La Schwette Vedette

One hour before screenings begin on the final day of the 2003 Miami International Film Festival, Nicole Guillemet -- tailored, coiffed, and uncharacteristically agitated -- sits huddled over a tiny cocktail table at the back of the dim balcony lounge at the National Hotel. Leaning forward and locking her eyes on her interlocutor, the 53-year-old Frenchwoman waves her right index finger from left to right across columns of preliminary figures for the twentieth annual festival: record ticket sales approaching 42,000; record membership dollars at $250,000; and sponsorship dollars at $300,000 in cash and $710,000 in kind (vehicle donations, etc.) Looking on from across the table, fresh-faced Miami Herald film critic Rene Rodriguez nods seriously.

I am watching all this from the lobby downstairs. This is supposed to be my interview time, but I am not the one who published pieces last year excoriating the 2002 fest for empty seats, dismal sales, and films that arrived late or not at all. I'm not the one who at the end of last year's festival blasted Florida International University president Mitch Maidique for his hire of 2002 director David Poland, an Internet journalist with no experience organizing a festival. And I'm not named in the letter the much-maligned Poland sent to New Times and, he says, a "few friends" in an effort to counter what he considers the "mythology" about his six-month tenure.

Poland's screed makes for a riveting he-said, she-said read. Delivered just before the opening of the 2003 festival, the letter details Poland's version of his derailment by nefarious university forces and the exaggeration of his festival's failings by a series of what he calls "attack pieces" in the Herald, all written, he claims, by "one inexperienced, cranky, flu-ish critic."

That's right: Rene Rodriguez.

"Yeah, David, I ruined the film festival," says the critic, who otherwise seems maybe not so cranky this year. He rolls his eyes when asked about the accusations. "He sent that letter everywhere," Rodriguez claims, shaking his head. "I'm really that powerful."

The conversation is cut short by the arrival of Guillemet, who has followed Rodriguez down the stairs to the lobby and pulls him aside to show him one last thing. The two of them nod again, but before I can get over there and insinuate myself, Guillemet is off, walking and talking fast with director Jacques Perrin, whose Winged Migration she will introduce across the causeway at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts in 45 minutes.

Programming a documentary about the flight patterns of birds at 1:00 p.m. on a perfect Sunday afternoon in Miami at the cavernous 1700-seat movie palace -- at the same time festival award winners are screening at additional sites at the Regal South Beach Cinema and the Intracoastal Cinema in North Miami Beach -- is one of Guillemet's biggest gambles. But the director-ferrying SUV, on loan from sponsor BMW, pulls up to a full house, and at the end of the breathtaking film Perrin receives a standing ovation.

Guillemet filled the house this year with wonderful programming, which ranged from the risky Winged Migration to the hard-hitting documentary The Day My God Died (about sex slavery in India), to the brutal dramatic feature Irreversible (it begins with a nine-minute rape scene). She began and ended, though, with fun and safe crowd-pleasers -- El Otro Lado de la Cama (The Other Side of the Bed) and Jet Lag. So though her film selection abilities were formidable, perhaps her impressive sense of public relations is equally responsible for her unqualified success.

First there's Rodriguez. Whether or not the Herald critic does have the power, as Poland puts it, to "bury" a festival director, Guillemet took no chances, courting him with her balance sheets and irresistible French charm.

She also wooed back many of the supporters of Nat Chediak, the festival's founder, who -- after eighteen years at the helm -- resigned over "artistic differences" with FIU in 2001. Guillemet led what one staffer calls an "effort to re-engage the core," hosting a prefestival series of films at the Gusman featuring question-and-answer sessions with directors and talent, giving interviews to practically anyone who'd ask questions. She proved herself as genuinely taken with filmmakers and audiences as she is with her film selections.

The campaign climaxed on opening night with what can only be described as a Nat Chediak love fest. Even FIU president Maidique, who by many accounts had been none too sad to see Chediak go, saw fit to observe the twentieth anniversary of the festival by paying tribute to the sainted, iconoclastic founder -- drawing perhaps the loudest and most sustained applause of the festival. The other speakers piled on. Director Emilio Martínez Lázaro (director of El Otro Lado and a frequent participant in the festival under Chediak), called himself both a friend and an admirer. Guillemet, in her soothing Gallic accent, thanked Chediak for his work building the festival over nineteen years. With that simple, willed mathematical error (so François Mitterrand!), David Poland and the traumatic 2002 were erased.

Despite all the love flowing from the Gusman, Chediak himself may well have forgotten all about the festival -- attending a tribute to U2 singer Bono in New York City as a prelude to winning a Grammy for his first album in his new career as a record producer. And if friends called to let him know how his name was praised in Miami on opening night, he's not saying anything about it. "At the risk of repeating myself," he says, as he has whenever questioned about the film fest since his resignation, "no comment."

Over the next ten days, memories of the festival as a cult of personality -- whether Chediak suave or Poland brash -- began to fade. Spurred by positive press and even more positive word of mouth, walk-in sales picked up steadily. By Tuesday, screenings at the additional sites in the Regal South Beach and the Sunrise Intracoastal in North Miami Beach began to sell out. By the end of the first week, the Gusman was frequently full -- and on a bad day drew at least 500 people. On the most basic level, not only did the films screen on time, but in what must be a Magic City first, the closing film actually started fifteen minutes early -- immediately after the close of the 7:00 p.m. awards ceremony. "We'll have to change the wording in the program next year," Guillemet observes wryly.

Two days after the festival ends, Guillemet is watering her plants. Wearing an ankle-length Indian caftan, the smell of the sea in her hair from her first trip to the beach since her arrival here last summer, she makes time for me even though she is ready to leave the festival behind for a while; she announces happily that she already has her ticket for a trip to Bhutan, in the Himalayas.

"I do my own self-criticism," she says, combing over details like the marathon panel discussions that exhausted audiences when they dealt with two feature-length films. "One film is enough," she decides.

This year Guillemet put on a financially successful, artistically satisfying festival in a very short time. But if she is ultimately going to succeed in her goal of garnering national and international attention for Miami by exploiting the "niche" of Ibero-American film, she will have to do more than suss out the right attention span of the average panel discussion participant. She will have to do more, even, than has been suggested in Rodriguez's post-festival report card: luring a few more ticket holders with better ads and program copy.

To win prestige for a festival based on Ibero-American film is to hitch the festival's fate to a struggling cinema. Guillemet is pleased with the pilot project Encuentros, a mini-film market that paired seven hand-picked Ibero-American filmmakers with distributors for dialogue and possible deals (see "Kulchur," page 18). And she's not afraid of the instability of Latin American film production.

"Look at Argentina now," she points out, "with so much economic problems they have 70 films in postproduction." Guillemet believes there is enough diversity in Latin America to keep the festival going. "For five years, Argentina will be a big supporter," she says. "Maybe one year there will be more film from Chile. There will always be a group of films just as appealing. I'm not worried."

And in the calm of the garden, it suddenly seems that there is very little to worry about at all. Guillemet grows wistful for her early days as co-director of Sundance fifteen years ago. "At the beginning of Sundance, filmmakers would artistically connect," she remembers. "Miami can offer a haven for filmmakers where they can connect with the audience and with each other. There's no magic [formula for success] here, but I hope this festival could become a platform for discovering talent."

And perhaps, next year, that talent will attract more attention than the festival's director.

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Celeste Fraser Delgado

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