Say hello to my little film festival

Certain cities become victims of their own representation in the press. Right or wrong, when a story sells, the media will tell it. For the city of Miami, the story that has historically sold best is Scarface – cocaine and Cuban kingpins, guns, and women with oversized breast implants in string bikinis on South Beach. The story told in the media was both sordid and sexy, and Miami itself came to represent the most exotic kinds of scandal in America.

“In mainstream media Miami is represented as cocaine, guns, and fake breasts on South Beach,” says Lucas Leyva, creative director of the Borscht Film Festival. “But there is a more vibrant culture and more interesting narratives here than depicted in the media.”

Leyva grew up in Miami and always wanted to leave. He and his friends didn’t think they could have a viable arts career in the city, where, at the time (before Art Basel had become an international phenomenon), there was little in the way of infrastructure for working artists. But he also found the city deeply inspiring. “What a weird city it is,” he remarks. “It’s like living in a real-life Gabriel Garcia Marquez surrealist novel.” In Miami, he says, iguanas live in the trees, but when a cold front comes in the iguanas fall into a state of suspended animation, causing them to rain down from the trees – absolute surrealism that is simply a part of life in Miami. “I find these sort of things that would be fiction anywhere else but common in Miami inspiring to me.”

Leyva and his friends were in school studying film at the New World School of the Arts public performing arts school when they started the Borscht Film Festival in 2004, in response to the lack of independent film culture that was in Miami at the time. “There was no infrastructure in place for young people wanting to do something like this in Miami,” he says. There was only one art house cinema in Miami and it has its own independent film festival every year, but they weren’t interested in local filmmakers, so Levya and his friends started their own.

“We were just a bunch of students who were really interested in making a film program [at our school,” Leyva explains. “We would make movies and wanted to share them with each other, so we would do screenings in classrooms and auditoriums after hours.” Those screenings were the beginning of Borscht. “We never thought so many people would turn out to see these little films about the city made by these kids who weren’t really good at making films, but the interest was there. We would sell out [screenings in these] underutilized spaces because the interest was there.”

When the Borscht founders graduated they all went to different schools. Leyva went to New York to attend Fordham University and returned to Miami after he graduated in 2008. That was when the bottom fell out of the economy and a lot of young artists were returning home to Miami. Art Basel was also gaining momentum. “It was a really incredible time to move back to the city,” he says. “For the first time ever we took the festival more seriously. We sold out a 1,600-seat theatre. Tickets were being scalped! It was an insane thing.”

Something else pivotal to the growing independent film culture happening worldwide also occurred during that time: tremendous improvements had been made in the quality and affordability of digital recording devices, from DSLR cameras with video capabilities to the latest smartphones. Filmmaking was no longer solely the domain of those who could afford it.

“The means of production have been democratized so now anyone can make something that looks really good and tell stories without having to go through the [industry] gatekeepers,” says Leyva. He mentions Beasts of the Southern Wild as one of the best recent examples of a film made on a shoestring budget that became a critical success and went on to receive Oscar nominations and a pile of other awards, underscoring the fact that a filmmaker no longer needs to be working within the Hollywood system to find success.

Now the team at Borscht Corp. doesn’t just screen films at their own festival; they actively help create them. Many of the films screened at the Borscht Film Festival are commissioned specifically for the festival and produced with the festival’s assistance. Films run the full gamut from experimental shorts to short narrative features. Last year they helped make 18 films ranging from 60-second shorts that cost a few hundred dollars to produce to bigger, more traditional fleshed-out narratives that run 15-20 minutes.

“Because there’s such a vibrant visual arts community here we like to work with those artists and translate that to film,” Leyva says. For example, there are more than a few psychedelic “coral morphologic” films in their repertoire, and those were screened on the second-largest outdoor screen in North America. On the opposite end of that, they also made a musical.

Borscht assists filmmakers with a lot of the hard logistics, the things that are necessary to filmmaking that a lot of independent filmmakers don’t quite know or understand – the “infrastructure” Leyva speaks of. This might include assisting filmmakers in negotiating rates for rental houses for shooting, getting insurance, borrowing microphones, and finding additional shooters for the director.

In the last four years, films co-produced by Borscht have screened at hundreds of festivals around the world, including Sundance. Borscht was also invited to screen a selection of shorts from the festival’s history at the 2014 Glasgow Short Film Festival. Leyva is still in awe of that. “If you would have told me people cared about these weirdo Miami stories…”

Borscht Corp. has received significant funding from the Knight Foundation to create the Miami Independent Cinema Fund and to help the Borscht Film Festival make Miami a center for independent filmmaking, which Leyva says also gave them legitimacy.

The group is now transitioning to a year-round organization to continue to fill out the infrastructure gaps in Miami’s independent film industry and create year-round programming like “Borscht Nites,” the “Borscht High School Program,” and the “Borscht Visiting Filmmaker Residency.” Right now the festival is held every other year and is coming up once again this December, two weeks after Art Basel.

“It always goes back to when we actually started as kids in high school,” says Leyva. “Now there are kids in Miami making things that go around the world. More than anything else we do, putting Miami stories and filmmakers on a pedestal has helped spur the Miami film community’s growth. We’re not the only ones doing this in Miami anymore, and that’s awesome. Now there are six or seven independent cinemas here; there are other film collectives. Now we know if we can’t help someone directly, we probably know someone who can.”

Leyva remembers that in the early days the general population wouldn’t show up in big numbers to the festival. In the past they would rent out the biggest theatre they could afford for one night only; now the festival is a week-long affair and most recently they rented (and sold) out a 2,400-seat opera house for their main screening featuring their own commissions that are intended for the whole Miami community. (Other screenings include regional showcases intended more for the hardcore indie film fans.)

“I feel like a lot of times cultural events in other cities [feel alienating]; we felt very strongly about making the screening an event that’s a one-time thing. [People go because] all their friends are going, even though no one’s heard of these filmmakers and we’re not working with anyone they’ve heard of. We sell the idea of the content, [which is Miami films for a Miami audience]. Film is a great way to make art more accessible. It’s been a great entry point to Miami’s art scene for a lot of people.”

For this year’s festival, they’re taking on the film that for 30 years has been the stereotype that has largely defined Miami in the media: Scarface. “Miami is sold by [this film’s] imagery,” says Leyva. “We cut the movie up into 600 15-second chunks and each filmmaker will remake a 15-second chunk using Legos or a cell phone camera or whatever. Then we’ll put it all back together to ‘take back the image’ of the film. We hope to screen the whole finished product. It might be a disaster, but it’s a fun experiment!”

Any filmmakers interested in participating in the Scarface Redux global collaborative effort can check it out here