Three Miami films to screen at Sundance Film Festival

Above: El Sol Como un Gran Animal Oscuro.

Underscoring the vitality and diversity of the independent filmmaking community in South Florida, three made-in-Miami films have been accepted to the prestigious 2015 Sundance Film Festival. Related Link

A huge helping of Borscht awaits Miami film lovers” by J.C. Perez-Duthie on Knight blog, 12/11/14

They include: “The Strongest Man,” a feature by writer-director Kenny Riches; “El Sol Como un Gran Animal Oscuro,” (“The Sun as a Great Dark Animal”), an animated short film directed by Christina Felisgrau and Ronnie Rivera, and “Papa Machete,” a short film about Haitian machete fencing or tire machet, a vanishing tradition, written by Jason Fitzroy Jeffers and Keisha Rae Witherspoon and directed by Jonathan David Kane.

The Sundance Film Festival is scheduled for Jan. 22 to Feb. 1 in Park City, Utah.

Going to Sundance “feels a little unreal,” says Jeffers, a Barbados-born journalist and musician. “Papa Machete,” which follows Alfred Avril, a subsistence farmer and master fencer, grew out of Jeffers’ personal interest in the machete as tool, weapon and symbol in Caribbean culture. “Papa Machete” is his first foray into filmmaking.

Papa Machete from Third Horizon Media

“For an independent filmmaker, Sundance is pretty much the top of the mountain so it’s a tremendous honor and an opportunity,” he says. “And it’s also exciting that it coincides with us winning a [Knight Arts Challenge grant] because our mission at Third Horizon Media [his Miami-based production company and artist collective] is to tell these stories of the Caribbean through film, music and art—to bring them from the Caribbean through Miami to the world.”

Avril unexpectedly passed away last week, turning “Papa Machete” into his testament. “We feel even more honored to have been able to pay tribute to him and it kind of creates a vehicle for what he wanted, which was to pass on what he knew,” says Jeffers.

Kenny Riches’ “The Strongest Man,” described on its website as “a satirical portrait of Miami characters,” builds around an anxiety-ridden Cuban construction worker, his Korean friend, and a tale spinning out of a misunderstood meditation class and a stolen bike. Miami itself is a character in the film, Riches says. “The Strongest Man” is his second feature.

“Miami is unlike anywhere I’ve been in the country,” says Riches, a native of Salt Lake City who moved to Miami two and a half years ago. “It’s not really part of the U.S. It’s its own country, and it’s really diverse and interesting, especially for someone interested in storytelling.”

He notes the mix of South American, Caribbean, European and American cultures, but also “the class struggles.” “I come from a city where the middle class is the largest class, and here you have this huge divide: poverty or extreme wealth, and it’s kind of a mash-up,” he notes.

That said, “There’s a lot of energy now happening here, people are curious and hopefully [these films being accepted at Sundance] will help expand the scene. We are getting more indie theaters and more people making films.”

Ronnie Rivera, co-director of “El Sol Como un Gran Animal Oscuro,” said that being accepted at Sundance is “very validating. It’s the first time we get any national attention for our work. It’s a big step and it means a lot. People are interested in the work we are doing and absorbing it.”

“El Sol,” a five-minute animated film based on the work of Argentine poet Alejandra Pizarnik (1936-1972), is “a very cool, very dark work that explores some of the themes that are present in her poems,” says Rivera. “It’s kind of a science fiction fantasy; all our work is science fiction fantasy, and we mix that with this world she built in her poetry, visually and thematically.”

The film is produced by Dennis Scholl, a filmmaker and Knight’s vice president for arts, O, Miami founder P. Scott Cunningham, Borscht Corp. co-founder Lucas Leyva and Rivera.

Rivera is not surprised that several films from Miami were accepted this year at Sundance.

“Due in part to events like the Borscht Film Festival [Dec. 16-21], people are beginning to respect the work people are making in Miami — and the work is getting better,” he says. “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 Borscht.”  

The Miami collective has received multiple grants from Knight Foundation, and its work is already paying off.

Last year at Sundance, Bernardo Britto’s “Yearbook,” co-produced by the Borscht Corp. and made in Miami and New York, won the festival’s Short Film Jury Award: Animation. It was also the fourth year in a row that Sundance showed work produced by Borscht, a rare occurrence. Borscht also provided critical support for both “El Sol” and “Papa Machete,” appearing in this year’s edition.

For Scholl, “this announcement of the selection of three films from Miami by Sundance is a validation of the quality of the independent cinema community and its rising status in the independent film world.” It should not come as surprise, he adds.  “Over the past several years we’ve seen more and more Miami filmmakers tell Miami stories for Miami audiences that go on to resonate nationally and internationally. “

Jeffers concurs.

“Miami’s film community is fascinating and it’s really maturing,” he says. “But I also think Miami represents a new world coming into view. The blend of cultures, the way they interact, for better and worse, the energy in Miami is something that has to be paid attention to — whether you are discussing cultures or something completely unrelated such as the threat of the rising sea levels. The stories that come through here are stories the world needs to hear.”

Fernando González is a Miami-based arts and culture writer.