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Miami Spice: Film Festival Captures Culture in La Capital del Sol

By Rossy Eguigure

Let's imagine for a moment that we are in South Beach, Florida, where there are big events happening all the time; it's an all-night-party city, full of beauty, music, art and diverse people. And there is the Miami International Film Festival (MIFF) going on here as well as in other cities of Miami Dade County.

For Jaie Laplante, the Canadian executive director of the festival, that type of attraction is his goal. He graduated from York University in Toronto and has lived in Miami many years, working for other major festivals before he became MIFF's director in 2010. Here in "La capital del sol," his major goal has been to produce a festival that reflects the world's image of a city of great culture and nightlife, and of course, a dynamic mix of Latinos. "One of our unique programming strands at MIFF comes from the unique, majority-Latino demographic of Miami," Laplante maintains. "A documentary like Lemon, about a Puerto Rican performance artist from New York, can take on a resonance and frisson that it might not have at another US festival."

Documentary programmer Thom Powers, who holds a similar position at the Toronto International Film Festival, brings those types of stories to the city. "At MIFF, I try to program films that I think will connect strongly with Miami," he explains by e-mail. "Since the city has such a strong art scene, it's a natural fit for films like Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry and Calvet, which also partly takes place in Miami. Other strong topics are music (Under African Skies), dance (First Position) and fashion (About Face)."

The festival happens at different venues around the city, including Calle Ocho at the Tower Theater, the Coral Gables Art Cinema, the O Cinema and the Olympia Theater at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts, site of most of the red carpet events. In addition, the Miami Beach Cinematheque, where the master class How to Turn Small Movies into Big Box Office Success was presented, is conveniently located along the Espanola Way, a small street full of restaurants with European style in Miami Beach. Attendees could also visit Miami's arts district and sample Artopia, a feast of fashion, film and music presented by the festival.


Artopia, one of the programmatic features of the Miami International Film festival. (c) Miami Internaitonal Film Festival



 "We had an amazing time in Miami," says Sabine Schenk, one of the co-producers of Katja Esson's Poetry of Resilience, which was shown together with Jim Virga's Beyond Assignment. "The festival has everything--fun, sun, great movies and great conversations with all the other filmmakers." The two documentaries were a "perfect match," adds Schenk. Poetry of Resilience is about six international poets who survived, respectively, Hiroshima, the Holocaust, China's Cultural Revolution, the Kurdish Genocide in Iraq, the Rwandan Genocide and the Iranian Revolution.


From Katja Esson's Poetry of Resilience



For Beyond Assignment, Virga travelled through Israel, South Africa and Mexico, filming three woman photojournalists. "The one thing different that I like from Miami is that you get such a nice diverse group of filmmakers," Virga notes. "And the people who run the festival make an effort to help the filmmakers to be able to spent time with each other and share ideas."

MIFF is regarded as the premier showcase for Latin American cinema in the United States, and always attracts viewers from other parts of Latin America. Gabriela Rivero, a famous actress from Mexico and a Miami resident, comes every year with her  Venezuelan husband, Kiko Ricote. Rivera says the closing movie from Argentina, Un Cuento Chino, was "one of the best parts of the festival. I think it is important for the city of Miami to have this festival. It shows other types of movies that you are not used to watching in the United States."  

Two of the main competitive categories are the Knight Ibero-American Competition and the Knight Documentary Competition. The festival's other programmatic strands include Cinema 360°,  Florida Focus, Shorts, Doc-You-Up, Reel Music Scene and the Ibero-American Digital Market (VeoMiami). Because of the large Cuban population in Miami, MIFF showcases a section devoted to visions of contemporary Cuban life.

 "I try to bring what I consider the boldest docs of the year, like The Imposter," Powers notes. That film, from director Bart Layton, earned the Grand Jury Prize in the Knight Foundation Ibero-American Documentary Competition. The Imposter tells the story of a French-Algerian, Frederic Bourdin, who, in order to gain entry into a shelter in Spain, assumed the identity of a teenage Texas boy who had disappeared from his San Antonio home three years earlier.  The family, overjoyed to reclaim their missing son, bring Bourdin home. It takes a private investigator to dig up the truth about Bourdin, who shows no remorse in the film about his deception.


From Bart Layton's Grand Jury Prize-winning The Imposter


Another Frenchman on the run, Jean Marc Calvet, came to Miami to work as a bodyguard, and disappeared with a large sum of money stolen from the mob. Hiding out in Central America, he kicked his heroin habit, learned to paint, and began a search for his son whom he had abandoned. Calvet, the subject of a documentary by the same name by British filmmaker Dominic Allan, now travels the world with his exhibitions. Allan says Calvet "is about human dysfunction and the ability to change--a message of hope and that it's never too late. People identify with the story." In fact, for Allan the biggest satisfaction has been the audience's response: "When you came out of the cinema, you see in people's faces how they've been impacted by the story. That's been very nice because you feel you're doing something worthwhile."


From Dominic Allan's Calvet


Calvet has been shown in more than 20 festivals and made the British Academy Film Awards' (the BAFTAs) Long List for "Film Not in the English Language." Calvet himself  advises others in his situation, "Don't be afraid. Little by little you'll find your way; bring everything out. I did not know how to paint, but [art] is a medium for emotional stability."

And with the art and glamour of Miami, the festival planners look ahead to 2013, the 30th anniversary of MIFF.

Rossy Eguigure is a writer, producer and Hispanic media consultant based in Los Angeles.