A huge helping of Borscht awaits Miami film lovers

arts / Article

For decades now, the image of Miami has gone from retirement haven to paradise lost to playground of the world. It’s also sometimes viewed as a bit strange. Lucas Leyva wants to make sure it remains that way: weird.

Leyva is one of the founders of the Borscht Corp., a collective of homegrown creative talents whose most visible and noise-making project is the biennial Borscht Film Festival, a cinematic celebration of an alternative Miami.

This year’s edition runs Dec. 17-21 in various locations, including Adrienne Arsht Center’s Knight Concert Hall on the 20th. Every day a major event is scheduled to take place, along with many other smaller ones.

In all, 12 feature films, 29 short films commissioned and aided in their development by Borscht, and many shorts made without Borscht involvement will be exhibited, a total of about 60 shorts across all of the programs, Leyva said.

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The festival’s closing night, at South Beach’s Mansion nightclub, will feature the efforts of a long-term collaborative project in which Brian De Palma’s 1983 notorious movie “Scarface” will be remade into 600 15-second segments by filmmakers and fans to create “Scarface Redux.”

“Every year we’re sort of growing exponentially,” says Leyva. “Most film festivals have a way of doing things; they have specific programs and an infrastructure. We tear down and rebuild from the ground. It’s our way of staying agile and of reflecting what the local film community needs and wants. So we’re constantly trying to reinvent ourselves.”

Borscht – the name of the Eastern European soup represents Miami’s many “ingredients – started cooking when Leyva and a group of friends from Miami’s New World School of the Arts came together in 2005 to start a project that would become an outlet for their artistic dreams and expressions.

But it really wasn’t until 2010 when, after winning a Knight Arts Challenge grant, the festival acquired a legitimacy that elevated it to another level. Borscht has received two additional Knight grants since then, including $500,000 in 2012 to create the Miami Independent Cinema Fund.

“Before the Knight Foundation got involved in this, we were kind of credibly scrappy, a bunch of kids in a warehouse in Wynwood. We didn’t even have a bank account when we won our first Knight Arts Challenge,” says Leyva, a Fordham University communications graduate who works as a TV commercial director. “And winning that completely changed everything.”

A large pot

This year’s Borscht, with shorts from 25 seconds to 25 minutes, is the biggest one and tastiest yet in every aspect.

“We’ve made more films this year than in any other year and we’re having more events and bigger venues,” Leyva says. “It’s all really exciting.”

Sharing in that level of excitement are the filmmakers whose works Borscht chose to produce. Borscht issues an open call for submissions a year prior to the festival, then decides which films will receive its assistance from creation to completion.

“In my humble opinion, Borscht is the most interesting thing happening among filmmakers in Miami, maybe in the country,” says Monica Peña, a local filmmaker and Sundance Knight Fellow. “They have an authentic and distinct point of view, and that’s always what compels me about an artist, or in this case, a collective. I wanted in on it.”

This is the first time that Peña has participated in Borscht as a filmmaker, and faithful to the nature of the festival, her contribution, “Pink Sidewalks,” an experimental documentary shot with collaborator Manny Mangos on iPhones, subverts the typical vision one may have of South Beach.

The wide range of shorts this year also includes such works as “The Voice Thief,” where a man traverses Miami’s psychedelic world looking for his wife’s missing voice; and Jillian Mayer and Leyva’s “Cool as Ice 2,” a sequel to Vanilla Ice’s 1991 “Cool as Ice” movie. Mayer also takes a walk on the beach in her “Hot Beach Babe Aims to Please.”

For Mayer, who applied to Borscht for the first time in 2009 and has screened twice, “Borscht is a small community of ambitious creatives who work very hard on their own work and on each other’s.”

Because she believed in Borscht, she helped on another short film before Borscht selected her work. “We screen working edits of the films, so after Borscht, we hope to finish our film and be able to share it with a larger audience, whether that be online or in public venues.”

A growing reputation

Others are taking notice of Borscht.

Its shorts have gone on repeatedly to the Sundance Film Festival; two will be shown there next year, “Papa Machete” directed by Jonathan David Kane, and “El Sol Como un Gran Animal Oscuro” (“The Sun as a Great Dark Animal”) by Christina Felisgrau and Ronnie Rivera. And Filmmaker Magazine, the must-read publication on indie films, has written about Borscht.

“Borscht is authentically a festival for new talent and new voices,” says Scott Macaulay, of New York, one of the founders and editor-in-chief of the magazine.

“It has a totally fresh sensibility. It feels different to me from all other festivals because it’s a product of the filmmakers down there, the audience, the physical location, and the personalities and tastes of its organizers. So you’re never going to duplicate that anywhere else.”

That uniqueness is precisely what Leyva hopes never to lose.

“Our greatest fear,” he says, “is to become sort of an institution, in the way that sometimes institutions become stale and devoted to a mission statement that they have, but may no longer be as relevant or necessary to the community anymore.”

J.C. Pérez-Duthie is a Miami-based freelance writer.

Visit borscht9.com for a complete listing of events and locations for the Borscht Film Festival.

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