Reeling - Rene Rodriguez

Creators have big plans for 8th Borscht Film Festival

Director Julian Yuri Rodriguez, 24, stands on the set of his film C*ckfight, one of the movies screening at this year's Borscht Film Festival.
Director Julian Yuri Rodriguez, 24, stands on the set of his film C*ckfight, one of the movies screening at this year's Borscht Film Festival.

On a Sunday morning in October, the temperature inside Club Eve in downtown Miami is close to 100 degrees. The air is humid and thick with fog and cigarette smoke. The place is crowded with shady, dangerous-looking men — no women — drinking and shouting, arguing and threatening. The dance floor has been turned into a fight pit covered with red sand. The mood is menacing, ominous: Something bad is about to happen here.

Then Julian Yuri Rodriguez, who is 24 but looks 16, strides through the crowd and yells “Cut!” and everyone relaxes. The sense of danger seeps out of the room as Rodriguez and cinematographer Daniel Fernandez set up their next shot. They are shadowed by Lucas Leyva, co-founder and chief of the Borscht Corp., the film collective that is financing their movie. Despite the oppressive heat in the room, the young filmmakers aren’t even sweating: They’re concentrating too hard on their work to notice.

C#ckfight will premiere during the eighth Borscht Film Festival on Dec. 15 at the Adrienne Arsht Center’s Ziff Ballet Opera House. It is one of 14 shorts, all made in Miami, that will screen at the most ambitious edition of the event to date. This month, Borscht received a $500,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a big bump from the $150,000 they received in 2010, proving they are doing something right.

Working out of a 3,000-square-foot Spanish colonial-style home in Morningside, Borscht is one of a growing number of film collectives popping up around the country — groups of artists, photographers, actors, technicians and editors who team up to work on each other’s movies, gaining hands-on experience as they go.

Rodriguez is a perfect case study: His association with Borscht began several years ago guarding equipment and trucks during film shoots. On the set of the zombie outbreak movie Play Dead, he worked as a production assistant for directing brothers Diego and Andres Meza Valdes, whose father Alberto Meza had been Rodriguez’s art instructor at Miami Dade College.

That experience led him to start directing music videos for Miami rappers. His prolific output, along with the distinct vision and style of his films, made Leyva decide Rodriguez was ready to make his directorial debut.

“Every video he did was better than the last one, and he had developed such a specific voice,” Leyva, 26, says. “His work reminded me of a Miami version of Harmony Korine, and he’s so young and really driven and knows how to get good performances. He’s very well put-together. That’s true of all Borscht filmmakers, I think. We’re all in a similar place, and we’re all open to input from each other."

Like Rodriguez’s music videos, C#ckfight is unsettling and dark: Gaspar Noé and Lars von Trier are two obvious influences. But the film also has a distinct look and feel, along with an unexpected sense of strange, only-in-Miami humor - all evidence of a true directorial vision.

“When people think of Miami, they think of stereotypical Cuban stories or Miami Vice stuff,” says Rodriguez, who was so nervous the night before the shoot he vomited 10 times. “I like taking audiences into these weird underworlds that may or may not exist. A lot of my other works have been about strange rappers doing crazy things or just videotaping my crazy neighbor.”

Films on the edge

Despite their relatively young age (most are in their 20s), members of the Borscht Corp. radiate a professionalism and confidence that belies their experience. And their films are getting better — slicker, more polished, better-acted and wilder.

Among the titles in this year’s lineup:

Haunt Ed, the latest from the Play Dead brothers, a funny/scary tale about a guy home alone who gets drunk and then walks into a haunted house.

#PostModem, the latest collaboration between Leyva and Jillian Mayer, (the duo that was named one of “25 New Faces” to watch by Filmmaker magazine this year). They describe as a “comedic satirical sci-fi musical based on the theories of Ray Kurzwell and other futurists, told through a series of cinematic tweets.”

Waiting for Berta, a story about an old woman in Little Havana who randomly runs into a former enemy from Castro’s revolution.

