In a nondescript, one-story house not far off NE 79th Street and Biscayne Boulevard on Miami's Upper Eastside, a collective has set up shop to finish works for the 2014 Borscht Film Festival. The local group of visual artists and filmmakers has spent more than a decade opening eyes to the splendor beneath Miami's surface while simultaneously celebrating its surface. It's the festival's ninth edition, which is often as surreal as it is campy, tongue-in-cheek, poetic, and layered. Jonathan David Kane, who's been making films with Borscht since 2009, explains, "It's whenever we've made enough content to share. This year we have too much content; that's why we have like a weeklong festival."
The screenings and events this year are so plentiful and thought-provoking that one can only scratch the surface of the programming in this space. In addition to the main event -- a major screening of shorts at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts this Saturday -- Borscht will premiere Scarface Redux, a crowdsourced remake of Brian De Palma's iconic Miami-based film, pieced together with 15-to-20-second clips. Other highlights include a welcome dinner and keynote speech in Stiltsville, a pet-friendly outdoor screening of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, and plenty of cult and classic film screenings at Gramps and the Miami Beach Cinematheque. Then there's "the Multiverse," Borscht's interpretation of a theme park, featuring arcade games, three hours of film screenings, and interactive experiences such as a virtual visit to Cuba via Oculus Rift.
Borscht founder/minister of the interior Lucas Leyva explains the idea behind creating a film experience that rises above a series of movie screenings. "In Miami -- and I don't mean this condescendingly at all -- things need to be kind of an event to go to," he says, "so we try to build stuff as a physical event that's as fun and important as the films themselves."
Borscht is also fueled by a serious desire to make Miami a hub of vital filmmaking, and people have taken notice. At this year's fest, Adan Jodorowsky, the son of cult-film pioneer Alejandro Jodorowsky, will present his new short starring Asia Argento, The Voice Thief, which was executive-produced by Borscht. Every year since 2011, a Borscht production has been accepted at the Sundance Film Festival. This year, Yearbook won the Short Film Jury Award for Animation. The 2015 edition of Sundance will mark the first time two of Borscht's productions have been accepted at the world's premier indie-film event.
Jason Fitzroy Jeffers, a filmmaker from Barbados and the writer/producer of Papa Machete, one of the two films headed to Sundance, says the hands-on educational experience for aspiring filmmakers that Borscht provides is priceless. "What has been great about working with Borscht is that I have been able to study how to do this, so it's not like we've not only gotten amazing support from Borscht in making our first film, but we now feel like we're part of the family," he says. "We're seeing how to do something of our own. The model works. The model really works to bring this interest in Miami film. Now I'm saying, 'Oh, shit, now I want to do that with the Caribbean.' The way to do that is to kind of follow Borscht's lead."
Leyva says this education and the festival would not be possible without the support of a major Arts Challenge Grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. "Funding from Knight is absolutely essential beyond just the cash amount," he says. "They were the first organization that lent us a sense of legitimacy. We didn't have a bank account before that first Knight Arts Challenge Grant. They were the first ones to believe in us, and it's their belief that allowed other sponsors and grantees to trust us."
Kane, who directed Papa Machete, was one of Borscht's first public grantees. He came from the movie industry as a cinematographer, already with a key documentary under his belt, At the Edge of the World, but he wanted to express himself more creatively. He said he felt like he "hit a ceiling" with commercial production houses in Miami until he joined Borscht in 2009. "We're all from this city and have always wanted to express ourselves but never had anybody listening," he says. "So now that we do have somebody listening, we're going to give that opportunity everything we've got."
Borscht Film Festival runs December 17 through 21 at various venues across Miami. Tickets to the main event Saturday, December 20, at the Arsht Center (1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-949-6722; arshtcenter.org) cost $25 for general admission and $15 for students. Prices vary for other events and screenings, some with suggested donations. Visit borschtcorp.com.