“Glocal” is the key word for the Miami Dade College’s Miami Film Festival as the annual event provides a platform for both local and global projects. Of the 93 international submissions to the Oscars, the Florida fest has picked seven films “that moved us and that would speak powerfully to our Miami audience,” says festival executive director Jaie Laplante, who leads a selection committee alongside programming co-director, Lauren Cohen.
“We’ve always thought it important to look out for films by female directors but it wasn’t at all difficult this year,” says Cohen about the festival’s lineup, which includes nearly 100 shorts and features from some 40 countries.
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This year’s 38th edition, which takes place March 5-14, and for the first time in its history, runs before the Oscars, includes international film shortlisted contenders “La Llorona,” “Sun Children,” “Quo Vadis, Aida?,” “Charlatan,” “The Mole Agent” and “Night of the Kings.”
Variety’s awards editor Clayton Davis will moderate a roundtable with international filmmakers March 5 and it will stream on the magazine’s website.
The festival shines an even brighter light on the works of local filmmakers and has chosen the feature debut of Miami resident Edson Jean, “Ludi,” to open the festival. The documentary “Birthright” by Emmy-winning Miami-based director Jayme Kaye Gershen will screen closing night.
“I’m thrilled to see what’s been emerging from here,” says Laplante. “It’s very humbling to open a festival that represents my hometown,” adds Jean, whose film is based on his mother’s early experience as a nurse/caregiver not long after she moved to Florida from Haiti.
Co-written by Jean and Joshua Jean-Baptiste, “Ludi” follows a young nurse as she struggles to make ends meet and send money home. Florida is home to the largest Haitian population in the U.S., says Jean, who sees how his film speaks of the immigrant experience on the whole. “Ludi” is the first film to emerge from Miami’s Oolite Arts Microbudget Feature Film Cinematic Arts Residency program, established in 2019.
“Birthright” deals with the issue of identity as Miami-bred electro-pop musicians, Afrobeta, are invited to perform in Havana but whose Cuban parents are against the idea. The urge to visit their parents’ homeland sets them off on a journey to discover their Cuban roots.
Both films compete for the generous $40,000 Knight Made in MIA Feature Film award, granted to films mainly shot and set in South Florida, along with Maria Corina Ramirez’s “Bridges” and documentary “Cuban Dancer” by Roberto Salinas.
Ramirez directed, produced and stars in “Bridges” where Maria Cecilia, a high school valedictorian from Venezuela growing up in Miami struggles with her fate and her identity as graduation day looms.
“Cuban Dancer” revolves around Alexis, a former student of the National Ballet School of Cuba.
A number of the 15 foreign films to make the shortlist in the 93rd Academy Awards’ international features category have screened either in the festival’s 2020 edition or are slotted in this year’s hybrid edition.
Guatemala’s “La Llorona” by Jayro Bustamante, winner of the festival’s 2020 Knight Marimbas award; Chile’s “The Mole Agent”; and Ivory Coast’s “Night of the Kings” are among the current shortlisted contenders that were programmed at last year’s event.
Some titles were chosen for their filmmakers’ previous ties with the festival. These include Oscar-winner Fernando Trueba, a festival favorite, whose latest film “Memories of My Father” represents Colombia this year. Trueba (“Belle Époque”) won the festival’s 2001 Audience Award and was given a major tribute for its 30th anniversary.
In “Memories,” Spanish actor Javier Cámara, who will receive the festival’s Precious Gem Award, plays Dr. Héctor Abad Gómez, a prominent Colombian doctor and human rights activist who spearheaded public health programs in his country before he was gunned down in 1987.
Dominican Republic helmer Leticia Tonos, whose past two films, “Cristo Rey” and “Juanita,” have screened at the event, is thrilled to have her “A State of Madness” in the select lineup.
“Ever since I made my first film, ‘La Hija Natural,’ I’ve always felt that our stories should reach beyond our shores; it’s been a torturous, sometimes painful, but always steadfast journey,” she says. “No Caribbean film has yet been nominated and that’s a challenge myself and my colleagues in the Dominican Republic are willing to take.”
“A State of Madness,” based on the memoir “Mis 500 Locos” by Dominican psychiatrist Antonio Zaglul, is set in 1953 during the nefarious dictatorship of Leonidas Trujillo. In the film, Zaglul recounts the pressures he faced as the new director of a mental institute. A London Film School alumnus, Tonos has repped her country twice before at the Oscars with her first two films, “La Hija Natural” and “Cristo Rey.”
