It is something of an understatement to say that the Borscht Film Festival, which recently completed its ninth edition, is unusual.
There could be other festivals on the planet that have Haitian machete fighting teach-ins or DIY theme parks with competitive EKG powered balloon blowing contests and oculus rift virtual reality installations — or official screenings that start at 3 a.m. in nondescript five star hotel suites while many of the attendees are tripping on psychedelic mushrooms, but they remain undiscovered. The signature event of the Borscht Corp, a loose and expanding collective of filmmakers based in Miami that has been routinely sending lauded shorts to Sundance for the past half decade, the festival plays out over five days all over downtown Miami and nearby Miami beach.
The structure and curatorial sensibility of the entire affair has the same mad cap, WTF!? quality of some of Borscht’s often sublimely absurd short work, such as 2011’s "The Adventures of Chris Bosh in the Multiverse." The sequel to that film was supposed to screen at the festival twice, but mysteriously didn’t even screen once. Par for the course. At Borscht, nights are late, inebriation is the norm and inventiveness is a prerequisite as the truth is a slippery, ever-shifting premise.
Not that it matters. No one minded when a laser light show at the planetarium on the festival’s second night took forever to set up. The festival’s 30th anniversary remake of "Scarface," to be compiled entirely of crowdsourced clips submitted online and screened at a Miami Beach nightclub, didn’t really come about; only 30% of the movie was able to be recreated from clips alone.
Screenings, parties, rides from hotels – nothing ever started on time. At most film festivals, this would seem like poor organization. At Borscht, it’s part of an ethos. The festival opened lightly on Wednesday with screenings of local films from the Miami Filmmakers Collective, another organization entirely. Accompanied by "psychic readings", the screenings were held, like most of the screenings over the first four days of the festival, at Shirley’s Cinema. An improvised 30-seat microcinema in the back room of Gramp’s, a bar frequented by the Borscht set that served with a Miami Beach hostel and the Intercontinental Hotel as the festival’s home bases, the Shirley often hosted double its recommended capacity at the festival’s jam-packed events.
These included late night mystery movies curated from Miami’s camp filled past and regional showcases presented by friends of the festival such as the New Orleans-based Court 13 ("Beasts of the Southern Wild"), Sundance programmer Adam Piron (who presented some fine Native American themed short work by Sundance alums Andrew Okpeaha Maclean and Taika Waititi) and the Pacific Northwest-centered Newhard Entertainment (The International Sign of Choking).
Panels about fair use and copyright infringement (Borscht has received cease and desist orders from in the past from the likes of the NBA and the local competitor, the Miami International Film Festival), a fake Criterion collection release party for a non-existent three disc Blu-Ray set by a local con artist and "Cockfight" director/mayor of Borscht Julian Rodriguez’s new "surreality" show "No Seasons," which looks at the seedier side of the Miami underworld, all found their way to the stage and screen at the Shirley.
More traditional screenings, such as the unsettling double feature of Ian Clark’s "A Morning Light" and Celia Rowlson-Hall’s "MA" (both of which will surely be heard from on the festival circuit in 2015) took place at the Miami Beach Cinematheque on Sunday afternoon.
Borscht Corp is generously supported by the Miami based John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a private non-profit with financing ties to NPR and ProPublica whose stated goal is to support "transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts." The Knight Foundation’s largesse allows Borscht to finance a score of ambitious shorts, from a mix of internationally celebrated young filmmakers such as Terence Nance, Sebastien Silva and Ray Tintori, alongside Miami based first timers, often individuals who have come up through the ranks of the Borscht organization.
The presentation of these works, unfurled on a Saturday night at the Knight Concert Hall in downtown Miami after several days of uneven but inspired programming, is the festival’s centerpiece. Like almost everything else at the Borscht Film Festival, it started late, went late, and was teeming with lunacy and inspired imagination.
Borscht is the brainchild of Lucas Leyva and Jillian Meyer, the filmmaking team behind last year’s sublime #PostModem, a favorite at Sundance 2013. There new film "Cool as Ice 2," a side splittingly funny interplanetary investigation of the many sides of the Miami born rapper Vanilla Ice, which is more moving than it has any right to be, was the absolute showstopper of Borscht 9. Billed as a sequel of sorts to the 1991 Vanilla Ice vehicle of the same name, "Cool as Ice 2" expands on some of the formal and thematic strategies of the duo’s remarkable 2011 short "The Life and Freaky Times of Uncle Luke." Like the previous film, this new Meyer/Leyva joint takes a discarded Miami hip-hop celebrity and investigates their life and persona through a patina of high art references, along with remarkably clever, Michel Gondry-like low budget sight gags and, this time around, CGI wizardry.
While "Uncle Luke," which is about 2 Live Crew rapper Luther Campbell, was billed as a remake of Chris Marker’s "La Jetee," "Cool as Ice 2" is as much a rumination on notions of failure found in the poems of Frank O’Hara and Vladimir Mayakovsky as it is a sequel to Vanilla Ice’s screen debut.
Recounting Ice’s rise and fall using voiceover pulled in part from his discredited autobiography and over brooding images of the hero standing above a hazily realized, model version of Miami, "Cool as Ice 2" provides a deft visual metaphor (and gets around the non-participation of its subject) by projecting Ice’s face onto a screen beneath his character’s signature ballcap.
Complete with a talking, dying sun that provides the main counterpoint to Ice’s attempt to get to the bottom of his post fame woes and a Queen sing-a-long that is as ingenious as any sequence the duo has yet produced, "Cool as Ice 2" has the audacity to power a half dozen inspired features. Here’s hoping it’s not too long until the Borscht Corp starts working on an even bigger canvas.