Latin Film's New Mecca: The 2003 Miami International Film Festival
by Brian Brooks
"Excuse me, where can I find the sun block?" I asked an employee at Walgreens on Collins Avenue in South Beach with amused satisfaction knowing I had finally escaped the bitter winter in New York. "El sol bloc es in la aisle seis," came the reply. I paused, then headed to aisle six, or was it aisle cuatro? Somehow, I suddenly felt a part of the cultural mix of Miami.
The city has long poised itself as a gateway to Latin America, mostly embracing newcomers from the Caribbean and South America and creating a multilingual city that seems to whole-heartedly look south. No surprise, then, that the new head of the Miami International Film Festival, Sundance veteran Nicole Guillemet, chose her first year as the festival's new director to capitalize on Miami's virtual birthright as a center of Latin culture to initiate a new program spotlighting Iberoamerican filmmakers (and also offer a market for such films).
"'Encuentros' is a working space for the next wave of filmmakers," Guillemet excitedly said of her new program, which coincided with MIFF. Miami Encuentros focuses on supporting the development of what the festival considers, "high quality, innovative cinema that reflects Latin culture." Guillemet envisions a market that brings together filmmakers with producers, distributors and possible financiers to nurture what she believes is a bright outlook for the genre. She pointed to the box office success of recent films including "Y Tu Mama Tambien," "Hable con Ella" and "Amores Perros" as examples of successful films in this genre.
Participants this year included "La Nina Santa" director Lucrecia Martel ("La Cienega"); "Aphrodite" (Fernando Solanas) based on a novel by Isabel Allende; "O Amore e outros objetos pontiagudos" by Beto Brandt, who won best Latin feature for his latest feature "O Invasor" at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival; Oscar nominee Montxo Armendariz, with a work in progress; "Familia Rodante" by Pablo Tapero; and "Changos en la cama, no," by Valentina Leduc, which is the only first film feature participating in Encuentros.
MIFF limited the number of participants to give the concept room to grow. "We'll set a standard this year and bring filmmakers and industry...[And] make it worth their time to come here, I don't want Encuentros to become a big program, so as not to lose focus," said Guillemet, who moved her festival career to the much warmer Miami after spending 15 years as co-director of the Sundance Film Festival. MIFF hosted a cocktail party on the first Thursday evening of the event to begin the dialog between filmmakers and industry.
Of course, Encuentros did not monopolize the scene during the festival, which took place February 21-March 2. The festival appeared to attract Miami's well-heeled for the opening night screening of Spanish comedy "El Otro Lado de la Cama" by Emilio Martinez Lazaro. Following the screening, the crowds headed to a spectacular gala at Vizcaya, a Venetian style mansion on Biscayne Bay founded by International Harvester magnate James Deering. Quite simply, even the most jaded film festival attendee that I spoke with admitted they were impressed. The immaculate gardens, spectacular views, and sumptuous and plentiful cuisine served outside the villa and on the waterfront were simply decadent.
Documentaries were a favorite in Miami, including Carlos Bosch and Josep M. Domenech's "Balseros," which screened the first Saturday at the beautiful Gusman Theater downtown. The film is a comprehensive doc about the lives of several Cubans who fled their island nation on rafts after Castro allowed them to leave briefly during the bleakest days of the country's economic meltdown in 1994. The audience completely connected with the subjects in the film, who not only opened their struggle to reach the U.S. on camera, but also shared their sometimes-grueling efforts to acclimate after arriving. The film won the festival's documentary audience award. Also screening in the documentary feature competition was Sundance 2003 film "The Education of Gore Vidal" by Deborah Dickson about the American literary icon; Jose Padiha's story of a Rio bus hijacking and the subsequent tense standoff between the police and homeless drug addict Sandro do Nascimento in "Bus 174"; and 2003 Spirit Award nominee "Stevie" by Steve James.
Screening in the festival's film premieres section were films including Spain's Goya award-winning "Mondays in the Sun" by Fernando Leon de Aranoa. The 2002 San Sebastian winner is the story of a closely knit group of laid-off dock-workers who are left to brave their anxieties and hopelessness. Argentine film "Kamchatka" by Marcel Pineyro also screened at the Gusman. The film is the story of a boy whose parents flee terror in the Argentine countryside following the coup d'etat in 1976.
Twenty-year-old director Brandon Sonnier's "The Beat" screened in the dramatic feature competition section. His film, which also screened this year at Sundance and the Pan-African Film Festival where it took the best first film prize, portrays a young man eager to fulfill his dreams of making it in the hip-hop world while balancing his father's wishes for him to become a policeman. He pursues both careers. L.A.-based Sonnier described his experience in Miami as, "Very very good." He contrasted Miami from Sundance as "a little different...[not so much] pressure to sell the movie, more relaxed. Sundance is the business of doing pleasure, and Miami is the pleasure of doing business. I'll look at your film, and vice versa, then we'll talk about it."
Guillemet said that encouraging camaraderie among the filmmakers attending MIFF was one of her aims. "My goals were to increase the audience base and to connect with the audience as well as have a wonderful connection between the filmmakers," she told indieWIRE. Sonnier said "Resistencia: Hip-Hop en Colombia" by Tom Feiling was among his favorites at the festival. The film spotlights the role of hip hop as a tool for political criticism and resistance in Columbia. "The Dancer Upstairs," directed by John Malkovich and starring Javier Bardem, about a detective who hunts down an elusive guerilla leader was also a favorite for Sonnier. He also mentioned "Eden" by Andrzej Czeczot, as "entertaining," although he commented he was still contemplating the film's (an animated philosophical look at good and evil through the history of the world) various statements. Regarding his screening, Sonnier said the audiences were a bit small, but attendees enthusiastically embraced the film, with significant numbers staying for lively Q&As.
Outreach and increasing attendance were among the festival's goals this year, following a sharp decline during last year's 19th edition. According to figures released from MIFF for this year's 20th anniversary, attendance nearly doubled from the previous year, with 42,000 paid moviegoers and an additional 8,000 attending free screenings. Crowds swelled toward the latter half of the festival and screenings at the festival's Regal venue were particularly popular.
MIFF has historically aspired to join the top tier in the film festival world since its creation in 1984. Along the way, the event is credited for introducing U.S. audiences to the likes of Pedro Almodovar, Lasse Hallstrom and Fernando Trueba, but has been overshadowed frequently by its own internal squabbling. Nevertheless, MIFF has a champion in Guillemet who seems to have the star-quality, determination, energy, and connections to evolve the event to the lofty position it has seemingly wanted. Articles appearing in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal on Guillemet and the event certainly didn't hurt this year.
Latin film has arrived with a vengeance in America, and Miami (the city) sees itself as a nucleus for its future. The city has even had the audacity to challenge that other Mecca of Hispanic centers, Los Angeles, in trying to lure the Latin Grammys. Miami's affluence, flash, and openness makes MIFF's place as an important showcase for Latin and international film a perfect fit. As for the woman at the helm...next year promises more Encuentros and, in a phone conversation following the festival, Guillemet said, "We may go for more documentaries in the future." She has also decided to move the event up a month for 2004, with the scheduled dates running January 30th - February 8th (entries for the event will be accepted beginning in August).
With the 2003 festival wrapped, she added, "I'm going to visit the beach for the first time in seven months."