Florida gets a close-up at Miami International Film Festival

Film still from “The Record Man.” Image courtesy Miami International Film Festival.

Given that the theme of the 32nd Miami International Film Festival is “Every Character Under the Sun,” it’s only fitting that some of the most intriguing offerings in the event are stories about South Florida characters told by local filmmakers.

The Record Man,” by Mark Moormann, is a portrait of the late Henry Stone, a gutsy, enterprising music pioneer who ran an independent record empire out of a Hialeah warehouse. Then there’s “Dawg Fight,” a film by director Billy Corben, which looks at the world of mixed martial arts-style backyard fights in Miami-Dade; and on yet another different note, The Holders, takes a sobering look into Miami-Dade County animal shelters by Miami-based Venezuelan performer, writer and director Carla Forte. The three films are part of the competition for the Knight Documentary Achievement Award, which has a cash prize of $10,000.

“We’ve come a long way,” says Moormann, whose previous work include “Tom Dowd & The Language of Music,” a 2003 Grammy-nominated documentary on recording engineer and producer Tom Dowd, another South Florida music figure with a global impact. “There is a real creative explosion right now—certainly in the filmmaking world. It’s really starting to happen —and I’m glad to be part of it.”

Underscoring his point, three other South Florida-made films will also be part of this year’s festival. “The Strongest Man,” a feature by Kenny Riches, will be part of the Knight Competition; and the festival includes an umbrella Florida Focus program that includes the major feature documentaries and the short films “Papa Machete,” by Jonathan David Kane; and “The Sun Like a Dark Big Animal” by Christina Felisgrau and Ronnie Rivera, which screened at this year’s Sundance Film Festival

At the time, Rivera saw the participation of these films at Sundance as yet another indication of a growing interest and respect for the work being made in Miami — and for a good reason:

 “The work is getting better,” he said. “There are more filmmakers in Miami working together, there’s kind of a scene, an emerging movement and that is due in part to the guys at the Borscht Film Festival.” 

But before anyone might start celebrating, South Florida-raised director Corben offers a sobering view. Still, “it’s not any easier [making films in South Florida these days]. It’s not much different from when we started, for that matter,” says Corben whose directorial debut, the feature documentary “Raw Deal: A Question of Consent,” (2001) premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. “It’s still all about what you are personally willing to invest in it. I’m talking about the hustle. I have a lot of compassion and a lot of admiration for the people who go at it here, be it the Borscht Film Festival folks or the O Cinema folks … what little help they get is from the Knight Foundation — and that’s the truth.”

On the other hand, as a storyteller and filmmaker, Corben is bullish on Miami as a seemingly bottomless source of stories and as a brand. He should know. Documentaries such as “Cocaine Cowboys” (2006), about the violent drug business in Miami in the ’70s and ’80s; “Square Grouper” (2011), about pot smuggling in South Florida in the ’70s, and “The U” (2009), a piece for ESPN about the University of Miami football program, have established him as one of the storytelling voices of Miami. But Corben was actually educated as a scripted filmmaker. He turned to documentaries, in large part, because “truth is stranger than fiction—especially in Florida,” he says. “You can’t make this [stuff] up. And if you do, nobody would believe you.” 

As for the fascination others might have with Miami, he has a quick answer: “Miami is an international city. It’s a brand known all over the world.  So when you tell a Miami story it’s not a provincial, local, small-town story. You could be anywhere in the world and you say, ‘Miami, South Beach,’ and people immediately know.”

Besides, he says, citing T.D. Allman’s book “Miami: City of the Future,” “the Florida of today is the America of tomorrow.” 

“If you want to know what challenges will befall America in the next decade or two, you need only look at what happens in South Florida and you will have an instant indicator,” says Corben. “It could be Medicaid fraud, drugs, gross income disparity, you name it. It happens here first. We see it even demographically. Now in many places people are asking what to do with all the immigrants? Well, Miami has been doing it for awhile.”

Now all those Miami stories — from the quirky saga with the oddball character to the cautionary tale — are being told with skill and an original language that has its own accent.

“I’ve been here for a long time and there’s been a lot of work down here for technicians,” says Moormann. “But there hasn’t been this sort of homemade movies that go beyond this area code. I’ve made a couple and so has Billy Corben and now you have young people, the Indie Film Club, Borscht, and there’s definitely an energy here and I think it’s organic and I do think it’s growing.”

“I’ll be straight up: I remember when the Miami Film Festival was not interested in working with local filmmakers at all,” he says. “We had to struggle back in those days to get some respect, but now the independents are getting respect down here and that was part of Henry’s thing, that bit of a fighter mentally you have to have as an independent.”

Jaie Laplante, executive director of the Miami International Film Festival, has seen a change over the years and, as a result, an increased presence of local filmmakers in the event.

“The artists working in the city are maturing and developing more of an international quality and I think as a result, we have more films that touch Miami in some way in our festival this year than we’ve ever had,” he says. “It’s the work of Knight Foundation, the influence of events like the Borscht Film Festival. I believe it fosters an appreciation of cinema that is not the Hollywood studio film. These films are stirring, are emotional; they touch people.”

Over the years, there have been attempts at building up Miami as a center for filmmaking by presenting it as some sort of Los Angeles East. He dismisses such notions out of hand.

“We are not Los Angeles; we are Miami and I want Miami to have a powerful connotation when we talk about cinema, and I think we are getting there,” he says. “Besides, as we say, we have every character under the sun.”

The 32nd Miami International Film Festival runs through March 15. Visit for more information.

Fernando González is a South Florida-based arts and culture writer.