The Borscht Film Festival — considerably more than beet soup

Serving up a smorgasbord of more than beet soup

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.

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