The first edition of the Borscht Film Festival wasn’t even called Borscht. It was 2004, and a group of artistically inclined Miami friends got together to make short films and performance art, unveiling their works at a two-hour festival called “Smudged” at the New World School of the Arts.
The gang had so much fun they decided to do it again the following year, this time at the Miami Shores Performing Arts Theater. December 2005 was the first time the Borscht Film Festival title was used.
“There isn’t a particular reason why we named it Borscht,” says Lucas Leyva, a founding member of the Borscht Corp., the artists’ collective that puts on the event every other year. “We just thought it was a fun, dumb name for something that was only going to happen once. We never thought anyone would ever notice.”
Flash-forward nine years. Today, Borscht has become synonymous with the filmmaking community in Miami. This year’s event, which runs Wednesday through Dec. 21, will feature not just movies but workshops, panels, retrospectives, bike crawls, secret screenings, pool parties, a spaceship launch, laser light shows, parties, after-parties and a crowd-sourced remake of Scarface, consisting of 15-second chunks of the film reimagined in various media by South Floridians.
With its broad reach, user-friendly interactive events and atmosphere combining irreverence and serious art, Borscht has become the crown jewel in a now-burgeoning Miami filmmaking scene.
And the world is taking notice.
“What we have going on right now is something we can call the Miami Wave [a play on the French New Wave],” says Dennis Scholl, vice president/arts for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation — which has supported Borscht with a grant of $900,000 spread out from 2010 to 2017 to help the group commission films.
“We have Miami filmmakers telling Miami stories to Miami audiences, but in a way that is also resonating internationally,” Scholl says. “Fueling the scene is the fact that we have seven thriving independent arthouse cinemas now, which provide venues for filmmakers to show their work. Jaie Laplante (executive director of the Miami International Film Festival, presented by Miami Dade College) has taken that festival and broadened it to include every segment of our community. WLRN is making documentaries about Miami. WPBT is broadcasting a lot of local shorts and then pushing them out to public TV stations across the nation.
Scholl compared the phenomenon with Miami’s internationally renowned visual arts scene, “which emerged through private spaces and went on to blow up via things like the de la Cruz Collection Contemporary Art Space and Art Basel.”
Scholl, himself bitten by the filmmaking bug, wrote and co-directed Deep City: The Birth of the Miami Sound, a documentary about the early days of soul music in South Florida. “This is an independent filmmaking community that has embraced the artistry of their craft and aren’t just doing it as a way to get a foot inside the Hollywood film industry.”
For the fifth year in a row, Borscht will represent Miami in the short film competition at the Sundance Film Festival in January. Papa Machete and El sol como un gran animal oscuro were two of the 60 movies selected out of more than 8,000 submissions.
“We’ve noticed a consistency in films from Miami that is very different from the ones coming out of New York or Los Angeles,” says Mike Pope, senior programmer/short films at Sundance. “They’re very pure. They reflect a real understanding of the film world and a knowledge of the art world. They are inspired by all kinds of different things, and they don’t seem to worry what the rest of the world thinks.”
Positive international reaction is flowing in. Yearbook, screening at Borscht this year, won the Jury Prize at Sundance in January. Life and Freaky Times of Uncle Luke, Leyva and Jillian Mayer’s animated remake of the classic 1962 La jetée reimagined with Miami rap artist Luther Campbell, was listed as one of the “25 Essential Shorts from the Last 100 Years of Cinema” by the film website fandor.com. #PostModem, another 2012 collaboration between Leyva and Mayer, screened at New York’s Museum of Modern Art as part of Filmmaker magazine’s annual retrospective. In February, the Glasgow Film Festival presented a Borscht Retrospective as part of their program.
Borscht’s success has inspired other local filmmakers to form their own collectives and collaborate on each other’s projects. There are also other production firms, artists and documentary makers who continue to keep the local film scene thriving. Among them:
- Papa Machete director Jonathan David Kane, who had worked on films in such far-flung locations as Antarctica and Asia, first heard about the obscure art of Haitian machete fencing from his friend and collaborator Jason Jeffers, who learned about the sport while reading a thread on reddit.com. Jeffers, who served as executive producer on the film, was so inspired by the entire experience that he applied for and won a $50,000 grant from the Knight Foundation to create Third Horizon Media, a Miami-based branch of an artists’ collective that will showcase Caribbean culture through music and films.
“The real magic that happened was that after we finished the film, Jonathan introduced me to Lucas and they allowed me to work on some of their other films,” Jeffers says. “What they’re doing for Miami film, we want to do for Caribbean film. We want to use their same model of providing resources and infrastructures for artists. We want to become a hub for the Caribbean diaspora, and we’ll be putting a lot of what we’ve learned from them into what we do.”
- The Indie Film Club Miami, launched in 2012 by executive director Diliana Alexander, is a member-based group of 100 filmmakers who host a monthly screening of their latest works at O Cinema Wynwood titled “I’m Not Going to Move to L.A.” Group member Kenny Riches just unveiled his debut feature The Strongest Man, about a Miami Cuban who sets out to find his stolen bicycle. It has been accepted by Sundance and will screen in the festival’s “Next” program, which is described as “pure, bold works distinguished by an innovative, forward-thinking approach to storytelling.”
