During one fateful night of insomnia in 1894, Frenchman Louis Lumière invented the cinématographe, a portable, hand-cranked film camera that fit into a suitcase one man could easily carry. Soon he began setting it up in places where people gathered — train stops, busy intersections, and riverbanks — trying to catch what he called sur le vif, "life on the run." Meanwhile, in America, Thomas Edison had just finished "the Black Maria," a camera 100 times heavier than Lumière's, kept inside a giant box covered in tarpaper in West Orange, New Jersey. Edison invited vaudevillians to perform inside the box, at a fixed distance from the camera, and then projected the films to people inside that other dark box, the theater. Only one of these men is regarded as the father of movies, because he recognized that the cinematic experience must be a departure.
Patrick de Bokay, another Frenchman and the new director of the Miami International Film Festival (MIFF), also believes in departure. His passion for film resembles that of his countryman, though de Bokay's concern is not so much for how a film is shot — there are, after all, many more excellent films being made today than in Lumière's time — but how it is watched.
He recalls a time in the late Seventies when he attended a press screening at the Avoriaz Fantastic Film Festival with about 50 other industry people. No one knew anything about the film. It turned out to be the Australian sci-fi classic Mad Max, the flick that birthed Mel Gibson and many an adolescent obsession with muscle cars and black leather jackets.
Even though that particular cinematic moment has passed, de Bokay says everybody can have the same kind of unrepeatable experience of discovering a film alongside a group of strangers. But it won't come from a laptop screen. "You can't compare the two," he says of public and private, large and small screens. He doesn't discount the personal experience of watching a film on a small screen alone (in fact he views it as integral to a proper cinematic education), but he believes there's no replacement for the environment of a good theater, especially one in which audiences are entering with few preconceptions. The environment, in other words, of a film festival.
This year marks MIFF's 25th anniversary, which in the cultural life of Miami is more or less akin to eternity, but the festival has struggled in the past to stand out from the myriad others around the nation and the world. De Bokay arrives after working 17 years for various studios on the distribution side of Hollywood; it was his job to figure out which films to bring to which audiences, and he views his current post as making MIFF the first major world film festival of the calendar year. So far there is evidence of success.
During the final weeks leading up to the fest, Paramount Vantage called de Bokay and asked if MIFF would screen Nanette Burstein's documentary American Teen. The result of more than 1,000 hours of footage of high school seniors in Warsaw, Indiana, American Teen has been described as the nonfiction Mean Girls. The film won the best direction award for a documentary feature at this year's Sundance Film Festival and created an audience fervor that turned into a distribution war. Peter Sciretta, from the blog Slash Film, called it Sundance's best movie and said it has "more mass appeal than any other nonfictional film I've seen." Paramount Vantage's decision to launch American Teen from Miami means, according to de Bokay, "the festival is being recognized by the industry."
De Bokay believes the transition in the festival's prominence is happening at the same time Miami's attitude toward the arts is shifting. "Miami is reaching its artistic potential," he says, and he wants MIFF to have a hand not only in bringing some of the best films in the world to Miami, but also in developing homegrown talent. An example this year can be found in Josh Miller and Sam Rega's documentary about the late Arthur E. Teele, Miami Noir. Miller and Rega began the project as students at the University of Miami and received financial assistance and technical guidance from the festival. De Bokay views the screening of Miami Noir as the demonstration not only of a product, but also a process, a model for how to develop a small student picture into a viable industry film, and it's a process he believes is integral to the growth of the festival. "We have to build relationships with filmmakers," he says.
The academic model also leaks into the program's events. The festival will be hosting three different types of seminars, in addition to the 120 films broken down into gala screenings (at which de Bokay and company will be creating a genuine "red carpet" experience); various competition categories, including, for the first time, a short film prize; and — because it's Miami — afterparties. De Bokay also has future plans for integrating into the festival the new trend of remixing and re-editing films. All of these experiences, however, are dependent on Miami itself. In the end, says de Bokay, "success depends on the community." As Lumière well knew, films are all about people.