Reel stories: Miami International Film Festival director 
    Nicole Guillemet
Reel stories: Miami International Film Festival director Nicole Guillemet

Scene Stealer

"Havana Suite is sold out?" groused the crestfallen young woman bellying up to the Miami International Film Festival ticket counter. "Are you sure?" Standing nearby, Kulchur tried to offer some words of solace: Don't worry, I've seen it and you're not missing much.

The woman stepped back to re-examine the festival's schedule posted inside the South Beach Regal theater, still looking as if she'd been slugged. It was only Tuesday evening, not even midway through last week's annual fest, but small "sold out" notations were already spreading across the grid of movie times. "I live in Miami," she explained to Kulchur. "I need to at least know what Havana looks like."

You could take the same attitude toward the entire film festival itself. The quality of its offerings varied widely, from startling documentaries to clunky features making a brief pit stop on their way to deserved obscurity atop a Blockbuster shelf. Still if you're a cinema buff living in Miami, attendance at the festival is mandatory, if only to stay abreast of film culture at large.

As for Havana Suite, it was merely the latest disappointment from Cuba's beleaguered film industry, which has yet to produce a truly memorable picture since director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea's passing in 1996. Instead of building on the remarkable interplay of social criticism and stirring drama that marked Alea's Strawberry and Chocolate and Guantanamera, the successors to the island's cinematic throne have fashioned muddled and unsatisfying takes on Cuba's current schizophrenic nature -- a socialist state run on capitalist dollars. One can debate whether to place the blame on a lack of aesthetic vision or on government censorship. Either way the result is the same: movies of little interest to those beyond the myopic prism of the Florida Straits.

Indeed since Havana Suite director Fernando Pérez's 1998 Life Is to Whistle and its disappointing $63,574 U.S. box office gross, no American distributor -- not even the tiniest independent outfit -- has been willing to take on a Cuban film. And Havana Suite, a tedious day-in-the-life snapshot of a dozen Habaneros, is unlikely to change that situation.

Ironically the best film about Cuba at this year's festival never even mentions that country once. Goodbye, Lenin! tells the story of Christiane, a devout East German Communist who collapses into a coma at the sight of her son struggling with police during a protest march on the eve of the Berlin Wall's 1989 fall. Eight months later she's miraculously revived, though with strict doctor's orders to avoid even the slightest tinge of excitement, lest she slip back into a coma. The overnight disappearance of her entire way of life -- how's that for excitement?

Christiane's son Alex is determined to keep his convalescing mom in a safe bubble. Forget Stalin's dream of socialism in one country; Alex embarks on socialism in one bedroom, rehanging a painting of Che Guevara, scrounging for vanished Bulgarian pickles and tapes of vintage TV newscasts, while the world outside turns upside down. Goodbye, Lenin! is hilarious, but darkly so. As Burger King drive-thrus open in East Berlin, one freshly unemployed worker watches a sprawling Coca-Cola banner unfurl down the side of a decrepit Soviet-style housing block. "To think we worked 40 years for this!" he spits. Freedom may be sweet, but get ready for the aftertaste. The film opens next month in Miami. As its director, Wolfgang Becker, pleaded to his festival audience here: "Tell a friend."

At the festival's wrap party this past Saturday night Miami Mayor Manny Diaz proved he's more than ready to challenge Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas for People magazine's award of sexiest politician. As a DJ blasted Marvin Gaye's slinky funk classic "Got to Give It Up," Diaz did just that, displaying an eminently suave version of the electric boogaloo. We'll reserve for future blackmail purposes the names of those local pols who should never be seen frugging in public, but to be fair, Miami officials had a lot to celebrate.

After kicking in $150,000 to the fest's $1.18 million budget (the county provided $250,000 and Miami Beach another $50,000), they were rewarded with an event -- shrewdly helmed by director Nicole Guillemet -- that was not only an artistic triumph but a financial one. According to preliminary figures from Kathie Sigler, fest partner Miami Dade College's provost for operations, close to 50,000 tickets had been sold as of Saturday morning -- an all-time high. "It's beyond even our greatest expectations," Sigler said, adding that she expected a modest profit as well, the festival's first since 2001.

It would certainly seem that after several years of turmoil following the angry resignation of festival founder Nat Chediak over what he deemed creative interference from then-host Florida International University, a hopeful note had been struck. But then, what would an arts event in Miami be without a little backroom intrigue?

Once he took control of the fest this past fall, Miami Dade College president Eduardo Padrón privately met with Chediak and offered him Guillemet's job as festival director. According to sources with knowledge of the meeting, Chediak demanded absolute creative control of the festival -- a condition Padrón was unwilling to grant, leaving the position in Guillemet's hands for 2004.

And for 2005? Although Guillemet's contract is up for renewal next month, she says she's been too preoccupied with the festival at hand to worry about next year just yet. Cornered by Kulchur at the wrap party, she good-naturedly shrugged off the specter of Padrón shopping her job around. "This city extrapolates a little too much," she demurred. "I don't feel threatened -- Eduardo and Nat are old friends. It's totally normal they would talk."

Padrón himself showed just the smallest hint of surprise as Kulchur sidled up and asked about his employment overture to Chediak.

Is Nat Chediak becoming the new festival director?

"No," Padrón replied firmly, regaining his composure with a chuckle. "We have an open door for anyone -- not just Nat -- who wants to help. I mean that sincerely." Considering that the editors of this newspaper have seen fit to run dramatic cartoons of Padrón as a blood-spitting severed head, a crazed turkey, and most recently a flame-shrouded demon -- horns and all -- any response short of a punch to Kulchur's mouth would seem more than gracious. In the spirit of this new détente, though, Padrón elaborated. With Guillemet, he said, "we have a wonderful director, and she's done a wonderful job. There's a saying: If it ain't broke, don't change it. "


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