By Rene Rodriguez
At the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, the snow is falling, the temperature is 30 degrees and a group of Miami artists is getting in the face of the international movie industry.
Former 2 Live Crew front man Luther Campbell stars in the 12-minute short film Life and Freaky Times of Uncle Luke, which screened at Sundance Friday and Saturday and will show two more times this week. The short — a clever reimagining of the 1962 time-travel classic La jetée — melds live action, bright colors and ingenious two-dimensional animation to tell the semi-fictional story of Uncle Luke, a rapper who grew up in Liberty City, argued against censorship before the Supreme Court, was elected mayor of Miami and survived a meltdown at the Turkey Point nuclear plant that turned the city into an apocalyptic wasteland crawling with monsters.
The movie combines a dizzying array of influences both highbrow and low — much like Miami itself. The movie was directed by visual and performance artist Jillian Mayer and written by Lucas Leyva, the “Minister of Interior” of the Borscht Corp., a collective of Miami filmmakers, musicians, writers, actors and photographers who put on the increasingly popular Borscht Film Festival every 18 months.
The presence of Campbell, Mayer, Leyva and other members of Borscht at Sundance — where they brought promotional Uncle Luke whoopee cushions that have become highly sought after — is a testament to a budding film scene here that is unmistakably Miami: brash, playful, cultured, irreverent and young, with the talent and tools to actualize their ambitions.
“One of the things we look for is originality, and Uncle Luke is an incredibly original film, both in terms of its tone and the technique of its storytelling,” said Jon Korn, one of the Sundance programmers who selected this year’s 64 short films out of a record 7,600 submissions. “ Uncle Luke really taps into the popular culture of a specific generation, and it has a very healthy disrespect for convention and authority.”
Uncle Luke has drawn the attention of MTV, the Huffington Post, Film Threat and the influential Indiewire.com, which named it one of the “10 Shorts You Must See at Sundance This Year.” Leyva says since Friday’s screening, they have already been approached by acquisition executives and producers interested in developing potential TV series set in South Florida.
Another Borscht production is also screening at Slamdance, a festival that runs concurrently with Sundance and favors edgier, more experimental fare. Reinaldo Arenas, which Leyva directed, combines the Cuban author’s writings on the exile experience with the real-life story of the shark that was found on a street in Overtown after being spotted on the Metromover in 2009.
Last year, Borscht’s animated Xemoland, about a kid suffering from nightmares after sneaking into a showing of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, screened at Sundance. And Uncle Luke has already been booked at several other upcoming film festivals, including another national biggie.
This is exactly what Borscht Corp. co-founders Leyva, 25, and Andrew Hevia, 27 hoped for when they formed the group. The nonprofit organization unofficially began in 2004 when a bunch of friends — many of them graduates of the New World School of the Arts — got together during summer and holiday breaks from college and started collaborating on short films, all centered around a specific theme or conceit that changed every year.
Over the years, the Borscht Film Festival — the seventh edition was held last April, when a rough cut ofUncle Luke premiered — has exploded in popularity, selling out the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts and the Knight Concert Hall at the Arsht Center and becoming a serious player on the city’s arts scene. Buoyed by a $150,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s Knight Arts Challenge in 2010, Borscht has just moved into its first year-round digs — a 3,000-square-foot warehouse space in Overtown they share with Coral Morphologic, a multimedia coral reef aquarium studio.
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