Enter the Soup Kitchen: Inside the Borscht Film Festival

In its ninth year (give or take), the Borscht Film Festival is single-handedly supporting its own cinematic scene.

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Enter the Soup Kitchen: Inside the Borscht Film Festival

Florida: Everything you’ve ever heard about this place is true. And Miami is its emblem of magical realism, a little piece of fantastical weirdness in the midst of an otherwise underdeveloped wetland. Miami defiantly flaunts its stereotypes, which popularly include eternal summers, neon clothes and lights, cocaine habits, exclusive parties, and “Miami time,” where everything runs between 15 minutes and two hours late. It’s called “the Magic City” with pride.

The Borscht Film Festival, which just concluded its ninth quasi-annual edition, aims to shed light on such Miami-centric stories and clichés, on the respectable and the corrupt alike. This year, attendees migrated like snowbirds from New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Los Angeles, and even the UK for the five-day affair, which was scattered across all kinds of bars and fancy hotels and performing arts venues and stripclubs nightclubs. Yet, those who schlepped by land and by air and by sea to this sprawling subtropical metropolis had to understand one thing first: these are Miami films made by Miami filmmakers for Miamians.

As a fest-goer, you must suspend both your disillusionment with Miamian stereotypes and your disbelief of the tales these Miamians tell, because these Miamian tales are exactly like the Miamians you’re bound to meet—they are usually attractive and often hilarious, but sometimes empty, obscene or absurd. You may not understand these films, you may not even like parts of these films, but the spirit of Miami is ingrained in the films of Borscht9. You must, simply, accept these films.

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The Borscht Film Festival began in 2003 when a group of high school students at the New World School of the Arts, a Miami-based public magnet school, organized a two-hour film exhibition that eventually grew into an open-sourced collective for local art films. Since then, some founders have stayed and collected other regional artists, while others have dispersed, taking their Miami-isms with them, but once every 18 months or so they reconvene in a celebration of home and everything their home represents.

This year, the events sponsored by the festival, in addition to the content of the films themselves, were super-Miami (bro). Borscht Corp. co-founder Lucas Leyva explains, “It’s not necessarily tricking people into watching art films, but in Miami, things need to be an ‘event’ for people to go. It’s really hard to bring people out, especially for good content. That won’t do it.” He continues, “We’re aware that we’re competing with a lot of other diversions in this city. We do have to make things entertaining and accessible, even if we’re making an art film or if we have serious things that we want to explore.”

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And so there were private events, like the invite-only welcome dinner at one of the last functional houses in Stiltsville, a smattering of houses built on stilts in the middle of Biscayne Bay that can only be reached by personal nautical charters. There were parties of all varieties—pool parties, beach parties, after-parties and secret parties cramming 40 people into a single hotel room in the middle of the night. Fourteen film events took place at a bar called Gramps. Another affair—a crowd sourced digital recreation of Brian De Palma’s 1983 thriller Scarface— happened at Mansion, one of the flashiest clubs in South Beach. Additionally, Borscht held three regional film showcases, organized a discussion panel on legal issues for artists, led a city-wide bike crawl, produced a laser light show, and even offered a Haitian machete fighting demonstration, all of which culminated in an event at Miami’s main performing arts center with 16 short films specifically commissioned for the festival.

It’s easy to be stymied by Miami’s stereotypes because Borscht embraces them so fully. In addition to reveling in its city’s shared inside jokes, Borscht is also inherently insular in its personnel. “It’s really like a fun network of friends that are all really obsessed with making things in different mediums…and we like to make projects together,” describes Jillian Mayer, a filmmaker and visual artist who joined Borscht Corp. about five years ago. Her works Hot Beach Babe Aims To Please and Cool As Ice 2, co-directed with Leyva, both screened at the main event this year. The former, which runs for less than a minute, parodies every slow-motion Baywatch shot imaginable of women rising from the seas and running along the shore. Mayer uses herself as the protagonist and adds a thousand mouse clicks swarming her with every step, emphasizing the click-bait nature of the Internet. That latter represents a fictionalized sequel to Vanilla Ice’s 1991 film debut Cool As Ice. Although Ice spent part of his childhood in Miami and has a storied relationship with the city, he declined to participate in the film, leading Meyer and Leyva to project a digitally-altered version of the rapper’s face on other actors.