- The Miami Filmmakers Collective, founded in part by Ali Codina (whose documentary Monica & David aired on HBO and won Best Doc at the Tribeca Film Festival) and Juan Carlos Zaldivar (director of several films including 90 Miles, The Story of the Red Rose and Soldiers Pay) is a smaller organization that curates and produces year-round programming. It played a critical role in bringing the Sundance Institute’s first flash lab “New Frontier,” which explored the convergence of technology and storytelling, to Miami in February.
“I think what Borscht is doing is fantastic,” Codina says. “It’s a wonderful way to energize people who not only want to make films but also people who love to watch them. Just knowing they have lots of peers in Miami inspires people. I think Borscht is also not an intimidating environment. It’s a friendly environment that encourages a lot of creativity. They’re bringing together all these people who might have been working on their own out of their garage and inspiring them to get out there in front of an audience and show their work.”
- The production company rakontur (Cocaine Cowboys), founded by Billy Corben and Alfred Spellman, shot a mini-series for VH1 on the impact of hip-hop on American culture in February and just premiered their latest ESPN sports documentary, The U Part 2, which Variety described as possessing “an almost epic quality in documenting the f
all, rise and fall of the University of Miami’s football program.”
- Common Machine, another production company with offices in Miami and Chicago, makes corporate videos to fund personal projects such as Plastic Paradise, a look at the history of Tiki culture in America that was shot largely at the Mai-Kai restaurant in Fort Lauderdale.
- Miami native Jill Bauer, a former reporter for the Miami Herald, and co-director Ronna Gradus, a former Miami Herald photographer, have just completed their second film, the documentary Hot Girls Wanted, about the supply and demand of the adult film industry. The movie has been accepted into the Documentary Competition category at Sundance. Filmmaker Rhonda Mitrani opened The Screening Room, a Wynwood exhibition space for film and video installations and new media artworks in May 2013, and is preparing to collaborate with Kane, the director of Papa Machete, on a new movie in the spring.
- After graduating from the University of Miami’s film program, Harlem native Rachelle Salnave decided to stay in Miami and has completed several features, including La belle vie (The Good Life), a documentary about her search to connect with her Haitian roots and ancestry, and is working with Florida International University, O Cinema and the Little Haiti Cultural Center to create a traveling series of documentaries about the plight of Haitian exiles and their assimilation into the United States that would be screened at various venues across South Florida.
“Working in Miami, you find so many stories to tell and so many different workshops and groups that can get you access to filmmaking equipment,” Salnave says. “I’ve been here for three years now, and the indie film scene has been growing really fast. Miami is not usually deemed a place to be if you want to be a filmmaker, but I love how people are turning their backs on L.A. and making a name for themselves here instead.”
But the greatest international attention is going to Borscht. Josh Penn, a member of the New Orleans artists collaborative Court 13, which made 2012 Best Picture Oscar nominee Beasts of the Southern Wild, visited the last Borscht festival and came away impressed.
“What Borscht is doing is one of my favorite things … right now,” Penn says. “They’re among the forefront of regional filmmaking in the country, telling stories that are very specific to place but also universal, stories that aren’t mainstream but emotionally accessible.” “I was blown away by the uniqueness and the energy of the event. It’s really off-center, but they’re still able to fill that huge opera house.”
The creators of Borscht say they are delighted that the diversity, range and ambition of Miami’s film scene is continuing to expand.
“It’s a crazy feeling,” Leyva says. “Growing up in Miami, I never thought it would be an option to have a fulfilling creative life here. But the experiment seems to be working.
“All these new filmmakers are coming out of Miami and the quality keeps getting better. Jillian and I just received a $50,000 grant to help fund a film and we’re already raising additional money. Barry Jenkins [who contributed a short film, Chlorophyll, to the 2011 edition of Borscht] is coming back to shoot a film in the spring. So we’ll have at least two features for Borscht 10.
“There’s a larger cultural acceptance of art in Miami today than there’s ever been. [Knight Foundation president] Alberto Ibargüen has made it his mission to make art ingrained into the fabric of Miami, and he’s been very successful. And since we are outside the traditional art and film worlds, our audience has to be Miami. We know there are so many other things people could be doing — going to the beach, having fun outdoors — that if we’re going to ask for their time and attention, we have to entertain them as much as possible. So even if you’re working on a conceptual artsy level, you still have to put on a good show. And for every esoteric film we make, we also make really accessible ones. We try to do something for everyone.”
The ninth Borscht Film Festival runs Dec. 17-21 at various venues around Miami. For a complete schedule of events, visit www.borscht9.com.
Check out a previously unreleased Borscht Film Festival short below:
Velvet (2010) by Peter Glanz
Conrad loves Beatrice while Beatrice loves herself. Together, they make for an odd pair, one unable to express his emotions, the other unable to contain them. Velvet is the story of their relationship and the crushed velvet jacket that comes between them. Stylish and sharp, the movie recalls the French New Wave and the early dramas of Woody Allen.