It was a chilly winter night in New York City when filmmaker Kareem Tabsch answered a seemingly ordinary phone call. The O Cinema founder was visiting the Big Apple for a screening of his film The Last Resort. That night, he received the news that his latest project, a documentary about Walter Mercado, had just been selected to premiere at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival in Salt Lake City.
The independent-film festival announced its lineup earlier this month, and Miami is well represented among the 118 films selected. In addition to the world premiere of Tabsch’s documentary Mucho Mucho Amor, the gathering will also screen two Borscht-supported shorts and Borscht’s first feature film, Omniboat.
Although Mucho Mucho Amor might seem timely in light of the astrologer's passing in November, Tabsch and his codirector and coproducer — Cristina Constantini and Alex Fumero — have been working on it for more than two years.
“Like every Latino of a certain generation, Walter Mercado was a staple of my household,” Tabsch shares. "When Mercado appeared on television screens, he had the power to command a room and silence a crowd. Even though his catch phrase proclaimed love and peace, his message ran deeper than that.
“He was uniquely his own. In a very macho Latino culture, he presented his nonbinary gender expression, and it was so brave.”
For Latino audiences, Mercado also represents a form of warm nostalgia. “You think of Walter today, and so many of us think of our abuelitas,” the Cuban-American filmmaker says. “The memory takes us back to childhood. It takes us back to sitting with our grandparents. In making this film, we realized that was a universal experience [for Latinos].”
Tabsch describes the Puerto Rican TV personality as a cross between Mr. Rogers and Oprah who just happened to be much sparklier. “As U.S. Latinos, we have our own heroes, and I think it’s important to recognize them, celebrate them, and honor them," Tabsch says. "And this film is very much that.”
The fact that an international film festival of Sundance's prominence has recognized a film such as Mucho Mucho Amor is an important win for not only Tabsch and his team but also Latino culture.
“It’s a huge recognition not just for Miami film, but for film created by, for, and about Latinos,” Tabsch says. “We’re telling our own stories.”
Lucas Leyva — a film producer and artistic director of the local film festival Borscht — will also attend Sundance, to premiere his labor of love, Omniboat.
Dana Bassett, Borscht's executive interim director, describes Omniboat as a family affair. The team wanted to work with those who have supported the semiannual local film festival since its inception ten years ago.
“This film presents a perspective on Miami that is locally bred and [produces] high-quality work, and I think that’s what Sundance responded to,” she says.
Omniboat is not only Borscht’s first feature-length film but also its 20th project to screen at Sundance. “It’s always surreal to get this sort of validation from something like Sundance,” Leyva adds. “Growing up in Miami, it never even seemed like a possibility that you could make work down here and it would make it all the way to Sundance.”
The idea for Omniboat came about when Leyva was out trying to pitch a passion project. He found himself joking to potential investors that it would be better to buy a speedboat than to invest in independent cinema.
“What started off as a joke got out of hand, and a lot of the meetings that we couldn’t get before, we started getting,” Leyva says.
Someone eventually bought the filmmaker a boat. Leyva then decided to text some friends — 15 to be precise — and asked them to make some movie magic.
All of the directors involved in the project — the Daniels, Hannah Fidell, Alexa Lim Haas, Leyva, Olivia Lloyd, Jillian Mayer, the Meza Brothers, Terence Nance, Brett Potter, Dylan Redford, Xander Robin, Julian Yuri Rodriguez, and Celia Rowlson-Hall — convened for a retreat in Miami, where they spent time discussing the film and riding the speedboat.
“Each director sort of had their own vision, but we all worked together to make one movie versus just a series of shorts,” Leyva explains. “Omniboat follows the life of this speedboat as it changes hands and goes from person to person and situation to situation, all while using a tapestry of life in Miami.”
No matter the outcome at Sundance, Leyva assures New Times that a local screening will take place in the Magic City at some point. “Miami is the movie’s home. It was made here, and we really want to share it with the people who helped make it possible.”
Borscht still has the cigar speedboat; Leyva plans to take it with him to Sundance and offer it for sale along with the rights to the film. Buy a movie, get a free speedboat.
“It’s the most Miami hustle,” he says.