In Miami, A Festival for Cinephiles, Showcasing Ibero-American Cinema
by Erica Abeel
It's just past midnight in Miami and the hookers are staking out Collins Avenue in front of the luxury hotels. Some of the plainclothesmen staking out the girls are also, as it happens, cops in "Code 33," a documentary about a serial rapist that magnetized viewers at the Miami International Film Festival (which ran February 4-13).
Somehow, things work that way in this town, a jumbalaya of unlikely yet compatible elements: cops smitten with show biz; art deco palaces like sets for "Aida"; bashes at the Versace mansion; nipple rings, octopus tattoos, a parade of cleavage fore and aft along Lincoln Road mall; Sushi and Santana; a church billboard promoting Godisstillspeaking.com; and the finest wheelchair access in the West.
It may come as some surprise, though, that this haven of hedonism is also home to passionate cinephiles, who pack farflung theaters to sample the festival's eclectic lineup of 118 films from 47 countries. MIFF bestowed a slew of awards this year -- most notably, a prize for Best Documentary to Scott Dalton and Margarita Martinez's "La Sierra" (Colombia), a gut-punch that documents a Medellin barrio on the front lines of Colombia's ongoing civil war, capturing a year in the nihilistic world of youthful destruction and despair. A Special Jury Prize for Raising Social Awareness went to Keith A. Beauchamp's "The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till" (U.S.), which probes that terrible unsolved crime. Best Dramatic Feature in the Ibero-American competition was grabbed by Josue Mendez's "Days of Santiago," about a former Navy seal adjusting to civilian life in Lima's slums. While Best Dramatic Feature in World Cinema went to Amma Asante's "A Way of Life" (UK). A stirring first feature in the style of Ken Loach about the wages of racism in the South Wales underclass, it has garnered kudos in the UK, also snagged the fest's FIPRESCI award, and should get snapped up by a savvy distributor.
Now in her third year at the helm of MIFF, Nicole Guillemet helped rescue the 22 year old fest from "the Cuban wars," infusing it with new vitality. She was delighted by the challenge, says the personable, chic Guillemet (always with a scarf affixed to her shoulder a la Teresa Heinz Kerry, a "Euro" look that must have freaked out the red states.) "I realized Miami was a city needing a major international film festival. Last year we had 40,000 viewers, this year 50,000 – though the group willing to get up in Toronto for the 8 A.M. shows doesn't exist yet." Russell Banks, juror in the World Cinema competition, sees a potential for the fest to go bigger: "its fortunes are tied to the city of Miami, which has become America's most international city, the cultural heartbeat of the Americas."
MIFF also differs from other festivals by catering to an audience, not industry. "When you're away from the business end, it gives you a lot of freedom artistically and psychologically," says Guillemet. At the same time, she sees the festival as a de facto distribution engine: if the film doesn't have a distributor, the fest becomes a showcase; if it already has a distributor, it becomes a marketing tool for the film. Squarely on the filmmakers' team, to nurture a film, Guillemet even gets on the horn with distributors and other fests.
Every regional festival needs a niche, of course, and in this Spanish-flavored city, MIFF stresses Ibero (Spain/Portugal)-American (Latin American) cinema. Though some have suggested we're looking at a Nueva Onda, or Latin New Wave, it's difficult to detect any unifying style or aesthetic to the Spanish language films. Says Guillemet, "it's just that "City of God" and "Y Tu Mama Tambien" had big B.O. and focussed attention on Latino film and those countries." Add to that the view of Walter Salles on the common denominator of some current Latino films: "they don't hold up cynicism as a universal value, which is the opposite of what someone like Tarantino does. Rather, they try to offer the possibility of change and a breath of optimism."
That said, you can't accuse most of MIFF's Ibero-American lineup of subtlety – their forte is raw emotion conveyed with bold strokes. Luis Mandoki's "Innocent Voices" (which screened on SuperBowl Sunday, managing to haul in "the real sports," as Guillemet joked) shadowed boys in El Salvador, who literally get kidnapped by the army once they turn 12. Based on a true story, the film was marred by over-the-top emoting worthy of Lillian Gish. And fuzzy politics: the U.S. financed the war in El Salvador that brutalized these boys -- but during the Q&A, the film's real-life hero, who escaped his native country, praised America (understandably) as the land of opportunity.
"La Carcel de la Victoria: The Fourth Man" from Dominican director Jose E. Pintor supposedly marks the debut on the global stage of Dominican film. Not so fast. This melodrama about an upperclass Spaniard who gets himself incarcerated in order to avenge his son's murder has the delicacy of a sledgehammer; and though the use of real felons packs a punch, the preposterous final twist smells of telenovela.
On the opposite side of the Ibero/American spectrum were films with a dry humor verging on dessicated. Mexico's black and white snore-mongering "Duck Season" gives new meaning to minimalism. "Whisky" by Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll (Uruguay/Argentina/German) can boast the most inauspicious start in recent memory, and deigns to gear up much as it follows a deeply morose sock manufacturer, who persuades his devoted spinster assistant to pose as his wife when his brother comes to visit. (Mirella Pascual as the poker-faced spinster, in a triumph of non-acting, nabbed Best Performance by an Actress.) "Whiskey" is redeemed by the end's gratifying reshuffling of fates. The Spanish "Alicia's Names" from Pilar Ruiz Gutierrez was awarded a Special Jury Mention. It's a superbly controlled erotic mystery with a touch of Chabol about a young English teacher/femme fatale who magnetizes an entire household. At heart a Catholic morality tale, it demonstrates how a community snuffs sexuality if it threatens to destroy the fabric of the family.