Choosing Iranian Majid Majidi’s “wonderfully humanistic” movie “Sun Children” was an easy decision, says Laplante, who notes that Miami boasts a large Iranian population.
“Sun Children” revolves around 12-year-old street urchin Ali and his three friends, all non-pro former child laborers themselves, who are given the task of digging for a “treasure” underneath the public school they are attending. Dedicated to the “152 million children forced into child labor and all those who fight for their rights,” the drama has already garnered several wins, including best film at the Fajr Film Festival and the Marcello Mastroianni Award at the Venice Film Festival.
“Directing child actors could be packed with contradictions as they go through the entire range if you let them,” Majidi says. “It’s up to you as the film director to be patient and create a friendly environment to allow them to become surprising.
“They’re uninhibited and the more freedom you give them the more they give you stunning performances which leave you in awe. It’s a sort of improvisation with a hidden pattern.”
The film has inspired campaigns to provide child workers with living and educational facilities.
Written and directed by Jasmila Žbanić, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s “Quo Vadis, Aida?” is a taut and devastating account of the 1995 Srebrenica genocide as it follows U.N. translator Aida (Jasna Đuričić) who fights to shield her husband and two sons from the clutches of the invading Bosnian Serbian army.
“So many war films rely on scenes of violence but here, it’s mostly on the periphery; it shows that there are different, more powerful ways to make a war film,” says Cohen.
Three-time Oscar nominee Agnieszka Holland directs Czech Republic submission, “Charlatan,” a biopic about gifted Czech herbalist and healer Jan Mikolasek whose non-traditional methods drew hostile scrutiny by totalitarian authorities in the 1950s. Holland had sworn off making any more biopics but this was different.
“I liked the screenwriter’s approach; he constructed the main character and his destiny by using psychological imagination, eschewing the by-the-numbers biopic structure,” she says. “When I read the script, I saw its potential for its complexity, its mystery and its more nuanced approach.”
Working with acclaimed Czech actor Ivan Trojan, who played Mikolášek, and his son Josef, who plays the younger Mikolášek, was “wonderful,” says Holland.
“Young Josef is so much like his father: focused, a perfectionist, very charismatic, sensitive but stubborn in the best way. Ivan was deeply moved and happy when he watched his son playing him young.”
Julia von Heinz wrote, directed and produced German submission “And Tomorrow the Entire World.” The film follows Luisa (Mala Emde), a law student from an upper-class family who joins an Antifa-style movement to oppose the new upsurge of the political right in Germany. The semi-autobiographical political drama snagged the Silver Hugo for Best Ensemble at the Chicago Int’l Film Festival and played in competition at the Venice Film Festival.
“Apples,” from Greece, is described as “a timely science fiction story about a worldwide pandemic that causes sudden, total and irrevocable amnesia” where the lead character, Aris, finds himself in a recovery program created to help unclaimed patients construct new identities.
Written, produced and directed by Christos Nikou, “Apples” has scored several international prizes, including the New Waves Award for Best Film at the Seville European Film Festival.
“Apples” is one of at least three pandemic-themed films in the festival that have proven to be prescient, says Cohen. These include Brazil’s “The Pink Cloud” by Iuli Gerbase, which vies for Miami’s Jordan Ressler First Feature award, and Argentina’s “The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet” by Ana Katz, a contender for the Knight Marimbas award.
Out of the many awards doled out by Miami, some are given sparingly. This year, the Precious Gem Icon award is being bestowed only for the second time in the event’s history to trailblazing Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony-winning (EGOT) Puerto Rican actress Rita Moreno.
“Dios mío, que orgullo!” she exclaims. “How incredible to be honored alongside a film depiction of my life with the title ‘Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It.’”
“I would never have dreamed it,” she adds. “I wish my Mami were alive to have lived this with me. And that it comes from the Miami Film festival makes it even more special.”
Art of Light Awards will be given to Aldis Hodge and Andra Day for their riveting performances in “One Night in Miami” and “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” respectively.
For LaPlante, there was no question that the festival would go on despite the challenges of mounting a hybrid version.
Per Laplante, “We wanted to provide a sense of continuity and tradition by keeping to our usual dates and finding a way to stay connected to the in-theatre experience.”