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."
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 Pictures to 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 Men screens 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.
The Brazilian documentarian Landes says "there is a deal on the table" for Cocalero from U.S. distributors following its Sundance debut this past January. If Guillemet has her way, the MIFF would be the one-stop destination for Ibero-American filmmakers trying to drum up interest in their projects. But the jury's still out on the success of "Miami Encuentros," a minimarket program Guillemet created in 2003 for Latin-American and Spanish producers to establish business relationships with U.S. companies and pitch them their projects.
Three of the eight projects featured at the 2003 edition of Miami Encuentros Heartlift, Familia Rodante, and La Niña Santa eventually screened during the 2005 MIFF. But Guillemet says she "has not tracked" whether the program has resulted in new business partnerships or funding for films that ultimately went into production. She says the MIFF will track Encuentros results beginning this year.
"If the festival is a showcase for independent Latin-American cinema and of what is to come, then it shows progress," Landes says of Miami Encuentros, which will highlight nine projects this year. "Sundance is a year-round event because of the work that is done on scripts. If Miami can attract writers and new projects, then the city would be well served."
This year's Miami Encuentros advisors include representatives from many major U.S. art house distributors, including Paramount Vantage and Warner Independent Pictures. But while the MIFF continues to nurture the program, Guillement says it still needs to "create the infrastructure for people to come and buy films" the way they do at Cannes.
Until then, Sony Pictures Classics' Prassis will continue to place greater importance on the MIFF with the "national attention" it now receives as an East Coast launching pad for films on the distributor's release schedule. Prassis doesn't yet believe the MIFF boasts a big enough market to compel Sony Pictures Classics to seek out acquisitions.
"First of all, we would need to be interested in films coming out of Latin America," Prassis says. "I'm not saying we're not, as we've kept our fingers on the pulse of what's happening there. But that [marketplace] part of the festival I don't see it burgeoning right now and it's not something we would be participating in for at least a year or so."
Guillemet understands this, and counters by stating that the creation of a viable marketplace "doesn't happen in one day."
Despite all the talk about the MIFF being the Ibero-American Sundance, many of this year's highlights come from other parts of the world.
Black Book, a Nazi-era Dutch thriller from Showgirls showman Paul Verhoeven, opens the festival. From Australia comes Jindabyne, an adaptation of a Raymond Carver story that stars Gabriel Byrne and Laura Linney, and The Silence, with a burnout cop played byRichard Roxburgh trying to solve a cold case. The British thriller Red Road centers on a revenge plot. French director Francis Veber seizes on slapstick in The Valet. Oscar watchers should check out best foreign-language nominee After the Wedding, a drama from Susanne Bier. Ira & Abby is another Jennifer Westfeldt (Kissing Jessica Stein) romantic comedy about mismatched lovers. In First Snow, Guy Pearce grapples with news that his days are numbered.
Expected guests include Mortensen, Moreno, Veber, and Verhoeven. Photographer Bruce Weber will be present for the screening of Let's Get Lost, his homage to jazz man Chet Baker. Nick Broomfield (Biggie and Tupac, Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer) will introduce Ghosts, a documentary about illegal Chinese immigrant workers, as part of "The Big Picture," a program devoted to shedding light on global issues of poverty and human rights violations.
Luc Besson will receive a career achievement tribute. Besson, who made his name with such flashy French thrillers as Subway and La Femme Nikita, before going Hollywood with The Professional and The Fifth Element, brings his acclaimed art house romance Angel-A to the fest.
The MIFF also includes events devoted to animation and shorts. "Touching Florida" features five movies that either are about life in the Sunshine State or were made by filmmakers with local ties. This may be the only time these films are shown theatrically in Miami.
"[Distributors are] not always encouraging of releasing a small indie in this market, because the perception is that it doesn't have a large art house audience," says David Munro, who is seeking a distributor for Full Grown Men. "That's why this festival may be our only opportunity to share [the film] with our friends and family."
The San Francisco-based Munro shot Full Grown Men partially in and around Hollywood, Florida during the summer of 2005, between hurricanes Katrina and Wilma. This wry, but oddly sweet, road trip tale follows the efforts of a 35-year-old family man (Matt McGrath) who's suffering from a severe case of arrested development to rekindle his friendship with a less-than-eager childhood pal (Judah Friedlander).
"It's not clear where in South Florida the film's set there's so much nostalgia in the film, so I wanted to create a nonspecific place, a timeless Florida filtered through the main character's memory," says Munro, who has invited his parents to come down from Fort Pierce to see the film.
After this year's festival, Guillemet will leave Florida for New York City to live and work closer to her family. An announcement about MIFF's director recruitment efforts is expected after the festival, according to Miami-Dade College president Eduardo J. Padrón, who was unavailable for comment.
