From Canes to Cannes: One letter makes all the difference, especially for University of Miami graduate and first-time director Tony Mendez. At the end of each academic year, UM’s film program hosts a film festival for all the student films (this year’s runs May 1-3 at the Bill Cosford Cinema), but Mendez’s master’s thesis film made it to the big leagues, the Cannes Film Festival’s Short Film Corner, which runs May 13-25 in the south of France.
El Mar y Él is a 23-minute short film inspired by Mendez’s family. His father was one of more than 100,000 Cubans who came to the United States during the Mariel boatlift in 1980 and his uncle was one of countless more who tried to do the same.
Recalls Mendez, “Back in 2013, while celebrating my birthday at my parents' house, my uncle Ricardo shared a very vivid and unfiltered story about his many attempts to escape Cuba during the infamous 1980 Mariel boatlift.”
As he realized, “I needed to ask my uncle for his permission to recreate his story on film.”
Many of the exiles included prisoners from Cuban jails and patients from mental health institutions that Fidel Castro had released, so other Cubans—including the protagonist Ricadro representing Mendez’s uncle—attempted to feign illness in order to leave the country. El Mar y Él hones in on Ricardo’s escapades, injecting humor and surrealism into what’s ultimately based on a true story.
Says scriptwriter Luke Fronefield, “I saw it as an opportunity for humor, but absurd tragic humor, which I think encapsulates the state of affairs in Cuba back then and even now. I wanted to show everything either broken down or decaying, but I also wanted to show the spirit of the people—both the people who want something better and also the bureaucrats who are content with the status quo.”
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With Miami playing such a vital role in the boatlift, and the Cuban influence in our city now, Mendez and Fronefield hope to spark a local dialogue with this film.
“We thought our film was going to start a lot of conversations and debates, especially among Cubans and Miamians. But now, the eyes of the world are on Cuba, especially on the relationship between America and Cuba, so I think it makes our film that much more relevant,” states Fronefield.
Mendez especially hopes those discussions will continue when he and other crewmembers travel to France in a few months. “I’ve been told that Cannes Festival is like no other festival in the world, and that the Short Film Corner is absolutely insane,” he says. “My plan is to be there with fellow producer Angel Fernandez, Assistant Director Robert Colom, and Production Designer Lauren Coghlan, and our focus is to move, touch, and inspire people with our extraordinary true story.”
Before Mendez brings El Mar y Él screen at Cannes, Miami audiences will be able to see it at the Canes Film Festival. Screening times will be announced soon at canesfilmfestival.com. For more information on El Mar y Él at the Cannes Film Festival, visit festival-cannes.com. For more information on the film itself visit elmaryel.com or donate to their Go Fund Me campaign to get to the festival.