No one who has regularly attended the Miami International Film Festival during its 30 years will argue against the choice of Fernando Trueba for a career tribute award. The Oscar-winning director has repeatedly debuted well-regarded films at MIFF from as far back as 1986 with El año de las luces. In 1994, the festival debuted his calling card to big time recognition: Belle Epoque, a movie that would go on to win the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar at that year's Academy Awards. This year marked his 10th visit to the festival, the last being in 2011 to introduce Miami to last year's Oscar-nominated Best Animated Feature Film, Chico and Rita.
The night of his career tribute at the Olympia Theater at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts on Friday opened with the house lights dimming unannounced and a video mashup featuring overlapping clips of many iconic images from Trueba's films. Melding them was a video effect that added a multi-colored glow to the images with overlapping neon geometric shapes. Music stuttered and looped, as echoing dialogue in mostly Spanish faded in and out for about five minutes.
After the surreal, otherworldly video reminder of Trueba's work, MIFF Executive Director Jaie Laplante stepped out from the dark curtains stage right and said "Good evening" to the audience's applause. He credited Trueba for making his career possible at MIFF after he flew to New York to personally ask Trueba if the festival could open its 28th year with Chico and Rita. Laplante, who was putting together his first Miami International Film Festival as director, said Trueba answered with a simple yes. "You made my career possible with that one simple word," Laplante told Trueba from the podium.
With that, Laplante handed the baton to Jessica Berman, Trueba's longtime producer. Berman said she met the 58-year-old Trueba through his first appearance at MIFF, and the two would begin a longtime business partnership. She recounted her meeting with Trueba "fresh out of film school" helping him scout for locations in Miami for Two Much, which would be his first English-language film. She also reminded the audience of his work in television in his native country and the fact that he also went on to win multiple Grammy awards. She then introduced a second video tribute, this one highlighting scenes that showcased the humor, romanticism and love of music Trueba made his career on.
Trueba then walked up on stage to receive the award and sit for a chat in the middle of the stage with Berman. They began their conversation talking about the festival's founder, Nat Chediak. Trueba said his relationship with Miami began when Chediak invited him to introduce his 1980 feature film debut, Opera Prima, at Chediak's independent art house, several years before Chediak would create MIFF. He said a longtime friendship was born. "Since then, I have been coming back and coming back, and I hope to come back some more," Trueba said.
Of Chediak, Berman noted, "We wouldn't be here at the festival's 30th anniversary if it weren't for his vision," and introduced the man who was also her former boss. The audience rose to its feet to give Chediak a loud, extended standing ovation, as he stood up and waved from the orchestra seats. Chediak founded the festival and programmed it for its first 18 years but has not had a working relationship since his last year in 2001. He came to the tribute only after Trueba asked him to be there.
Berman next led Trueba in a question and answer session that reflected on his career, his influences and inspirations. Trueba spoke about growing up under the oppressive Franco regime in Spain and later finding true freedom of expression in Paris. He also spoke about Spanish writer Rafael Azcona, crediting him as his biggest influence who taught Trueba not only about screenplays but about life. "He was a modest genius because he did the most modest job in filmmaking as a screenwriter because you are in the shadow. You are never on the red carpet as a screenwriter."
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The conversation turned toward the screening of the night, the U.S. premiere if his latest film, The Artist and the Model. The director explained that he dedicated the film to his older brother, Maximo Trueba, who passed away in 1996. Trueba credited his brother, who was a painter and sculptor, for teaching him about art. Like most successful artists, the filmmaker said he learned to appreciate the process of creation over the resulting work because of his brother. "I learned through him that art is the fight with the material ... People think that art is something placed on the walls of the museums. Art is what happened when someone was working alone, trying to do that."
At his career tribute, Trueba did not dwell on his own work or accomplishments but doled out recognition to those who made his career possible and inspired him. His film that night reflected that humble appreciation of the craft of art. Shot in black and white, recalling the look of Ingmar Bergman's classic Wild Strawberries, the Artist and the Model ended the night as a beautiful testament to art, its process and how it transcends the mortal beings who create it.
Follow Hans Morgenstern on Twitter @indieethos.