No matter who takes the reins, Guillemet feels her successor will inherit something she did not a stable and well-supported MIFF. "The doors are open for the next person heading the team," Guillemet says. "So much more can happen."
Antonia: This Brazilian feature tells the story of an all-girl hip-hop group, from its unlikely origins to dissolution and, ultimately, success. The four young women Preta, Barbarah, Mayah, and Lena come together on the hard streets of São Paulo, where they struggle to eke out a living, hold down relationships, and take care of each other. What elevates the story well above Dreamgirls terrain is the naturalism of the lead actresses; these four women have such uncanny chemistry, Antonia at first has the feel of a documentary. This is especially true of the film's cinematography, which captures the kinetic Brazilian nightlife with an eye for telling detail. Directed by Tata Amaral, the film is also adept at placing its music front and center, alongside its charismatic protagonists, coming together to create an authentic slice of São Paulo street life. Frank Houston March 9 at 9:30 p.m. at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts, 174 E. Flagler St., Miami.
Banished: Even with Barack Obama running for president, reparations for slavery and racial cleansing aren't likely to be on the 2008 presidential campaign agenda. The documentary Banished, though, puts forth a quiet but arresting argument that open dialogue must exist between whites and blacks regardless of the bitter feelings it might engender. Director Marco Williams raises our ire as he chronicles three African-American families' attempts to reconcile racial injustices perpetuated against their relatives including, in three counties, the violent expulsion from their homes and the illegal seizure of their property during the early Twentieth Century. There are no happy endings, but Williams doesn't hold anyone guilty for their ancestors' sins. Nor does he offer any concrete solutions. What he does do is issue a rallying cry for all to come together to determine a way to move forward. But when one elected official declares "there's no way to fix it," you can't help but wonder whether Williams's demands will fall on deaf ears. Robert Sims March 6 at 9:30 p.m. at Regal South Beach Cinema, 1100 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach.
Fabricating Tom Zé: By his own admission, Tom Zé is "a terrible composer, a terrible singer, and a terrible instrument player." Luckily this once-forgotten contributor to Brazil's Tropicalia art movement is not so terrible that you won't want to spend time in his company. And you'll quickly learn that you can't take Zé's self-effacement seriously, especially after watching his Spinal Tap-style tantrum during a sound check. But this is the only time that director Décio Matos Júnior portrays Zé as anything other than a harmless kook and a misunderstood musical genius with a knack for penning venue-specific songs minutes before a concert. Captured while touring Europe, the charismatic 70-year-old exudes a roguish charm and a willingness to experiment that's endeared him to his surprising young fans. But by the time Zé performs his last song, there's little doubt that he would have been better served if the conventionally executed Fabricating Tom Zé had possessed a modicum of his audacity and eccentricity. Robert Sims March 5 at 9:00 p.m. at Regal South Beach Cinema, 1100 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach.
First Snow: Poor Jimmy. Stuck in the middle of nowhere, waiting for his car to be fixed, the fast-talking salesman decides to kill time by visiting a fortuneteller. "I saw no more tomorrows," Jimmy is told. And so director Mark Fergus begins his skillful tightening of the screws, making us guess whether Jimmy will pass away peacefully or bloodily at the hands of any number of business acquaintances he's pissed off. As Jimmy, Guy Pearce cleverly mines his Memento experiences to make whole another man unable to extricate himself from a life-or-death situation over which he has no control. Pearce quietly earns our sympathy as he transforms from a sleazy but charming symbol of dubious get-rich-quick schemes to a jittery, sunken-eyed victim of the cruel fate that awaits him. Not that Fergus and co-writer Hawk Ostby seem too compelled to wrap everything up neatly. But given the mess Jimmy makes for those he screws over, that's all the more appropriate. Robert Sims March 6 at 10:00 p.m. at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts, 174 E. Flagler St., Miami.
Mississippi Chicken: If Richard Linklater needs to pad the Fast Food Nation DVD with extras, he should scoop up this documentary about Latin American immigrant workers trying to make ends meet in a Mississippi poultry town. The stories of prejudice, rape, murder, employer abuse, and police harassment are truly shameful and heartbreaking. There's money to be made in America, says one devoted mother, but the cost to her family is devastating. Mississippi Chicken puts a human face on the exploitation of immigrant workers and those community members who overcome their prejudices to help them enjoy better lives. Too bad director John Fiege spends more time in his subjects' kitchens than he does on the street. There is one riveting "gotcha" moment between members of a justice advocacy group and an employer over unpaid wages. Sure it's right out of John Stossel's playbook, but it's more revealing than watching the preparation of yet another rice dish. Robert Sims March 5 at 6:00 p.m. at the Bill Cosford Cinema at the University of Miami, 5100 Brunson Dr., Coral Gables.
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