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Why Barry Jenkins’ Second Home Is Miami’s Tiny, Eccentric, and Inspiring Borscht Film Festival

The collective at the center of the "Moonlight" origin story are also the center of a vibrant and visionary filmmaking community in Miami.

Borscht

As film nonprofits go, Miami’s Borscht Corp has a different way of doing things. Whether it’s buying a speedboat as the first step in fundraising for a feature, or “canceling” a secret party on social media to throw off the cops, Borscht’s organizational methods are as experimental and visionary as the work it produces. That includes the Borscht Film Festival, a “quasi-yearly” event showcasing films, sculpture, performances, and installations by emerging regional filmmakers.

While Borscht may sound obscure, it lies at the heart of Barry Jenkins’ success. When Borscht co-founder (and “Moonlight” co-producer) Andrew Hevia saw Miami native Jenkins’ first feature, the San Francisco-set “Medicine for Melancholy,” he became determined to bring Jenkins back to Miami to shoot a film. Borscht commissioned a short film from Jenkins, “Chlorophyl,” for the 2011 festival. “That sort of re-awakened [Jenkins] to the city,” said Borscht co-founder Lucas Leyva, an accomplished filmmaker and producer himself. Leyva originally studied playwriting, and considered Tarell Alvin McCraney a mentor. After directing a short scripted by McCraney, the playwright told Leyva he had another script kicking around that he “didn’t know what to do with.” That was his then-unproduced play, “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” the basis for “Moonlight.” Leyva and Hevia introduced Jenkins and McCraney and the rest, as they say, is history.

READ MORE: Barry Jenkins’ ‘Moonlight’ Journey: How the Year’s Great Discovery Became an American Cinema Milestone

While few stories can expect a fairy-tale ending like Jenkins’, his experience is not unique. The Borscht Film Festival is dedicated to works that come out of Miami, whether that means a filmmaker’s origins or a first-timer’s perspective as seen through 10 GoPros strapped to his body. While the films draw an eclectic group of Miami creatives and nascent indie filmmakers, the screenings are not the only attraction. This year featured a party on a private island, accessible by kayak, where “Waterworld” played on a giant floating screen; the “Coral Orgy,” where Animal Collective live-scored psychedelic coral projections, filmed by local marine biologists and artists Coral Morphologic, in a Frank Gehry concert hall; a vogue ball that let you live out “Paris Is Burning” fantasies; and the world’s most surreal “Moonlight” Oscar viewing party, held in Jenkins’ home neighborhood of Liberty City.

Miami locals watching Barry Jenkins and “Moonlight” take the Oscars by storm.

Borscht

“It’s really about creating the best context possible for the work itself, and that’s not always just the traditional screening where you sit quietly in the dark and just watch a movie,” said Leyva, who runs the festival with filmmaker, sculptor, and performance artist Jillian Mayer.

“I don’t think these mediums are inextricable from each other,” Mayer said of Borscht’s unconventional film presentation. “In filmmaking, your sets are installations, your props are sculptures, there’s a fluidity. It just seems like that’s the best way to execute a fully built world.”

READ MORE: ‘Moonlight’ In Miami: At Barry Jenkins’ Hometown Oscars Block Party, Confusion Turns to Elation

The night “Waterworld” played, smaller screens were scattered amid the island’s trees showing short films, and partygoers at the Coral Orgy waited in line to sit in a bathtub and experience a VR short by Tenderclaws that put the viewer in the body of George W. Bush as he paints. And before Saturday’s centerpiece Borscht screening at the Olympia Theater, comic opera singer Joseph Keckler sang his classic “Shroom Trip Opera,” before live-scoring a short film he made with filmmaker Laura Terruso, whose “Fits and Starts” will premiere at SXSW.

That centerpiece screening showcased films either made or commissioned by Borscht and their collaborators. John Wilson, a documentary short filmmaker whose works screened the previous day, sounded incredulous when he remarked on Borscht’s curatorial skills. “I usually hate at least one film in a shorts program, or at least am ambivalent,” said Wilson.

The nearly three-hour long program opened with a Borscht-commissioned crowd pleaser, “Great Choice,” by Robin Comisar, about a woman who gets stuck inside a Red Lobster commercial. Other standouts included “Agua Viva,” an evocative animation about a manicurist in Miami by Alexa Haas; Mayer/Leyva’s bewitching “Kaiju Bunraku,” a technical masterpiece in the style of the traditional Japanese puppet theater (which premiered at Sundance this year); Dean C. Marcial’s “Manila Death Squad,” an electric love letter to Tarantino with a political twist; and Dylan Redford’s “My Trip To Miami,” a pitch-perfect GoPro comedy following the filmmaker as he attempts to visit every one of Trip Advisor’s “315 Top Attractions in Miami.”

That flagship event was the closest thing to a traditional festival screening. After Wilson’s shorts played, he opted for an elaborate game of Wilson-themed Jeopardy in lieu of a Q&A. After a showing of David Fenster’s “Opuntia,” an experimental documentary about conquistador-turned-shaman Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (as narrated by a cactus), audience members received cacti as souvenirs.

Despite all the funky trappings, Borscht’s first major funder was the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, proud sponsors of NPR. Based in Miami, Leyva and Hevia initially applied through the Knight Arts Challenge, from which they received a grant of $500,000 over five years. “We didn’t even have a bank account, we had to open a bank account,” said Leyva. “It was an insane amount of money for us at the time. They took a big risk with us.”

“Waterworld” on the water.

Borscht

The Knight funding gave Borscht credibility, which in turn attracted more sponsors. This year, Borscht received additional support from TimeWarner’s OneFifty and Cinereach, in addition to sponsorships from the seltzer company with the world’s smartest marketing department, LaCroix. But the idea that Borscht is somehow raking in the dough is a myth Leyva and Mayer would like to dispel.

“To be fully transparent, we’re still severely underfunded,” said Leyva. “For example, the Miami International Film Festival has a yearly operating budget of $2 million. Our project has about 10 percent of that budget and we not only play the films in non-traditional venues, but we have a hand in making a lot of the content.” The entire collective and the festival is run primarily by three people: Leyva, Mayer, and head of operations Lauren Monzon.

“Even our most formal events still feel like indie filmmaking,” said Mayer.

Ultimately, that may be Borscht’s biggest draw. In a shifting media landscape where the glut of content means curation is at a premium, anything bearing the Borscht name is certified fresh.

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