“Miami’s Cinematic Dual Identity”: From Storied Past to Creative Frontier

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Graham Winick, Jaie Laplante, Kareem Tabsch, Andrew Hevia
As part of last week’s 3rd edition Miami Media and Film Market, presented by CAMACOL and 34th Hemispheric Congress, Miami International Film Festival (MIFF) executive director, Jaie Laplante; O Cinema co-founder Kareem Tabsch; and filmmaker & founding member of Borscht Corporation Andrew Hevia took center stage at Biltmore Hotel’s Merrick Amphitheater for “Miami’s Cinematic Dual Identity” panel, presented by Film Florida and O Cinema.  The lively discussion was moderated by Graham Winick, Film & Event Production Manager at City of Miami Beach, and revolved around how Miami is slowly but surely elevating itself beyond its storied past.

For the past four decades, Miami has been primarily a location destination, with plots and characters developed from what outsiders think about the city. There is now a “vision of Miami” emerging from the collective work of Borsht Film Festival’s “quasi-yearly event that showcases emerging regional filmmakers telling Miami stories that go beyond the typical portrayal of the city as a beautiful vapid party town,” as well as films that MIFF highlights, including four homegrown titles this past March: Eenie Meenie Miney Moe, a visionary new look at Miami’s mean streets, by Jorges “Yokes” Yanes; Calloused Hands, a Miami boy’s journey into manhood, by Jesse Quinones; Pincus, a drifting young man moves back to Miami to care for his ailing father and searches for answers to the mysteries of love and life, by David Fenster, and the brilliantly-acted comedy, Tony Tango, about a “sexcellent” Miami Latin dance instructor, by Manolo Celí.  Miami’s homegrown hit at MIFF 2011 included Magic City Memoirs, where director Aaron J. Salgado captures the texture and energy of this pulse-pounding tropical paradise as only a true insider could.

“Miami doesn’t legitimize anything until it’s legitimized elsewhere”, said Andrew Hevia, producer of local films, such as Amy Seimetz’s Sun Don’t Shine and “When We Lived in Miami”, and went on to share his belief that “it’s necessary for Miami filmmakers to seek approval elsewhere and then return to Miami once they’ve made a name for themselves, otherwise the level of attention is not as hot.”  “This may be true to a certain degree”, added Jaie Laplante, who believes “Miami filmmakers can launch themselves here at home and become national and international successes,” citing the example of Calloused Hands, which world premiered at MIFF and was recently bought by a NY distributor.

Michael Bay’s recent opening of Pain & Gain, about a trio of bodybuilders in Miami who get caught up in an extortion ring and a kidnapping scene that goes terribly wrong, is the latest Miami fare where “everyone goes, even though they like to talk about how much they hate it”, mentioned Graham Winick.

The Knight Foundation has been one of the city’s greatest assets from an infrastructure standpoint. On a wider scale, the business community should be able to see how film can transform a community, one person at a time, and hope it snowballs.  It has to be organic.  Thanks to the generosity of Knight Foundation, Ana Guevara and Leticia Jorge’s debut film So Much Water (Tanta agua), Grand Prize winner of MIFF 2013’s Knight Ibero-American Competition, got picked up by Film Movement last month allowing Film Movement to use half the grand prize money from the film’s award to launch the film through all distribution platforms across North America.

O Cinema in Miami’s Wynwood District was founded in 2011 with a $400,000 Matching Grant from the Knight Foundation.  Kareem Tabsch spoke of having to match the grant, “a challenging task during a recession, proving the matching nature of the grant would ensure a greater sense of philanthropy and support within the community.”

On the subject of budding filmmakers, “University of Miami prepares film students to move to Los Angeles once they graduate,” said Tabsch, “we need to make the ground more fertile here.” It’s an economic issue, which forces aspiring filmmakers to go elsewhere if they’re unable to earn a living, even if commercial production is lucrative but leaves no time for anything else.

The conversation transitioned from production opportunities to a wider discussion of Miami’s cinema culture as a burgeoning marketplace and exhibition hotspot.  Rene Rodriguez, The Miami Herald movie critic since 1995, recently acknowledged “Distributors that used to wait months before opening their movies in South Florida after they premiered in larger cities are now putting us higher on their list.” MIFF 2012’s audience award winner Juan of the Dead (Juan de los muertos) and Awards Night film, and largest grossing film in Argentina’s history, Chinese Take-Away (Un cuento chino) opened in Miami before New York and LA.  

Miami’s cinematic landscape continues to evolve from a cultural wasteland into a creative frontier.  — Tatyana Chiocchetti 

READ MORE >> Filmmakers: We don’t get no respect 

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Jaie Laplante

Jaie Laplante is the Miami Film Festival's executive director and director of programming. Learn more about Jaie on Programmers.