Lucas Leyva, one of the co-founders of the artists’ collective Borscht Corp., doesn’t believe in the traditional film festival format — at least not for a city as eclectic as Miami.
“It’s crazy to me that in a place that has so much to offer, you would just ask people to walk into a theater, sit in an air-conditioned room and watch a movie,” Leyva, 30, says. “People can watch anything they want on their computers today. Something that’s been ingrained in us from the beginning is how do we get people to come out to see films? What is important about cinema? What is cinema to us? It can’t just be about watching something on a screen. You have to engage the city and let it spill out from the screen.”
So even though movies are the main attraction of Borscht Diez, the 10th edition of the group’s biennial film festival running Feb. 22-26, there will be lots of other things luring you to leave the house: A Viking funeral in the Everglades. A bring-your-own-boat Jetski parade. A Coral Orgy featuring live music by Animal Collective and interactive virtual reality installations. A live game show at the Alfred I. Dupont Building in which contestants pitch their best worst ideas to a panel of judges and either win financing or suffer a terrible fate. A free screening of the made-in-Miami drama “Moonlight,” which sprang from an artistic collaboration at a previous Borscht Event, at the African Heritage Culture Arts Center, followed by a block party in Liberty City to celebrate the movie’s Oscar nominations.
Founded in 2004 by students at the New World School of the Arts as a way to show each other their current work, the non-profit Borscht Film Festival has grown in stature and reach. The movies they have produced have screened at major film festivals and museums around the globe, from Sundance to Venice to the Guggenheim.
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Borscht’s work has shown the world there is a young and vital arts community in Miami making original films imbued with the city’s unique sensibilities. Underneath the group’s playful, irreverent veneer is a serious commitment to creative expression, hard work and intellectual curiosity.
But the youthful energy that led to the founding of Borscht has not been affected by all the attention. Unlike other arts groups whose original mission is sometimes clouded by success, Borscht’s core mandate remains the same: Movies about Miami, made or commissioned by Miamians.
They’ve just gotten a lot better at what they do. The group’s growth — their current digs, which take up several offices and production bays at M3 Studios just outside Hialeah, are their largest yet — has resulted in more polished, technically accomplished films.
The main event
And the intangible qualities that have become Borscht trademarks — a brash sense of humor, zero tolerance for self-importance, pop-culture savvy and unexpected, sometimes poetic beauty — permeate this year’s batch of short films. Among the movies screening at the festival’s main event at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Olympia Theater in downtown Miami:
▪ “[Cries in Spanish],” a nostalgic, shocking tale about a little girl who sings Selena covers at a karaoke bar, directed by Giancarlo Loffredo (“Stripper Wars”);
▪ “Great Choice,” the funny-scary story of a woman trapped inside a Red Lobster TV commercial, directed by Robin Comisar, who did the special effects for a previous Borscht entry, “Otto and the Electric Eel”;
▪ “One Dog Gone Summer,” an alternately tender and hilarious tale of a little boy mourning the death of his dog, shot in beautiful widescreen by director by Julian Yuri Rodriguez (“C#ckfight”);
▪ “Fanimaltastic!” a pilot for a surreal TV talk show about that was made by Mayer and Leyva for the Time Warner incubator program 150;
▪ “Kaiju Buranku,” a day in the life of a married couple besieged by giant monsters, which premiered at Sundance in January, directed by Leyva and Mayer (“Life and Freaky Times of Uncle Luke”).
We want to plant a seed in their heads that Miami is a place where you can do great things and have a great life here, and things that happen here might ultimately matter.
Borscht Film Festival co-founder Lucas Leyva
Mayer, an accomplished multimedia artist who has had her work shown at Art Basel and the Pérez Art Museum Miami, joined the Borscht crew in 2009 as a volunteer. She says the eclectic nature of the collective’s creative output is a reflection of their willingness to go down creative roads without always knowing where they will lead.
“We have this approach of throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks,” she says. “Because we’re not making feature films yet, short-form content gives us the opportunity to experiment a lot.”
Some of those experiments have paid off big time. Brothers Diego and Andres Meza-Valdes are horror buffs who co-directed two previous Borscht entries: The dogs-versus-zombies thriller “Play Dead” and the celebrated chiller “Boniato” (co-directed with Eric Mainade), about a migrant worker who encounters supernatural evil.
Their films earned so much acclaim on the festival circuit that the brothers have been hired to direct episodes of the upcoming third season of the Starz horror-comedy “Ash vs Evil Dead,” which is filmed in New Zealand.
“We feel insanely lucky that we were at the right place at the right time and with the right people,” Diego says. “What Lucas and Jillian have done [with Borscht] is to make an eco-system where the creatives call the shots and have final say. Everyone comes at this with different tastes and opinions, and those different perspectives helped us mold our vision. Borscht — and to an extent the city of Miami — is the empty science lab we get to sneak into and test our little experiments. We wouldn’t be where we are without Borscht.”
The Meza brothers aren’t premiering a new film at Borscht this year. But keeping with the group’s tradition of collaboration and mutual support between artists, Andres helped with the writing of the screenplays for “[Cries in Spanish]” and “One Dog Gone Summer,” while Diego assisted with the editing process.
Nurturing young Miami talent remains a top priority for Leyva, who says Borscht’s target audience is high school and college students.
“We want to plant a seed in their heads that Miami is a place where you can do great things and have a great life here, and things that happen here might ultimately matter,” Leyva says. “I always talk about wanting to leave Miami so badly when I was growing up, because I thought it was a dead end. I could never do the things I wanted to do here. So the idea is to reach those kids, because they are the ones who will ultimately do some greater good — not just in the film and arts community, but the city as a whole.”
But despite the importance of Borscht’s mission, Leyva admits Miami and its film scene have grown up a lot since the collective was formed.
“We have interns who were born in 1999,” he says. “They were six years old when the first Borscht came out. So they’ve grown up with Borscht being a thing all their lives. They have a fundamentally different perception of what filmmaking in Miami is.
“When we started out, you were a loser if you were making movies in Miami. Now, especially with the success of ‘Moonlight,’ everyone repeats the same rhetoric: Miami stories matter. What was once radical has become mainstream. So where do we push it next?
“I always have terrible anxiety that no one is going to show up. It’s so scary. But we’ve kept doing it because audiences have reacted so positively. I never wanted to run a film festival. We did it because we needed a place to show our movies and we wanted to make Miami films. We always talk about how every year might be the last one. If we ever realize there’s no more use for us anymore, Borscht doesn’t need to go on forever. But for now, since we’re doing it, we might as well do the best job we can.”
If You Go
What: Borscht Diez, the 10th Borscht Film Festival
When: Feb. 22-26
Where: Various venues around Miami. The main event, the 10th Borscht Film Festival, is at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 25 at the Olympia Theater at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts.
Tickets: Prices vary. Many events are free (donations requested) but RSVPs required. Visit www.borscht10.com/events