But like many old-school festival diehards, Trueba had not attended for a decade.
"I’ve been kind of detached from the festival, to be honest," he said from Madrid. "I don’t really know what’s been going on there."
That disconnect will change Friday night, when Trueba takes the stage at downtown Miami’s Gusman Center for the Performing Arts — almost exactly 10 years to the day after he unveiled Calle 54 there — to kick off this year’s festival with his dreamy new movie Chico & Rita, an animated musical set in 1940s Havana.
The film is an ideal fit for Miami: The mood at the Gusman will be ecstatic. More important, Chico & Rita is symbolic of a concerted effort by festival organizers to return the event, which runs through March 13, to its Spanish-language roots.
"I’ve lived here for 12 years, and most of the times that I went to the festival, my fondest memories were discovering those hot new Latin American films and filmmakers," said Jaie Laplante, making his debut this year as executive director. "I felt the festival had steered away from that a little bit. When I jumped into the director’s chair, I had to decide quickly what my take was going to be, and it was an easy decision to make. This is the way we’re steering the ship."
The 28th edition of the festival, which is presented by Miami Dade College, still features plenty of diversity. More than 100 films from 40 countries will be screened at several venues around Miami. Among the movies: In a Better World, Danish director Susanne Bier’s drama about the fateful friendship between two schoolboys, which just won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar; the French romp Potiche, director Francois Ozon’s sparkling homage to screwball comedy and female empowerment, starring Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu; and Magic City Memoirs, a coming-of-age drama shot in Miami by local filmmaker Aaron J. Salgado and executive produced by Andy Garcia.
But the overall emphasis is on Spanish-language cinema, from the festival’s Ibero-American competition, which includes nine films from countries such as Argentina ( No Return), Guatemala ( Marimbas From Hell) Colombia ( All Your Dead Ones) and Mexico ( A Stone’s Throw Away) to the World Competition (the Spanish entry Amador) and the Gusman Galas (including Cuba’s Marti: The Eye of the Canary and Spain’s With or Without Love).
Those sorts of movies were a festival mainstay during the event’s first 18 years, which were presided over by co-founder and director Nat Chediak. But after various run-ins with executives at Florida International University, which took over operations of the cash-strapped institution in 1999, Chediak quit his post in May 2001. Over the next 10 years, the festival ballooned — from a slate of 25 judiciously cultivated titles, all screened at Gusman, to a giant sprawl of 100-plus films at various theaters. It also bounced from FIU to MDC, which assumed sponsorship in October 2003; burned through five directors, some of whom only lasted a year; and alienated segments of the event’s most ardent audiences, who rejected the more inclusive yet less personal programming and the loss of the unique Gusman-only atmosphere.
Chico & Rita — which, coincidentally, boasts a theme song, Lily, with lyrics written by Chediak and Juanito Marquez — channels the spirit of the festival’s bygone days. Trueba directed the movie in collaboration with the Spanish designer Javier Mariscal and his brother Tono Errando. The film is a heartfelt, invigorating love letter to Cuban culture and Latin jazz. Using striking animation and drawings that are simple yet hugely expressive, it recounts the decades-long, bittersweet romance between Chico, a piano player and songwriter, and Rita, a singer, from Havana to New York to Las Vegas. Buoyed by an exhilarating score by the legendary Bebo Valdes, Chico & Rita melds its fictional story with real-life jazz superstars, including Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo.
"This is a visit that was inevitable and necessary, because I really want to share this movie with the Cuban community in Miami," Trueba said. "I’ve shown the movie in New York to an audience of musicians, and I showed it in Havana. And each time, people would tell me ‘This movie in Miami is going to be the bomb.’ At first that surprised me, but then it made sense, because a lot of the Cubans who live in Miami have Cuba in their hearts — the Cuba of the 1940s and ’50s."
The presence of Oscar-winning directors such as Trueba and Bier helps the festival anchor its roster of up-and-coming filmmakers with respected veterans. That mix draws press and industry attention to the event, a dynamic distributors seek.
"Miami has always been good to us," said Alex Garcia, vice-president of distribution for FiGa Films, a sales agency and distributor of Ibero-American movies. "Miami is where our first film Alice’s House won the Best Actress prize in 2007. That initial recognition served as a launching pad for the film’s successful run in 30 U.S. cities and helped place our company on the map."
FiGa Films is handling international sales rights for three films in this year’s Ibero-American competition. Garcia also singled out the festival’s invitation-only Encuentros program, which was created in 2003 and brings financiers and distributors together with filmmakers with new projects in various stages of development. The resulting movies often return to screen at the festival; this year’s slate includes four ( The Invisible Eye, Jean Gentil, Little Voices and Water and Salt).
"A lot of people, when they finish their film, don’t know what to do with it," said Diana Sanchez, a senior program consultant specializing in Ibero-American cinema who founded the Encuentros program with former festival director Nicole Guillemet in 2003. "Everybody just sends their film to Cannes. But I find that Latin American filmmakers are really interested in Miami, because it’s an ideal audience if you’re trying to sell to a Latin American market. Because there is such a focus on Ibero-American fare, filmmakers get a lot of attention, rather than getting lost in a festival that has a big Hollywood focus."
Sanchez, who also programs Latin films for the Toronto and Rotterdam festivals, says that more North American distributors are paying attention to the festival as a place to discover hidden gems. And even established filmmakers like Trueba, who premiered Chico & Rita at the Telluride Film Festival in September and has screened the movie in Toronto and New York, recognize Miami as an important stop for Spanish-language cinema.
"This movie doesn’t recount the story of any specific Cuban musician, but I feel like it tells the story of all of them," Trueba said. "And it tells the story of those who left and those who stayed behind. A lot of that will translate to the personal experiences of Miami’s Cuban community. The emotion for them is going to be tremendous."