“If you can keep your creative juices flowing, you can make a lot of money in the arts here,” said the cab driver taking me to the airport in Key West, Florida over the weekend.
To anyone who doesn’t reside on this sunny island riddled with pleasure-seeking vacationers and complaisant retirees, that statement might come as a surprise, but this cabbie had found his niche: A musician and wedding photographer on the weekends, he fled the growing cultural scene in Austin, Texas 11 years ago and never looked back.
There was a similar element of unexpected artistic contentment found throughout the Key West Film Festival — and, by extension, the entire region — which concluded its second edition on Sunday.
For the past decade, Key West has been home to a classy three-screen indie theater, the Tropic Cinema, which has provided an outlet for a much broader range of movies than the local multiplex. The theater was partly founded by writer Jean Carper and retired law professor George Cooper, whose wife is illustrious fiction author Judy Blume. The couple is among the established part-time residents of Key West who populated the festival this year, which also welcomed filmmakers Shane Carruth, Terry George and Paul Haggis as guests.
Ultimately, though, the Key West Film Festival provided a showcase of the fairly robust film scene that, in recent years, has taken hold in neighboring Miami. Kareem Tabsch, a programmer for Miami’s independent O Cinema, assembled the festival’s “Florida Shorts Program” to exclusively showcase Miami-based productions. The result was an extraordinary range of new cinema that riffs on distinct aspects of the Florida environment.
Each selection illustrates the way young filmmakers have started to riff on the state’s history and iconography with fresh approaches that make the region’s film community stand out. The most startling of the bunch, “#Postmodem,” comes from Miami filmmaking couple Jillian Mayer and Lucas Levya, who run Borscht Corp. — a collective that produces shorts, installations, and a film festival with the stated goal to “redefine the stereotypically insipid depiction of our city in the mainstream media.”
“#Postmodem” certainly does that with memorable results. The 13-minute short, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, playfully and exuberantly probes futurist concepts surrounding the notion of a technological singularity: It opens with the haunting montage of adorable young children on a playground directly addressing the camera about the inevitability of their demise. It then dovetails into a bizarre instructional video about the possibility of uploading one’s consciousness to the cloud, which climaxes with an intensely surreal and borderline hypnotic music video (“Mega Mega Upload,” below), followed by a seemingly normal woman attempting just that — by jamming a CD-ROM directly into her cerebral cortex.
That unsettling transition is balanced off by a lyrical interlude in which the woman (Mayer) wanders around a Miami beach in the nude before lifting above the waves in a water jet back — still in her birthday suit — providing a strangely triumphant statement on the prospects of self-empowerment in the internet age. The tranquil finale is something of a revelation: The idea of the aforementioned singularity as an empty, colorful swing set that’s both touchingly delicate and notably false.
Mayer and Levya, who are currently in the process of preparing their feature film debut, display the kind of formalist invention within the dynamics of the short film that once put director Benh Zeitlin on the map prior to the completion of “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” Just as that movie was preceded by Zeitlin’s similarly expressionistic fable “Glory at Sea,” the Miami filmmakers’ shorts suggest that their eventual arrival in the feature realm will catch many more audiences by surprise with an exceptional vision confidently rooted in a unique time and place.
Other highlights in the Florida shorts program, also produced by Borscht Corp., utilized the environment in different ways. Actress-producer-director Amy Seimetz, a Florida native, was technically in town to promote her role in Yen Tan’s gentle drama “Pit Stop,” but also directed “When We Lived In Miami,” the tale of a defiant mother that was shot in the midst of tropic storm Isaac. Seimetz plays the mom of a six-year-old clueless to her parents’ marital troubles, even as they swirl about the family in a physical manifestation provided by the real life storm. As with Seimetz’s feature debut, the outstanding minimalist crime saga “Sun Don’t Shine,” Florida’s climate becomes the primary driving force of the plot.
Similarly, the state’s history provides a compelling backdrop for “Waiting for Berta” (which screened at the Borscht Film Festival last year), in which an elderly woman tracks down an old foe on the eve of Fidel Castro’s death. And then there was “Cockfight,” Julian Yuri Rodriguez’s wacky metaphorical look at Miami’s underground cockfighting scene that abruptly transforms its beaked competitors into human beings.
Viewed through the lens of these productions, Miami takes on a remarkably complex definition rich with cinematic possibilities. Such potential wasn’t lost on festival founder Brooke Christian, a D.C.-based executive whose family has lived in the Key West area for over 20 years. While Florida has its fair share of significant festivals, particularly the indie film launchpad at the Sarasota Film Festival and Orlando fixture the Florida Film Festival, Key West offered space for another welcome excuse to explore the state’s film community.
“From the outset, Brooke had a clear [vision] for the festival in bringing a first class film festival to a market ripe for one given its strong support of the arts and creative spirit,” said program director Michael Tuckman, a prominent New York-based theatrical booker who runs M Tuckman Media. “He went out of his way to avoid any kind of niche programming angle and instead cast a wide net covering all genres of film in trying to build a program as diverse as the community.”
For future editions, Tuckman said the team hopes to develop Key West into “a showcase for South Florida and Key West filmmakers in particular.”
A glance at the recent lineup makes that assertion more appealing than it may appear. Just ask the cab drivers.