Given Guillemet's known affinity for docs, it was no surprise to find many issue-oriented entries presenting a panoply of the world's ills -- though with varying effectiveness. The children are definitely not all right. If they're not caught in the crosshairs of war, they're dumped by a society that's forgotten the social contract, as in the Japanese "Nobody Knows." "En Route to Baghdad" by Simone Duarte from Brazil, traces the career, until his recent death in Baghdad, of U.N. diplomat/activist Sergio Vieira de Mello, a man focussed on the Big Picture. But because it glossed over the personal life of this charismatic doer and friend of Kofi Annan, the account felt incomplete. "Code 33" focussed on Cuban-born policemen up against it when an elusive rapist terrorizes Little Havana, an enclave already leery of the cops. (The film provoked lively discussion when viewers expressed dismay at the filmmakers' voyeuristic camera.)
The idealism of the 60's was evoked by two dramas: German/Austrian "The Edukators" from Hans Weingartner, a standout at Cannes. And Rebecca Miller's lacklustre "The Ballad of Jack and Rose," which chews over a father/daughter symbiosis reprising the Parker Posey episode in "Personal Velocity." Despite luscious settings, the film is shackled by its cerebral concept and squanders the excellent Daniel Day-Lewis.
Two terrific entertainments presented dark riffs on the "Jules and Jim" premise. In the doc "Three of Hearts: a Postmodern Family" by Susan Kaplan (shown in Toronto, with ThinkFilm now attached), two gay lovers "marry" a woman, hoping to live happily ever after as a triad. What's not to like when a film delivers such zingers as, "I love the feeling of monogamy with more than one person." Film invites reflection on what impelled the threesome to air their dirty laundry, and must be seen to discover how three-way math finally plays out.
The other Jules and Jim tale gone bonkers was mockumentary "Mail Order Wife" from Andrew Gurland and Huck Botko, the fest's funniest, most sophisticated film (catch it March 11 at the Angelika.) An Asian beauty plucked from a marriage catalogue gets caught between two awkward men, one of them the filmmaker, who is supposedly orchestrating the action – but the whole thing spirals out of control. Inspired by Christopher Guest, the film creates a trompe l'oeil effect (what's real, what's "filmed"?) and invents a new type of narrative that includes a hilarious revenge caper.
The duo of nightly "galas" screened at the Gusman Theater in downtown Miami risked getting upstaged by the theater itself, best described as Nouvelle Alhambra tweaked with Key West kitsch, including twinkling stars and moving clouds, a peacock perched on a balcony, and an organist pumping out golden oldies. Unfortunately, the gala films were a mixed bag, many of them repeats from the fest circuit or earlier press screenings. "Modigliani," Mick Davis' opening night salvo, toplined by Miami native son Andy Garcia, landed with a thud. The biopic was wooden and amateurish, though Garcia made a credible tortured Amedeo, and oval-faced Elsa Sylberstein looked plucked from the famous portraits.
Far better was the lyrical but repressed "Ladies in Lavendar" starring Judi Dench and Maggie Smith (what's with the English? why couldn't Daniel Bruhl have gotten it on with both Dames?) Also impressive was "Heights," with Glenn Close in a dark dye job (and still playing sexual psycho) leading an ensembler about young New Yorkers on the make and a man torn between the safety of marriage and his male lover. Director Chris Terrio -- a James Ivory-protegee -- is a talent to watch.
The galas are problematic: on the one hand, Miami cinephiles get to see worthy films that may never hit the multiplex. But for press, it's often a case of literally déjà vu, more than once. (Some of these films seem to travel the fests like souls in limbo.) The challenge for Guillemet, of course, is to premiere the big films. "It's a real gynnastic act, you have to fit into the producers' marketing strategy," she says. "I was promised the Spike Lee film ["Sucker Free City"] before it goes on Showtime -- but then they gave it to Sarasota first, so here it's not a premiere. Fest directors should be more generous."
And MIFF has yet to work out some bugs. Miami sprawl and traffic made it hard to get to theaters beyond South Beach, and sometimes we were left stranded in bleak downtown. For the most part, the parties -- dark, deafening and under-catered -- sucked. Press presence was meager and this modest-size fest engineered few opportunities for interaction with filmmakers and jurors. The film "Cocaine Cowboy" about how 80's drug money made Miami great, was canceled not once but twice. On the other hand, whenever you got fed up, you could hit South Beach and race the motorized wheelchairs whizzing by, or mosey around for celebrity sightings. That ginger-topped munchkin in the café: Jackie Mason? And there's Jim Jarmusch, moony eyed over juror Sara Driver at the Loew's party. But where was Ted Hope, whom everyone wanted face time with?
Though still a work in progress, Miami succeeds on its own terms, bringing cinema, through an ambitious outreach program, to such communities as Little Havana, along with film students at Miami Dade College, the largest community college in the U.S. And it managed to lure south Liv Ullmann for its Career Achievement Tribute at the Gusman. Starting with a medley of clips (glimpsing her in "Persona" with Bibi Andersson summoned up a whole era), the evening continued with a Q&A, then a screening of Ingmar Bergman's "Sarabande." Ever luscious, Ullmann extolled the pleasures of Miami ("I'd expected ladies with blue hair, and instead I see beautiful big breasts"), and regaled the audience with anecdotes about working with the "genius" Ingmar Bergman, who called her his Stradivarius. A final reflection crystalized our reason for coming. "As a director or actor you create an imaginary world that is more true than the real world."