The teamwork that Mayer describes, as well as their inward-looking mentality, serves as a boon for Miami’s burgeoning scene. As a small, ever-changing collective with only one full-time employee, Borscht members naturally have to support each other and the community that fosters them. “I think that the Borscht crew plays an important role in Miami and Miami’s emergence as an indie film capital,” says Dennis Scholl, Vice President/Arts of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which has awarded more than $900,000 in grant funding to Borscht Corp., to be distributed between 2010 and 2017. “I think Miami is one of the most interesting independent cinema places in America right now. Borscht has both made that possible with their own work and also [made it possible] for other people in Miami who have…a passion for making film.

“The thing that I find most interesting is that you have Miami filmmakers making films about Miami for Miami audiences, but that resonate—and really sing in a way—attracting international audiences.” Scholl pauses to laugh and ponder. He tries to explain: “Miami is an unusual place…It’s a complicated place. It’s a diverse place, in all the greatness and difficulty that comes with being such a diverse community. Filmmaking gives us an eye, a lens really, to who we are as a community.”

And the Borscht films that truly succeed get to the heart and the people of this complex city, much of which is lost to the outside world amidst its too often negative stereotypes. These are the films that have given Borscht a presence at Sundance for five consecutive years, and that have appeared at South by Southwest, the Vienna International Film Festival, Fantasia Film Festival and more. At Borscht9, these films included the two shorts Sundance-bound in 2015—El Sol Como un Gran Animal Oscura (The Sun Like A Big Dark Animal), directed by Ronnie Rivera and Christina Felisgrau of Bleeding Palm, and Papa Machete, directed by Jonathan David Kane. The latter, lasting no more than 11 minutes, explores the Haitian martial art of tire machèt, while honoring the machete fighting master teacher Alfred Avril. The local premiere took place at the Little Haiti Cultural Center and featured a tire machèt demonstration from Michael Dylan Rogers, Professor Avril’s first international student, giving a voice to Miami’s close, yet underrepresented Haitian-American community.

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“Borscht likes to collect a lot of really great artists,” Landon Zakheim, who programs short films for the Sundance Film Festival, said after leaving Borscht’s Multiverse, a one-night-only theme park replete with brainwave-reading experiments, a mechanical shark (whose tail broke off) that you can ride, and an inflatable polar bear slide, in addition to the films and video art. Although named for the short film The Adventures of Christopher Bosh in the Multiverse! Part 2, the absurdist, fantasy-like animated sequel depicting the Miami Heat star’s Earth-saving superpowers was cancelled last minute in typical Miami fashion. Instead, other local sports heroes, both well-known and less-recognized, appeared in Gil Green’s surrealist documentary Who Is Lou Gehrig?. The funny, inspiring and slightly tear-jerking short raised awareness for local sports coach Jeff Fogel—who was diagnosed with ALS—and rallied the community, collecting nearly 300 fan-funded contributions and featuring guest appearances from Miami Heat stars Udonis Haslem, Mario Chalmers, James Ennis and Andre Dawkins.

“The spike in vibrant stories coming out of Miami reflects a connected community of artists working to share their unique perspectives with the world,” maintains Mike Plante, Senior Programmer for Sundance. “We see that these multicultural artists are collaborative and supportive of each other, which we believe fuels continued creativity and sustainability.”

While the stories told in Papa Machete and Who Is Lou Gehrig? serve to unite diverse groups within Miami, it was Bernardo Britto’s five-minute animated, existential and Sundance Short Film Jury Prize-winning Yearbook that seemed to broaden those sentiments to a wider scope. To close the main event, Borscht once more asked the thousand or so people in attendance to suspend their disbelief as Britto’s narrator attempts to compile the definitive history of the human race before an alien missile destroys the planet. “They told me to focus on names, faces and people, and that history was made by individuals, rather than dates and events,” the heavyset, mustachioed protagonist states in a monotone voice. “’In the long run,’ they asked, ‘Who are the people that should be remembered?’”

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The self-contained narrative success of Yearbook also makes you wonder how Miami will be remembered when the seas rise, Miami Beach sinks into the Atlantic and the whole city succumbs to a tropical apocalypse. Will you remember the materialism and exclusivity, the times you saw Kim Kardashian during Art Basel or the dubious tattoos of Miami Ink? Instead will you remember the hometown heroes, the quirky locals, the diversity and generosity greeting you everywhere from little bodegas to massive sports arenas? If the Borscht Film Festival has anything to do with it: you’ll remember a little bit of everything.

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