Pictures from a city’s evolution: When the first edition of the Miami international Film Festival was held in 1984, the city was home to several single-screen cinemas devoted exclusively to art films, “Miami vice” would soon premiere on TV and forever change South Florida’s image. Big movie theaters such as the Wometco Dadeland and the Plitt Gables, with their 700-seat auditoriums and giant screens, were still the norm, even though change loomed large on the horizon (the then-state of the art Omni 6 was drawing big crowds).
A lot has changed in the ensuing decades. The art house cinema died. “Dexter”, “Burn Notice” and “CSI” took over as representatives of Miami on TV. Enormous multiplexes sprouted near every shopping mall and residential development. And the Miami international Film Festival repeatedly changed owners and directors, repeatedly bounced back from the verge of extinction, and grew larger than its founders ever conceived.
Whether or not the festival is now better will forever remain the subject of debate. But this much we know is true: as Miami Dade College prepares to unveil the 29th edition of the Miami international Film Festival, the city’s film culture is thriving. The local art house has returned: Four single-screen theaters now cater exclusively to specialty fare, and the crowds continue to get bigger. Movies that might have skipped South Florida altogether a few years ago now come to town for extended runs. Distributors of foreign language pictures who used to lump Miami in with Cleveland and Boise now see the city as a critical stop.
In other words, we’ve got our movie mojo back – and the world is taking notice. In the era of instant streaming, VOD and cloud storage, it is easier than ever to watch whatever film you want, whenever you want. But there’s something special about attending a festival – a sense of community, the thrill of discovery, an aura of ritual – that neither Blu-rays nor the multiplex nor the iPad can duplicate.
There is no mistaking the Miami international Film Festival for Sundance or Toronto or Seattle. There’s the emphasis on Spanish-language cinema, of course. But there is also a wild, unpredictable nature to the programming; the sense of being ahead of the curve long before the curve has been defined; and a penchant for a raucous, celebratory atmosphere – all things that are true of the city itself. According to recent polls and studies conducted by national travel agencies and publications, Miamians are less intelligent, less sophisticated and less cultured than the rest of the country, as well as really bad drivers. But during the ten days of the festival, all those findings are proven false (except, perhaps, for the one about the driving.)
The population in South Florida is transient, and locals have short memories. So it is worth remembering that Werner Herzog, Pedro Almodovar, John Waters, Fernando Trueba, John Sayles, Wim Wenders, Joel and Ethan Coen, Emir Kusturica, Abbas Kiarostami, Lars Von Trier, Abel Ferrara, Stephen Frears, Terry Gilliam, Robert Altman and Takeshi Kitano have all played the Miami international Film Festival. Many of them visited the city to present their movies, too. I grew up alongside the festival. I attended for the first time in 1985 – a midnight showing of Paul Morrissey’s scabrous comedy Mixed Blood. The movie was dark and violent, cheap-looking and amateurishly acted. It was unlike anything I had seen before. I loved it. And if I hadn’t caught it at the festival, I probably would have never seen it.
That movie hooked me on the Miami International Film Festival, and once I started attending, I couldn’t stop – long before it became my job to write about it. Under the guidance of co-founders Nat Chediak and Steve Bowles, the Miami International Film Festival was a huge formative influence on my film education. Under the guidance of executive director Jaie Laplante and Miami Dade College, the festival remains a source of pleasure and surprise and excitement for all things film. It also continues to broaden my horizons, confound my expectations and remind me that more than any other art form, movies are best enjoyed in the company of others. See you at the festival.
MARCH 2 – 11, 2012 | MIAMI INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
— Rene Rodriguez has been The Miami Herald’s movie critic since 1995.