It seemed easier to find cocaine than a cup of coffee in Miami. In a lot of neighborhoods, the city’s scale is one for cars, and I found myself traipsing across overpasses struggling to find a bodega with a cup of Joe. When I did find coffee, it was usually Cuban coffee sweet and strong and in small styrofoam cups. But when I tracked down little white baggies instead, it didn’t seem like anything you had to hide. We were doing key bumps fairly openly parked downtown in my friend’s car, when she explained the cops aren’t likely to bust young artsy types. They see us on the right side of the gentrification invading the city.
I came down to Miami for the first time for the Borscht Film Festival. And already a day or two in, after nights spent swimming in the ocean and staying awake to watch pink sunrises on the beach, I was in need of caffeine, or something else, to stay alert during the film screenings. At an after-party following one of them, I was standing beside a gourmet taco truck parked in front of a bar in Wynwood, the neighborhood that over the past decade has been gentrified into Miami’s arts district, and found myself talking to one of the filmmakers Monica Peña whose experimental short Pink Sidewalks had played earlier that night and whose first feature Ectotherms also premiered last year at the Miami International Film Festival. Peña explained how the Borscht Festival was supporting a wave of young filmmakers, mostly first-generation Americans, the kids of Latin American and Caribbean immigrants, who are creating new mythologies for themselves as Miamians. She echoed the sentiment of one of the festival’s founders Lucas Leyva, “We’ve been saying since the outset: one of the things we have the opportunity to do is articulate the voices of a Miami culture.”
This year marked the ninth Borscht Film Festival. For a small grassroots affair put on by the Borscht art and film collective, its growth has been remarkable if not inspiring. “We were a group of young filmmakers who were making films in and about a city that had no place to show them and no one to help us make them better,” explains Leyva. “So the early festivals were just a way for us to support one another in making these terrible little movies and a party to screen them for our friends.” The fest this year, in contrast, was featured on the front page of the Miami Herald and thousands came out for its biggest night, where a selection of truly weird shorts played in the very high-brow Arsht Center—imagine a janky 3D rendering of Vanilla Ice’s face screening in a venue with an orchestra pit and four tiers of balconies.
That pirated Vanilla Ice appeared in the film Leyva co-directed with longtime collaborator Jillian Mayer. Cool As Ice 2 is their unofficial sequel to the 1991 hit Cool As Ice starring the Miami-born rapper. Since Ice refused the offer to star in their film, in DIY-style, they projected his face onto an actor’s using a cheap 3D face-mapping app. The resulting film is at once wildly clever, insanely absurd, and surprisingly emotionally compelling, as Ice has to come to terms with his washed-up celebrity and ultimately abandon his ego to sing “Under Pressure,” the song “Ice Ice Baby” sampled, though Ice denied it until he was sued for copyright infringement. Highlights include Ice saying to the literally under pressure sun, “What’s up son?”
Some of the other short films that challenged ideas of Miami as just a party city of blow, babes, and bikinis–stereotypes the first line of my article maybe regrettably reinforces–included Julian Yuri Rodriguez’s Lake Mahar, a nightmarish surrealist comedy about a white nuclear family in an increasingly Cuban neighborhood; Biscayne World co-directed by Michael Arcos, Ellen Hertzler, and the street artist Ahol Sniffs Glue featuring Ahol’s journey into Miami’s seedy underbelly of public transit; Stripper Wars directed by Giancarlo Loffredo an experimental film about a pole dancer overcoming her haters in a Miami club that flirted with sentimentality to deliciously jarring results; and Dolfun in which Chilean filmmaker Sebastian Silva’s dream to swim with dolphins in Miami turns into a hilariously deadpan existential crisis.
Countering insipid stereotypes of Miami has been Borscht’s battle cry since the beginning. “We inadvertently built an alternate model of filmmaking from the ground-up in Miami, creating a community of filmmakers united by a collaborative spirit and a vague ideology of ‘redefining Miami in cinema and vice-versa,’” notes Leyva. And that loose mandate has been what helped them gain a wide audience for films that are experimental, avant-garde, and just plain weird. “Enlisting Hollywood’s broad stereotypical portrayal of the city and the diversity of people within it as our proverbial boogeyman,” says Leyva, “we were able to gain the support of the community at large—packing these huge venues with people eager to see short films for and about the city featuring no recognizable talent.”
As Borscht has grown, Miami has also been changing and using the arts to promote its gentrification. While the film collective and festival have certainly benefitted from that momentum, they’ve stayed weird and avoided making the sort of sanitized cultural products that often come along with these sorts of changes. In the past few years, Borscht has received grants from the Knight Foundation, a private non-profit that, since 2009, has dumped millions into arts in the city—they have similar initiatives in Detroit and Philadelphia too. This financial support helps not just fund the Borscht festival but also many of the films that play at it through the collective’s grant program. Leyva insists that the Knight Foundation takes bigger risks in what they fund than similar institutions: “They aren’t just concerned about real estate value. They want an informed and engaged community.”
As much as the Borscht festival is about Miami, it’s also actively building an intra-regional community between other hotbeds for exciting independent film like New Orleans and New York. Some of the shorts that screened by non-Miami filmmakers included Swimming in Your Skin Again by Terrence Nance, Yearbook by Bernardo Britto, and Rules By Which a Great Empire may be Reduced to a Small One by Ray Tintori, one of the founding members of Court 13, the collective behind the 2012 indie breakout film Beasts of the Southern Wild. Filmmaking has been drastically democratized in the past years, and the diverse independent films Borscht curates suggest we are in the midst of an exciting moment for filmmaking.
“The gatekeepers have been mostly emasculated,” says Leyva. “No one needs to ask permission from the people in Los Angeles or New York holding the checkbooks to tell their stories.”