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Borscht Film Festival 2011

Whoever came up with the term Magic City probably never envisioned a Miami like this. A Spanish conquistador and a spear-wielding native Floridian battling on Metrorail. Adorably gallant dogs dodging bloodthirsty zombies in a post-apocalyptic Wynwood. Rapper-turned-mayoral-candidate Luther Campbell elected to usher in a civic golden age in which poverty is eradicated, and Cuba is annexed.

But for the twentysomething cultural and cinematic visionaries behind the Borscht Film Festival, which illuminates the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts this Saturday, such surreal films capture the essence that makes the city where they were born and raised so fascinating. And frustrating and unique and compelling, plus the many other qualities they aim to showcase in their upstart event.

“Werner Herzog told me, ‘It can’t be overstated how important it is for the first generation of anything to define themselves,’ ” says Lucas Leyva, 24, Borscht’s Minister of the Interior. “Of course, Herzog and Wim Wenders and all those guys were defining Germany after the Nazis.” The directors featured at the Borscht fest, on the other hand, are redefining Miami’s image from blingy, South Beach glamor and Scarface-style crime chaos into something they’re still figuring out.

Creating — or at least exploring — a new identity for Miami is an endeavor that Leyva and his fellow ministers believe is important. “Every time I’ve lived outside Miami,” says Andrew Hevia, 26, director of the history-hopping Metrorail film and Borscht’s Minister of Agriculture (because he makes things grow), “I become aware of how different Miami is.”

Started in 2004 by Leyva, Hevia and a loose group of young filmmakers, writers and artists, many of whom had known each other since childhood and studied at New World School of the Arts, the festival has leapt to a new level this year thanks to a $150,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s Knight Arts Challenge program. The 2010 award put the event in the company of 27 mostly well-established institutions, such as the Florida Grand Opera and Miami Art Museum, selected from thousands of applicants.

The Challenge award briefly stunned even this usually audacious crew. When they got the call to meet at the Knight Foundation, Leyva says, “We thought maybe they just wanted to reject us in person.” Instead, Hevia says, grinning, Knight’s Miami Program Director Dennis Scholl “basically told us, ‘You’ve got a stupid name, but not so stupid I’m not gonna give you the money.’”

Scholl may think their name is dumb, but he’s got a much better opinion of the rest of their endeavor.

 “These guys have had a lot of success in film festivals and music videos, and they could go to L.A. and work, but they choose to stay in Miami,” he says. “We want to encourage people who show sweat equity and help fuel their momentum to the next level.”

Leyva, Hevia and company’s ideas had always run ahead of their finances and organizational ability. Initially, they worked on the festival during vacations and summers, as a whim with a deliberately silly name and a fun way to exercise creative muscles. But their interest escalated as they became aware of a growing pool of local artists in need of an outlet and as some of their most-talented compatriots left Miami to establish careers elsewhere. A turning point came in the November, 2009 festival, which packed the downtown Gusman Center for the Performing Arts with 1,700 young fans. When the film projector broke, causing a two-hour delay, Leyva and the other organizers filled the time by having some of the many musicians, actors and comedians in the audience perform. People stayed for hours, drinking warm pineapple soda from Jupiña (a major sponsor) and cheering for movies that showcased Kendall, Wynwood and the Everglades.

Now the festival has its first bank account and its first office, over a high-end photo-printing studio on the Overtown side of the dilapidated Wynwood-Overtown art-meets-industrial border, on a block where mural-covered warehouses sit by a transmission shop and empty lots. A homeless man named Sylvester (touted in their press package) greets visitors in the parking lot. They’ve got a more upscale beverage sponsor, Fuze (their “benevolent corporate overlords”), and a slate of other funders. Once casual collaborators now have practical functions (with grandiose titles), such as Minister of Information/publicist Nick Ducassi, a filmmaker and actor, and Jonathan David Kane, an editor and filmmaker who’s now the Capporegime of Production.

Instead of working for free, they now have stipends for gas and fast food. And they have more than doubled the number of films at the festival, from five to 13. In the Borscht office, the movies are represented by tiny stickers on a chart drawn with marker on a window. A week and a half before the festival, only one of those stickers has made it to the Completed column. Anyone could apply. Kayla de la Cerda, an 18-year-old intern, ended up writing the film With Me, about a little girl and her imaginary friends.

 “We saw this grant not as a reward but as a way to push things,” Leyva says. “We’re still doing things with no money, but we’re doing a lot more things.”

This year’s festival pairs filmmakers and musicians, all with strikingly original takes on Miami. Life and Freaky Times of Uncle Luke, by visual and performance artist Jillian Mayer, sets the former rapper on a fantastic voyage into the future and back again. Brothers and budding horror filmmakers Andres and Diego Meza-Valdes pair with idiosyncratic singer-songwriter Rachel Goodrich for Play Dead, in which adorable dogs (a la the movie Homeward Bound) struggle for survival in a zombie-filled, post-apocalyptic Miami. Some projects bring back local talents whose careers have taken them elsewhere, such as Liberty City-raised writer-director Barry Jenkins, whose feature film Medicine for Melancholy garnered awards and was hailed by The New York Times; Jenkins worked with musician Millionyoung on Chlorophyl, about a failed relationship. And Tarell Alvin McCraney, a New World graduate and acclaimed playwright, has created a movie about a migrant worker who commutes on the bus, which audiences will watch via an interactive, online scavenger hunt, with links, or clues, found on stickers at bus stops and buses.

“We want to force people to go out,” Leyva says. “People who wouldn’t take the bus will do it to watch a Tarell piece.”

Those kinds of stories, which explore or express Miami’s character and spirit in new ways, are important for a city just starting to reach cultural maturity, Scholl says.

“For all the fun and tongue in cheek, the Borscht festival is about engaging our community, about making movies about Miami for Miami. The festival really does cause the community to look at itself.”

The group hasn’t lost its sense of humor. On April 1, organizers put out a faux press release announcing that the festival was changing its name from Borscht to Bosh, in honor of Heat player Chris Bosh’s matching their entire $150,000 Knight Foundation grant. They punked Scholl and a number of Herald editors.

But almost in spite of themselves, they are getting more earnest. “Make a living as a filmmaker?” Hevia asks. “That’s such a privilege; I can’t take myself too seriously. But I also feel like we can really have an impact.”