Miami Beach High music teacher Doug Burris became a father figure to generations of students through his teachings of rock 'n' roll. His legacy of inspiring students was so profound that last year, the City of Miami Beach named the North Beach Bandshell stage the Clark Douglas Burris Stage. Notable alumni of his class include familiar locals such as Rachel Goodrich, Deaf Poets' Sean Wouters and Nicolas Espinosa, Alex Gimeno (AKA Ursula 1000), and Exposé's Ann Curless. The ensemble has won accolades in national competitions and has earned a plaque from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where the group once performed.
Now, a short documentary about the music instructor will premiere at Miami Dade College’s 35th Miami Film Festival in competition for a cash prize that the film’s director hopes will help him complete a feature-length version of the film. Through testimonials from alumni, who also scored the short's music, Carry That Weight: A Rockumentary celebrates Burris’ will to live life to the fullest despite being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
In 1972, the year of Burris' diagnosis, he pitched administrators at Beach High an elective class like no other: Rock Ensemble. It’s like marching band but way cooler. Key to the class’ cool factor was Burris’ passion for the music and, above all, his ability to inspire similar passion, confidence, and drive in his students. When Burris developed quadriplegia due to his degenerative illness, he gave some of his students the chance to earn some money by taking care of him for 48 hours at a time. In January 2016, at 73 years old, Burris passed away due to complications from the disease.
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New York-based documentary filmmaker Brian J. Leitten heard of Burris at his sister’s wedding in South Florida in November 2015. The man she was to marry was one of Burris’ former students and shared the instructor’s autobiography, Walk & Roll, with him. After reading the book and hearing about Burris’ talent and influence, Leitten became fascinated by what the teacher had accomplished. He never met Burris before his passing, but he began interviewing former students during a benefit concert that alumni put on in April 2016.
“I already knew I wanted to do some sort of documentary on him,” the filmmaker says by phone. “I just came down and filmed the concert and met a bunch of people, interviewed around 13 or 14 people in a week, spent some time with the rock ensemble a couple of days after school, and from that one week of filming we eventually put together the short documentary.”
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Leitten hopes to continue to add to the documentary and eventually make a feature-length project out of it. It’s in the running for the Zeno Mountain Award and a $5,000 cash prize at the Miami Film Festival, where it will compete against three feature`s and three other short films that “celebrate the diversity of abilities and disabilities.” Leitten says there isn't a better place for the documentary's premiere. “We’re superproud of what we’ve done, and being part of Miami Film Festival has always been our number one goal, so we’re very excited to be a part of it.”
The seven films vying for this year’s Zeno Mountain Award are the following:
Carry That Weight: A Rockumentary (U.S., directed by Brian J. Leitten), documentary short.
Coming to My Senses (U.S., directed by Dominic Gill), documentary feature.
High Expectations (Brazil, directed by Alvaro Campos and Pedro Antonio), narrative feature.
September (Guatemala/Mexico, directed by Kenneth Müller), narrative feature.
Sexual Being (Canada, directed by Paul Stavropoulos), documentary short.
Share the Same Madness (U.S., directed by Tim Richardson), documentary short.
Spoon Fed (U.K., directed by Nick Hatton Jones), narrative short.
The winner of the Zeno Mountain Award will be decided by a jury and announced at the festival’s Awards Night Gala at the Olympia Theater March 17 and the Historic Alfred I. duPont Building in downtown Miami. The full lineup for the festival will be announced in early February. Individual tickets will go on sale to the general public February 16. Tickets for the Awards Night Gala are already on sale via 844-565-6433 or miamifilmfestival.com. Individual vouchers to attend screenings of Coming to My Senses, High Expectations, and September are also on sale. The schedule of screening times will be announced February 9.