilmfestival.com/miffecito for tickets. For membership opportunities or more information, please visit miamifilmfestival.com or call 305-237-FILM(3456).
Follow Hans Morgenstern on Twitter @HansMorgenstern.