It’s a bit of a challenge to cover a film festival when you come down with bronchitis while also moving from one location in the city to another. Still, this writer gave it a go. The 34th Miami Film Festival began with opening night, Friday, March 3, which coincided with the day this guy’s movers arrived to the apartment three and half hours late to move the biggest items. Needless to say, I missed the film, Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer, starring Richard Gere, who made an appearance alongside the film’s director, Joseph Cedar. Still, there were many highlights to come throughout the week, including a few films without distribution that give reason for this festival to exist.
The next day, may have been the top festival experience for this writer. I volunteered to introduce Stéphanie Di Giusto’s debut feature, The Dancer, about the avant-garde entertainer Loïe Fuller, who made her mark on early 20th century dance via a technique using lights, a flowing dress and poles. The film’s writer/director was present, and she read a statement expressing her inspiration for making this movie, which came from seeing an uncredited photograph of the dancer that captured her in motion creating an effect that made her look like a budding flower.
The film makes for a strong feature debut. Essential to the film’s strength is the performance by Soko as Fuller and the cinematography by Benoît Debie. The dance sequences are incredible with Soko performing the works without any assistance from camera trickery, just the multi-colored lighting that Fuller designed for her performances. I thought that maybe di Giusto heightened the frame rate during these scenes, but she insisted she did not. She said motion is key in her film, and indeed even close-ups include intense moments of flowing movement that never feel obtrusive but only add the characterization of Fuller, a woman in flux both physically and personally. Soko’s performance is intensely moving. As a woman unsure of her sexual identity, she comes to find herself through the much more self-confident Isadora Duncan (Lily-Rose Depp).
The film has no U.S. distributor, so this was the only chance to catch it in Florida — for now — as it makes festival rounds. After a lively Q&A with an enthralled audience, di Giusto remains hopeful the film will see a commercial release in the U.S. More people should have a chance to see it, as it is a moving celebration of artistic freedom featuring strong women during a period where women were only beginning to assert themselves for equality in the arts.
The next screening I hosted at the festival was the following Monday. It also featured an artist working under oppressive circumstances of a different sort: communism. Afterimage, Andrzej Wajda’s final film before passing away in October focuses on painter Wladyslaw Strzeminski (played by Boguslaw Linda). It had its Florida premiere at the festival. Film Movement has this one, so it should be seeing a theatrical release quite soon. It’s a well made movie, and the legendary filmmaker tries to avoid the trappings of the biopic to make it less about the man and his work and more about a man oppressed by the authoritarian dictates and its impact on his life. It’s a subtle shift in focus that heightens the humanistic interests of the director, even while it detracts a bit from the film’s drama. The period setting is transporting and Strzeminski’s students are played by an affable group of young actors.
In retrospect, Afterimage felt like a bit of a lumbering drag, but it can’t help that I had just refreshed my memory of Wajda by rewatching Ashes and Diamonds, a film that remains his best, which I would later introduce at the Miami Beach Cinematheque as part of the theater’s on-going Wajda retrospective, coinciding with the Miami Film Festival, which also features a display of Polish film memorabilia (today they are showing Danton — find details here). That introduction went really well, as I received respectful attention, while I spoke about the film’s historical context and Wajda’s influence on American cinema. However, the previous night’s intro at MFF, for Mateo Gil’s U.S. premiere of Realive — another film lacking U.S. distribution, featured a bit of a hiccup when I tried to set the film up and someone in the audience started waving his arms at me to stop. All I told the audience was to keep in mind that this about a man trying to acclimate to a new world after being awaken from a cryogenic nap, and his strange, disconnected acting may have something to do with his alienation from the future world he awakes to.
After the screening, however, that man accosted me for spoiling the movie and said I was wrong about an alien. Clearly he was so distracted by the flaying of his arms that he did not even listen to my introduction, so there was no way I could have spoiled it for him. He spoiled it for himself by not clearly paying attention. But it speaks to this still nascent anti-spoiler culture of cinema-going that is part of the modern undermining of film criticism, which, when done right, opens the minds of the audience to films that don’t necessarily fit audience expectations. This is what I was trying to do with my one-sentence introduction.
The next day, I took off, but Friday saw my return to write a report for “Miami New Times” about the folks behind the local documentary company, Rakontur. “Straight Out of Miami: Rakontur Previews New Work” featured Billy Corben and Alfred Spellman in conversation with the festival’s documentary programmer, Thom Powers. They showed clips from five working projects, including a proposed series on Florida corruption, a six-part documentary from the Cocaine Cowboys Universe and, most compelling, an all new feature length doc that explores the connection between the Sept. 11 attacks and Florida. I wrote a lengthy report on the event for the “New Times” and encourage you check it out by jumping through the headline to the article below:
Besides some off-the-record social experiences, like dinner with “Film Comment”’s Violet Lucca, late night munchies with a group of filmmakers that included Corben and actor Steven Bauer and ha bit of hanging out with actor Javier Camara, believe it or not, that was the end of this festival-goer’s experience. Though illness and an unexpected last-minute move from one apartment to another cut into festival screenings, I did participate on a jury for the festival’s new critics award, named after Miami Herald critic Rene Rodriguez. I was able to watch several festival movies as previews, which often started off each of my mornings. My personal favorite being El Amparo, based on a true story about a group of fisherman from a small Venezuelan village ambushed by the military and framed as militants in 1988. Featuring incredibly natural acting and raw, handheld camera work, the film was compelling in all its humanism. This was probably my favorite movie at the Miami Film Festival. It’s a shame that it was yet another quality movie I saw at the festival without a U.S. distributor. The winner of our jury would turn out to be a Japanese film called Harmonium. Like Afterimage, it is being handled theatrically by Film Movement. It was high on my list, as well. The casual turns in plot were jaw-dropping. It was like nothing else I have experienced, so I was also pleased to have seen it win. But, overall, the strongest films I saw at the festival still need U.S. distribution. Here’s to hoping El Amparo, Realive and The Dancer get picked up. If not, look for them at film festivals near you.
I’ll leave you with the rest of the festival’s award winners, which were all announced by Sunday night:
Audience Award (Feature Film):
La Soledad (Directed by Jorge Thielen Armand)
Audience Award (Short Film):
“Havana House” (USA, directed by Gaspar González)
- Best Film Grand Prize: Family Life (Vide de Familia) directed by Cristian Jimenez and Alicia Scherson
- Best Director: Daniel Hendler for The Candidate
- Best Performance: Lola Amores and Eduardo Martinez for Santa & Andres
HBO Ibero-American Feature Film Competition:
Best Film: Maria (And Everybody Else) directed by Nely Reguera
Jordan Ressler Screenwriting Competition:
Best Screenplay: Tomas Alzamora for Little White Lie
Honorable Mention: Marc Crehuet for The One-Eyed King
Knight Documentary Achievement Award:
Take My Nose Please directed by Joan Kron
Zeno Mountain Award:
The Grown-Ups directed by Maite Alberdi
Short Film Award:
Best Film: “The Head Vanishes” directed by Frank Dion
Rene Rodriguez Critics Award:
Best Film: Harmonium directed by Koji Fukada
Encuentros Award (Works-in-Progress) Presented by Knight Foundation:
Tigre directed by Pucara Cine & Camocim directed by Ponte Producoes