Miami 1996, a found footage-style tale of a booty party that goes horribly, gruesomely wrong.

Crackhead Katana, about a homeless drug addict who finds a sword and sets out on a mission to degentrify the Wynwood Art District.

Some of the movies were selected from the 115 submissions sent in by aspiring local filmmakers. Others were commissioned specifically for out-of-town filmmakers to shoot in Miami, such as The Voice Thief, the story of an opera singer (Asia Argento, daughter of Dario) who has her voice stolen, directed by Adan Jodorowsky (son of Alejandro).

“There are more and more people in Miami who are getting into film,” Leyva says. “There is a growing number of pockets of filmmakers around the city doing their own thing. We look for stories that haven’t been told before that could only be told here. There are a lot of aspiring filmmakers who make indie films that could be set anywhere else. When I was growing up, if you heard a movie came from Miami, you figured it was going to suck. Now, with Borscht and all these other groups, and with all the independent cinemas that have popped up around town, we’re hoping the next generation of filmmakers will think of Miami differently and want to stay here to tell stories.”

Festival theme

Each Borscht Film Festival is centered on a loose theme. Last year it was music. This year Leyva opted for a “regional summit” type of event. After traveling to Sundance and South by Southwest earlier this year with The Life and Freaky Times of Uncle Luke, a Borscht production that garnered national attention, he discovered there were lots of other film collectives making movies specific to their home turf.

“I started meeting people who were doing the same thing we were doing,” he says. “But at film festivals, you meet people but don’t really have the time to sit down and talk. So we decided to invite members from several collectives around the country to come to Miami, discuss their work and exchange ideas. It’s an experiment. I don’t know what’s going to come of it. But I liked the idea of getting people from other regional film festivals together and placing Miami at the center of the conversation.”

Film collectives have garnered a lot of attention since the New Orleans-based Court 13 sold its feature-length movie Beasts of the Southern Wild to Fox Searchlight Pictures for national distribution, despite having no professional actors and a low budget.

“The potential of film collectives to transform indie film is tremendous,” says Josh Penn, one of the producers of Beasts. “We were only able to do what we did on our movie because of the close-knit nature of our team. The shared vision, goals and the underlying trust combined with the determination to take on something huge and ambitious together allowed us to accomplish something that otherwise would have been impossible. I hope other collectives have the opportunity to make movies this way. There are great stories to be told by groups of people in towns large and small outside the traditional filmmaking hubs.”

For this inaugural summit, filmmakers from places ranging from Johannesburg to Missouri to Havana will be making presentations at Borscht of their films and talking about their distinct experiences.

And even though the film hasn’t screened in Miami yet, #PostModem has already been accepted to the 2013 Sundance International Film Festival.

“This will be my second time going there with a movie I had a hand in writing and directing,” Leyva says. “It feels really cool because with Uncle Luke, there was always this lingering suspicion that people really only liked our movie because Luther Campbell was in it. This time, there’s no doubt.”

Borscht’s growing profile within the industry and public audiences can only help Miami’s filmmaking scene, which continues to sprout young talent familiar with South Florida and eager to capture its idiosyncrasies.

“The success of Borscht is just another piece of evidence of Miami coming into its own as a cultural center,” says Michael Spring, director of the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs. “We have to generate work by Miami artists about Miami, and Borscht has taken on this commitment head-on. It’s an incredible thing to have a festival that celebrates movies that are made here.”

Even though the Borscht Film Festival is held roughly every 18 months, the event’s fallout is felt year-round. Rodriguez, for example, has parlayed his Borscht experience to land a full-time job working as personal assistant to one of the producers of the Starz TV series Magic City. Although the corporation only has four full-time employees (accountants, bookkeepers), members of the collective are using their experience to further their careers in between festivals.

And Leyva says things are about to get kicked up a notch. After this year’s event, the plan is to develop feature-length films instead of just shorts.

“I think we’ve gotten enough experience that we’re ready for it,” he says. “Hopefully we’re proving that you can make movies in Miami, and the world will hear you.”