David Poland ushers the festival onto its new South Beach stage
David Poland ushers the festival onto its new South Beach stage
Ryan Miller

Before the Lights Go Down

It's only the second day of the Miami Film Festival, but the event's new director, David Poland, is already engaged in damage control. After being publicly announced, mysteriously canceled, and then just as cryptically reinstated on the fest's schedule 24 hours earlier, famed Cuban filmmaker Humberto Solas's new Miel para Oshun is about to unspool inside the Gusman Center.

From the stage Poland and Independent Feature Project board members Patricia Boero and Angela Bustamante attempt to put a positive face on the disappointing turnout of 40. Solas sends his apologies for not winging in from Havana personally to introduce his movie, they announce, but "he's working on a documentary for Spanish TV and just couldn't get away." It's an odd claim, considering Solas was spotted around Miami just days prior, even bumping into one journalist while shopping at a pharmacy. But things are about to get stranger.

An angry Latin-accented voice booms out from the Gusman's balcony: "You are destroying the condition of this festival!" Poland blinks, bemused, as the critic thunders on. "I have been coming here for fifteen years, and you are destroying the festival!" the voice reiterates. "Look at this theater -- it's empty!"

Could this be the wrath of el exilio Poland has heard so much about? After all, it was only two weeks ago that Miami City Commissioner Tomas Regalado had called for the de facto censorship of films the Cuban-exile community found "insensitive" at Little Havana's revamped Tower Theater. And back in 2000, after the Miami Film Festival screened the Cuba-produced Life Is to Whistle in violation of a (since repealed) county ordinance prohibiting business dealings with the island, Mayor Alex Penelas threatened to rescind a $50,000 grant to the fest.

But no, the target of this audience member's fury -- and the scattering of applause that greeted it -- wasn't ol' Fidel. It was that other brash leader with a radical new vision for the Americas: David Poland.

Later that evening Poland takes a dinner break from dashing between Lincoln Road's Colony Theater and the Regal South Beach Cinema, where he's been MCing the night's festival selections. Settling into a sidewalk table at Balans, Poland turns practically giddy at the memory of his Gusman heckler.

"That guy this afternoon -- part of me loves that!" he says. "Let him talk. For all his bitchin', he was still there. He came to the festival. And the woman who applauded him -- great!" He waves his hands frenetically in the air and enthuses, "Love me, hate me, it doesn't matter!" Poland's programming philosophy? "Just breathe; let it go with the flow. That's where the magic is, the moments you don't see coming."

Returning to Earth, he continues in a more solemn vein: "Some folks just don't like change -- there are people who are never going to like me." He adds with a shrug: "I'm never going to be Cuban. I'm never going to be Nat."

Indeed, as much as both Poland and the festival's parent, Florida International University, would prefer to keep the focus on the films being shown, the unseen presence of Nat Chediak looms large. It was Chediak who founded the Miami Film Festival in 1983, and over the next eighteen years, his own identity would become largely inseparable from it.

Accordingly his resignation last May was viewed as more than just a career shift. To many it augured the end of the festival.

Chediak declined to be interviewed by Kulchur, diplomatically preferring to stand by his previous statement. "The university wants to take the festival in a direction that is not consistent with my own vision," he told the Herald back in May, a veiled reference to the clashes he'd had with the FIU administrators who had become his sponsors in 1999. The points of contention were reportedly over the expansion of the festival's scope and its inclusion of additional screenings on the Beach. An insistence on input into Chediak's film selections was apparently the breaking point: Chediak walked, and FIU placed a help-wanted ad in Variety. Poland, a Los Angeles entertainment journalist, accepted the position in August, and FIU insisted the show would most definitely go on.

Long-time patrons were less sure. Director Jorge Ulla penned an over-the-top op-ed piece for the Herald, lamenting the passing of "a mischievous shaman Che Di Ak." That's a bit melodramatic, but it captures the feelings of the thousands who annually packed the Gusman, even as the city's arthouses and alternative film spaces struggled to find audiences -- often for the same films Chediak had presented only months before.

In that light many of the attacks on Poland haven't exactly been rational; the new director's own credentials are beside the point -- whoever he is, he's not Chediak. El Nuevo Herald pilloried Poland for showcasing two classic Fifties Westerns from Budd Boetticher, deeming the auteur irrelevant. Yet there was no outcry from that quarter when in 2000, Chediak assembled a retrospective of Westerns from Boetticher contemporary John Ford. (There were just as few attendees sitting around Kulchur at those Ford screenings as well.)

