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Miami Spice: Docs Add 'Sabor' to Florida 's Film Festival

By Jaron Gilinsky

From 'Musica Cubana.' Courtesy of Victory Media GmbH

In the late 1930s, due to its miraculous resurgence after near-devastation from a Category 5 hurricane in 1926 and the ensuing Depression, Miami became known as the "Magic City." Seemingly overnight, the city emerged from the swampy marshland that characterized South Florida 's topography, and over the next seven decades grew into a cosmopolitan, multicultural melting pot. 

This year, the city hosted the 22nd annual Miami International Film Festival, which screened 118 films over 10 gloriously brisk February days. Its film lineup was chock-full of compelling documentaries from all over the world--including Colombia, Tibet, Cuba, Israel, Iraq and even Iceland. Those familiar with the tumultuous recent history of the festival can appreciate how far it has come. Eighteen months ago the festival was in debt and in danger of going under. Based on this year's extraordinary films, record attendance figures and the buzz it generated throughout the city, the festival has made quite a comeback. More than 60,000 people attended the 10-day event, a 19 percent increase from 2004. The festival's success is a testament to the enchanting nature of the Magic City, a place that has come to embrace the unexpected.

Documentaries commanded a dignified presence at this year's festival, many holding their world or regional premieres. While the festival has typically been known as a showcase for Ibero-American Cinema, the diversity of documentary styles, themes and regions this year was inspiring. In the documentary What Remains of Us, directors Francois Prevost and Hugo Latulippe capture the courageous mission of Kalsang Dolma, who enters Chinese-controlled Tibet with a tiny DVD player and the goal of playing a recorded message to the remaining Tibetan Buddhists from their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. The Tibetans' emotional reaction to the Dalai Lama's message, whose visage is prohibited in China, is the heart and soul of this defiant documentary.

The Untold Story of Emmett Till, directed by Keith A. Beauchamp, tells the powerful tale of Emmett Till, a young African-American boy who was dragged out of his bed and mutilated to death simply for whistling at a white woman in Mississippi in 1955. Through rarely seen stock footage and chilling interviews of the boy's family and eyewitnesses, Beauchamp's film, along with Stanley Nelson's 2003 film, The Murder of Emmett Till, led to the reopening of the case 50 years later. This film was appropriately awarded the Special Grand Jury Prize for raising social awareness.

Of course the festival also featured a handful of superb Latin-American documentaries. La Sierra, which won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary, is a passport to the suburb of Medellin, Colombia, where years of bloody paramilitary wars have marred the tranquil landscape and enveloped the psyches of its inhabitants. Filmmakers Scott Dalton and Margarita Martinez, who compiled over 120 hours of footage from La Sierra and truly became a part of the town's social fabric, provide a compelling and disturbing glimpse into the lives of three teenagers who are intricately affected by this culture of violence. The filmmakers consciously chose not to place the story under any political or historical context, allowing the film to communicate a universal message about the absurd nature of war.

Musica Cubana is a docu-dramatic musical tribute to the talent of Cuban musicians. It is the continuation of the dream of German filmmaker Wim Wenders, who directed Buena Vista Social Club in 1999 and produced Musica Cubana to showcase Cuban music to the world. This film, directed by German Kral, creates drama that is partly scripted, partly spontaneous and conspicuously tongue-in-cheek so as not to overshadow the real story, which is about the spirit of the music itself.

Estamira, a documentary directed by Marcos Prado, producer of Bus 174, takes us back to Brazil to see and hear the tragic tale of Estamira, a 63-year-old schizophrenic and mother of three. The film's unsettling, but meaningful cinematography earned Prado a Special Grand Jury Prize for Best Cinematography.

This year's festival also featured a couple of documentaries on Miami itself. Code 33, directed by David Beilinson, Michael Galinsky, Suki Hawley and Zachary Werner, is a thrilling cinema vérité ride with the Sexual Battery Unit of the Miami Police Department, as detectives prowl the streets of Little Havana in search of a suspect who raped seven women ranging in age from 11 to 79 years old. The filmmakers cut though the yellow police tape and bring their cameras directly into the whirlwind of drama that surrounded the case that traumatized Miami in the summer of 2003.

Cocaine Cowboys, from Miami-based filmmakers Billy Corben and Alfred Spellman, tells the story of Miami's recent checkered past. The film shows how Miami became a haven for Colombian cocaine barons in the 1980s and, for a brief time, the drug and murder capital of the United States.

Aside from the films, the Reel Education Seminar Series, which ran in conjunction with the festival, had many events of interest to documentary junkies. The series included a weeklong tribute to one of the early pioneers of cinema vérité, the legendary ethnographic filmmaker and cultural anthropologist Jean Rouch, who tragically passed away last year. Hundreds attended the program, which included a panel and screenings of 10 of his films.

Budding and veteran documentarians alike attended the many seminars, including an entire day devoted to documentary. The morning session was entitled "Documentary Production: The Market, the Pitch and Making the Sale." After a delicious Cuban lunch, participants were able to meet and greet the producers and experts from the panel in the warm and friendly confines of Calle Ocho. The afternoon session, entitled "Show Me the Money! Navigating Through the Public Television Funds," educated participants about the process of securing funding through Latino Public Broadcasting. The next day, participants were invited to seminars on Independent Film Finance and Producing in South Florida. All of the panelists were engaging, well spoken and, more importantly, approachable.

The documentary has clearly made itself at home at the Miami International Film Festival. This can ostensibly be attributed to festival director Nicole Guillemet--the former co-director of the Sundance Film Festival--who took the reins in 2003. In her first year as director, she selected a large number of documentaries, nervous as to how the audience would respond. By the end of the week, she regretted not screening more. Guillemet admits to having a special place in her heart for the documentary form. "Documentaries are a pulse on what's happening in our world," she professes."These artists are creating films that are opening people's hearts and minds." The success of documentaries in the 2003 festival led her to increase screenings over the past two years.

The modern city of Miami was incorporated in 1896 by a group of settlers who were attracted to its agriculturally friendly and "frost-free" climate. Almost 110 years after its founding, Miami has grown exponentially in size, scope and sabor. This year, the Magic City graciously hosted a world-class film festival with a plenitude of fresh documentaries, ripe for the picking and frost-free.


Jaron Gilinsky is a freelance writer, documentary filmmaker and political activist. He is currently working on a feature documentary about the fragmented nature of Miami politics, entitled Grassroots: The Struggle for True Democracy in Miami.