Miami International Film Festival, a Warm Mellow Magnet for Filmmakers and Ibero-Americans
by Brian Brooks
"Now I understand the appeal of Florida," I told a friend after traveling south from freezing New York to warm and mild South Beach for the Miami International Film Festival, which began January 30th. Having grown up in Southern California, winter holidays to Florida were never high on the agenda, but after three winters in NYC, especially after this year's Arctic blast in the northeast, images of the beach, Mai Tais, palm trees, and standing in a queue for a film in short sleeves sans the penetrating winter chill excited me, despite having just returned from the nonstop adrenaline high of Sundance only a few days before.
Of course, Mai Tais and sun are all good and well for the state's huge tourism industry, which -- along with retirees -- is Florida's biggest economic mainstay. But the city also grabs headlines as one of the few remaining flashpoints in the cold war. During the first weekend of the MIFF, the Miami Herald ran headlines of a 5-hour speech made by Fidel Castro accusing the Cuban exile community in the city of plotting with the Bush administration to kill him. The stand-off with Cuba, and the memories of the Mario boat lift in the '80s, in which thousands left the island nation for Miami, are preserved in the Freedom Tower, a MIFF volunteer explained to a van-load of festgoers en route to the Hector Babenco tribute at the Gusman Theater in the city center. The tower, which is essentially Miami's equivalent of Ellis Island, was purchased for $4.1 million by Cuban-American Jorge Mas Canosa and restored after it fell into decay following its abandonment by the federal government.
Not surprisingly, Latin America in general remains a focus of the Miami International Film Festival. For her inaugural year at the festival helm in '03, Nicole Guillemet initiated the Miami Encuentros program spotlighting "Ibero-American" films -- projects from Latin America as well as the Iberian peninsula. Babenco's tribute mid-way through the festival brought out a large audience who crowded into the beautiful and cavernous Gusman Theater. The ceremony, introduced by Guillemet and moderated by Ilda Santiago, director of the Rio de Janeiro Film Festival, was not without its quirks. Some members of the "spirited" audience began to spontaneously clap when the Q & A with Babenco became lengthy, provoking a hush from Santiago. Still, Babenco maintained his humor, telling audiences he fled Argentina for Brazil (where he now lives) as a young man because he didn't want to serve in the military. He also revealed "Pixote" (1981) was never on the radar for an Oscar because "we didn't know how to fill out the applications."
Babenco's latest effort, "Carandiru," a drama set in the notorious true-life Sao Paulo prison of the same name, followed the Babenco chat. The audience responded well to the film, which cleverly adds a good dose of humor, despite its dark backdrop. After the film, the normally quiet downtown area of Miami echoed to the beat of samba, as dancers in full costume (actually, only a few threads of cover) lead the audience to an outdoor party nearby, complete with free whiskey, music and a promotion for the sponsor, a real estate company selling downtown lofts.
"In Miami, the audience was full of people from many different backgrounds [who] weren't especially interested in 'films' per se, but were more interested in seeing a good movie," commented "Born into Brothels" co-director Ross Kauffman in a festival van back to South Beach after the samba party downtown.I had briefly met Kauffman and his directing partner Zana Briski about a week-and-a-half earlier at Sundance where their doc, about fatherless children living in Calcutta's red light district on the sidelines, won an audience award for documentary. Kauffman contrasted the Sundance audience as more of a 'film crowd.' "In Miami, people had heard of the film, but there was a very much more relaxed tone to the buzz," he said. "Sundance was a media blitz [but] both audiences were equally accepting and seemed to enjoy the film." His observation fits with fest director Guillemet's vision that the fest should be "audience driven" as she described in a conversation with iW. One thing also worth mentioning about "Brothels" is that the filmmakers have sponsored a festival sale of photos of the children who are subjects of the doc, raising over $15,000 for their education.
The festival vans, which moved filmmakers, actors, journalists, staff and others between the Royal Palm Crowne Plaza Hotel in South Beach to the ornate Gusman Theater, provided an opportunity for people to connect. Also a social hub for the festival were the bars at the Royal Palm, which housed MIFF's headquarters. Lingering around talking and relaxing -- something that is encouraged by Guillemet -- were fest participants including "Good Bye, Lenin!" actor, Daniel Bruhl. The film, which won a best film nod at the recent European Film Awards, screened in the festival's world cinema competition. Bruhl had also traveled to Miami from Sundance along with "Lenin" director Wolfgang Becker. Becker described his experience at MIFF as "very laid back," and praised the audience. "Many of the people here are from Cuba, and they understand and appreciate the absurdity of communism," he said. "Good Bye, Lenin!" is a clever narrative about a boy (Bruhl) who shields his frail mother from the fall of the Berlin Wall by re-creating a Soviet-style wonderland in her apartment.
Also hanging around the hotel between screenings was Swedish director Mikael Halfstrom and actor Andreas Wilson from "Ondskan" (Evil). Their film, which also screened in the world cinema competition (later picking up an audience award), had recently received an Oscar nomination for best foreign language film. During the day, in fact, the hotel was a mini treasure-trove of European and Latin filmmakers and actors who no doubt would find it difficult to mill around with similar anonymity at home. According to Guillemet, about 90 filmmakers made it to the fest, which was a high priority for the fest. "We were fortunate that some of the [foreign] filmmakers that were already in the U.S. for Sundance were able to then easily travel to Miami," said Guillemet. "We make every effort to bring the filmmakers. It's all about the filmmakers."
'Ibero-american' filmmakers are a special focus of Guillemet's. Spanish director Pablo Berger traveled with his wife and kids to the festival for his sex comedy, "Torremolinos 73," which played in the fest's Ibero-American cinema competition. The film -- which, according to Berger, is still in talks with possible U.S. distributors -- is set in 1973 Spain as the country began to awaken sexually in the waning years of dictator Francisco Franco. "Torremolinos" is a multi-layered journey in which a former encyclopedia salesman and his wife fall into a career of porn. The husband, who stars in the sexual romps on camera along with his wife, discovers a newfound love for filmmaking, directing the graphic scenes with a "Bergman sensibility."
"Films are political," Burger told me in a chat during the final weekend of the fest. "I wanted to capture how people related then, as well as how puritanical and religious it was." Burger went on to say that the atmosphere then, contrasted with Spain's current mores where nudity and pornography are much more prevalent. "I spoke with James Redford (son of Robert Redford who was in town for his film, 'Spin') and we were talking about the loose morals of the U.S. in the '70s and how it was such a contrast with Spain then. I think to some degree, the opposite is true now."
Considering the fallout of Janet's breast exposure during the Super Bowl, which aired during the first Sunday of the festival, Burger's observation is probably not so far off the mark. Hot and sultry South Beach, however, is another story.