For anyone who caught this year's presentation of Y Tu Mama Tambien, it's obvious Poland remains committed to securing the best Latin-American cinema has to offer. Still, there are clear aesthetic differences between the new director and his predecessor, ones that stretch far beyond their attire (Chediak's suit and loafers versus Poland's jeans and sneakers) or attitude (Chediak's wry reserve versus Poland's manic kid-in-a-candy-store enthusiasm). And one's opinion of future editions of the festival is likely to depend on whose set of sensibilities one is willing to embrace. Call it a question of taste.

"They should change the name; this isn't the Miami Film Festival anymore," complains Miami-Dade Community College's Alejandro Rios, one of the city's foremost experts on Cuban film. Rios is no stranger to animus from the old guard's cultural commissars -- his acclaimed Cuban Cinema Series is set to relocate from MDCC to the Tower Theater in April, a move many cite as the cause of Commissioner Regaldo's recent fit over that venue.

However, Rios charges Poland with shirking the festival's core mission: to spotlight outstanding foreign directors. Where are all the new films from Iran? he asks. Chediak gave Miami its first look at heavyweights such as Hong Kong's Wong Kar-Wai and Spain's Pedro Almodovar. And now? "The selection is anarchic; there's no overall personality," says Rios.

On the other hand, if American independents and edgy documentaries are your passion, Poland's new direction is a welcome one. It's hard to imagine Chediak opting to include the rip-roaring Dogtown & Z-Boys -- a visceral profile of Seventies skateboarders in Los Angeles, with Sean Penn's narration adding a surreal Jeff Spicoli touch -- or Raw Deal, a gripping account of an alleged rape at a University of Florida frat house that climaxed with an even more tense Q&A session afterward. Prowling the Colony's stage with a microphone in hand, director Billy Corben lashed out at the audience for being the first in the world to insensitively laugh at what he considered the "wrong" parts.

"Would you like a couple of words to describe my feelings about the new festival?" offered Independent Feature Project/Miami head Joanne Butcher. "How about: Overjoyed! Astounded!" For Butcher, who freely admits she didn't even bother to attend last year's festival out of disinterest, giving attention to local filmmakers -- the IFP's raison d'être -- is long overdue. Accordingly the IFP shepherded several made-in-Miami films to the fest, including the campy Satan Was a Lady from cult legend Doris Wishman, and the Mariel boatlift-themed 90 Miles. Butcher is hoping to continue that momentum when the IFP begins screening indie fare every weekend at Miami Shores' Performing Arts Theater, beginning February 15 with Downtown '81 (featuring the late NYC artist Jean Michel Basquiat and a slew of postpunk outfits), as well as the locally produced doc Acts of Worship.

Is it possible to satisfy both camps? Can an expanded Miami Film Festival serve both topnotch foreign fare and homegrown indies? Back at Balans Poland says he certainly plans to try. "But you can't be all things to all people," he cautions. He further reminds Kulchur that he's only had five months on the job instead of the usual twelve to assemble his debut slate. Next year -- the 2003 fest -- is the one he'd prefer to be judged on.

There are ominous rumblings, however, that Poland may not get that chance. While these rumors may only be wishful thinking on the part of Chediak's friends looking for a little FIU payback, Poland says he's well aware there's a contingent rooting for his failure.

"You are taking over someone's life," he explains gingerly of his current job. "You didn't mean to, but it's what's happened."

At this point Poland reveals he has yet to actually meet Chediak, or even speak to him. Given the playground-fight status being built up around the two men, a little ice-breaking would seem in order.

Why don't you just pick up the phone and call Nat?

"People on my staff talk to him all the time -- I can get the number," Poland replies sheepishly and then looks away, scrunching up his face uncomfortably. After a long pause -- his first of the day -- he says, "You make a phone call like that ..." He trails off with a sigh and then starts again. "Look, ultimately I'm going to pay a price for not calling him. Just like I'm going to pay a price for FIU not extending an invitation to him."

Is there anything you'd like to say to him?

"I'd tell him that it's not all about me, and it's not all about him. It's not about egos; it's about the films."

Sheesh, why don't you just cut all the drama, ring him up, and say that?

Poland's tone sharpens. "If I were him, I would've called me," he admonishes, tapping a finger against his own chest. "He was here for eighteen years. He's the one who is beloved. He's the one who had editorials written in the Herald about how wonderful he was. He has the power."

But you're the new festival director. Nat is, ahem, semiunemployed. You've got the power now."

"No," Poland corrects. "He's still Nat Chediak. And I'm not the festival director yet." That distinction won't be bestowed until closing night, he says, breaking into a grin. "I've still got my cherry intact. It's been pushed, but I'm still a virgin festival director."


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