FESTIVALS: Miami Improves with Age, FIU and Cuban Controversy
by Brandon Judell
Most film festivals are like cadavers: they're either frozen with dry-as-dust ritualized formats that worked well a decade before or they're slowly decomposing. Well, the surprising news is that the Miami Film Festival's ambiance has been reborn thanks to its brand new partnership with Florida International University (FIU).
FIU, besides taking over the Festival's daily operations, apparently has steered the event's new base of operations during the event to a better hotel, the Sheraton Biscayne, and gotten a sponsor to supply new transportation vans with automatic opening and closing doors. There were also daily champagne brunches in the press room, and after the Festival's last screening of each day, attendees could bop their heads and snap their digits with directors and actors at Bailey's Festival Club where music greats from Puerto Rico, Spain, and Argentina let loose on the alto sax and sizzling congas. Olay!
"This new FIU connection," Nat Chediak, the Festival's founder and director, noted, "has allowed me to concentrate on programming rather than survival. It's given us an institutional parent that makes it easier to do development for the event. At the very beginning when we initiated talks, they promised me complete autonomy and artistic freedom, and they delivered."
It's hard though to say Chediak's programming is better this year because it's always been superb. He always discovers the best in world cinema with a special emphasis on Spanish-language works, knowing that his core audience will embrace such films with an insatiable appetite. After all, how many Spanish-language films can you ever find in your local cinema?
Some of the highlights this year were John Swanbeck's non-Spanish language "The Big Kahuna" ("Glengarry Glen Ross" salesmen find God), Eric Mendelsohn's "Judy Berlin" (a total eclipse turns the inhabitants of Babylon, Long Island batty), Soren Kragh-Jacobsen's "Mifune" (Danish "Rain Man" meets Dogme95) and Carlos Saura's "Goya in Bordeaux" (the memories, hallucinations and last days of the famed painter shot in a style not that distant from Coppola's "One From the Heart").
So was there a theme to the 26 disparate offerings on display? "Yes," Chediak insists. "I see several. One, I feel that there is still a lot of life left in French film. I see that the contrary is happening in the American independent movement. I think this was reflected in the Sundance crop," he explains. "I didn't have a sense of excitement coming out of Sundance."
"Yet again it becomes painfully evident that there's no such thing as Latin American cinema unless filmmakers find a co-production partner, usually from Spain," Chediak laments. "Case in point, both Brazilian films that we played were financed by American companies that had to invest the capital that they had earned in Brazil back in the country. Carlos Diegues' 'Orfeu,' which was picked up by New Yorker, was financed by Warner Brothers in Brazil. And Bruno Barreto's 'Bossa Nova' was financed by Sony. It's going out through Sony Classics. That was as a result of a legislation that requires for capital to be invested back into the country. Were it not for that, maybe these two films would not be in existence. Again, Fernando Perez' 'Life is to Whistle' was made with Spanish capital."
"Life is to Whistle," a Cuban entry, also made the front page of the Miami Herald and caused the Miami-Dade County to withdraw $49,000 in grants from the Festival. Why? A Herald reporter discovered the film violated a Miami-Dade ordinance forbidding any group receiving county grants from showcasing Cuban artists or their works. After all the recent protests about Elian Gonzalez, chaos was expected at the screening. Some streets were blocked off and cops, who were not as attractive as the NYPD, stood watch. Nothing happened though. No demonstrations, no bomb threats and no hurled epithets.
There might be a positive consequence, however. Rene Rodriguez in The Herald surmised that "'Life is to Whistle' makes the strongest case to date that it's time for the ordinance to be overhauled to include an exemption, even if it's on a case-by-case basis, for cultural events. The movie is a perfect example of how artistic expression cannot be categorized by politics alone." That's certainly true here especially since 'Life is to Whistle' is about three people who are miserable with their lives in Cuba, with one planning to escape in a balloon. This one couldn't have made Castro a happy camper.
Politics aside, there were stars. Well, not exactly the likes of Jerry Orbach, Tom Berenger or Keith Carradine, but good ones none the less. Amy Irving, star of "Bossa Nova" was there with hubby-director Barreto. And Jacqueline Bisset almost made it. She got to her first-class seating in a jet but was hit with bad back pain. Her director though, Jean Charles Tacchella, did show, and he seemed not to believe her medical excuse.
Tacchella, who's best known in this country for 1975's "Cousin, Cousine," was there promoting "People Who Love Each Other", sort of an Eric Rohmer film on uppers. Two couples are having trouble staying together because their philosophies toward love clash. Bisset is delicious as a ripe, free spirit and so is the direction of the legendary Tacchella who's been pals with Von Stroheim, Truffaut and Cocteau just to name a few. "You know I was trying to make films ten years before the New Wave," Tacchella recalls. "It was very difficult to make a first film back then, but everything changed with the Nouvelle Vague."
And what about today?
"You know in France, we like to make films," the master continued. "And we're making films even though we have not much money to do so. I think last year we made 180 films, which is remarkable because it's difficult to make a living with films there. I sold my furniture several times between making movies. But anyway, we have freedom to make movies there. It's not the same thing here in America, because here the cinema is an industry. According to the American law, the man who finds the money is the author. In France," he proudly declared, "the author is the director."
And in South Korea the director is Lee Myung-Se, but possibly not for long. In Miami to promote "Nowhere to Hide," his bedraggled-cop-pursuing-a-drug-lord thriller, Mr. Lee, through his translator, noted that he's been getting calls from Hollywood. So is he planning to learn English to take them up? "Yes." So someday he might be working with Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep?
"I really, really like Meryl Streep a lot personally. I don't know about Clint Eastwood though," he laughed.
That was enough of a warning not to ask about such Miami residents as Sylvester Stallone and Steven Segall, but then this duo was never in sight of the festivities. Once again the fear of the subtitle had separated the men from the brawn.