If Film Culture is Dead, Its Zombie is Loose in Miami at the Borscht Film Festival

By  · Published on December 21st, 2012

Halfway through the 2012 Borscht Film Festival, a documentary screened titled Rising Tide: A Story of Miami Artists. In the film, which offers a basic guide to the growing art scene in the city, local paper sculptor Jen Stark acknowledges the way the digital world allows contemporary artists to flourish outside of major art centers. “Ever since the Internet came out,” she says, “ I never thought I had to be in New York or wherever.”

It was a resonating quote to hear in the middle of an event so devoted to both regional communities and how they can come together as a broader, networked collective of filmmaking scenes. The central occasion for Borscht, which was held last weekend, is a screening of shorts either made by local filmmakers or commissioned by the Borscht Corporation and at least shot in Florida. Many of the films involve an overlapping of talent, and by the end you’ve seen 20 works that have given you a good sense of what’s happening with the underground “Miami New Wave.”

Meanwhile, in the days before and after that main todo, Borscht hosts curated showcases from other film communities around the world. This year’s represented areas included Dallas, New Orleans, Eastern Oregon, Philadelphia, Missouri and South Africa. We could get a feel for these scenes by watching shorts, music videos and excerpts from longer projects with setup and commentary from respective delegates. These envoys might be a local cinema owner or founder of a fledgling film fest or one of the actual filmmakers whose work is shown – most of them wear two or three of the hats.

The whole festival has an intimacy in spite of its assemblage of strangers. Many of the filmmakers or representatives either knew each other from previous fests or online correspondence or they simply bonded immediately because of their kinship in the world of independent cinema and fondness for free beer (courtesy of Grolsch Film Works). Few film fests involve a large group that sticks together throughout the event the way they do at Borscht, going from showcase to showcase to petting zoo to bicycle tour/bar crawl. The closest I’ve felt to such fellowship is while attending the True/False Film Fest, but even there not everyone sees everything together at the same time.

As it fittingly turns out, the presentation from Missouri was led by producer Kim Sherman (A Horrible Way to Die; V/H/S), who used to be the music director for True/False. Her demonstration was probably my favorite, with consistently exceptional and finished work on display, including two nonfiction shorts. Yes, it’s obvious that I’d be sucker for the showcase featuring docs, but these were special. Kerri Yost’s X-Ray Man is a fascinating profile of a dairy farmer who was one of numerous U.S. soldiers used as guinea pigs in experiments concerning nuclear bomb exposure. And Big Birding Day, an older work by True/False co-founder David Wilson, surrounds its birding subjects with gorgeous impressionistic views of Oklahoma.

Through Sherman’s curation, the star of the Missouri film scene would seem to be cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo, with whom she’s collaborated on multiple occasion for features. Works of his on display included remarkably cinematic videos for indie rock bands ARMS, Believers and White Rabbits, the last of which reminded me a bit of Dogtooth and, visually, what I love about the Palermo-lensed You’re Next. Those going to Sundance this year can see more of his work, as he shot Kat Candler’s short, Black Metal, and Hannah Fidell’s NEXT entry, A Teacher.

Other regions spotlighted their own rising stars. For Dallas, another of my favorite showcases, programmer/producer/cinema co-owner Adam Donaghey shined some focus on hometown hero David Lowery, who also has a new work at Sundance next month (actually, he has a new feature, Ain’t Them Body Saints, and he edited Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color). In addition to watching his wonderful short film Pioneer, we also looked at Eric Steele’s Cork’s Cattlebaron, which Lowery edited, and the fun new Harry Potter-fan comedy Slash, directed by former Lowery and Steele DP, Clay Liford. The latter two feature the always excellent Robert Longstreet, an actor whose appearance can actually keep me from disliking a film.

For New Orleans, the central filmmaking voice is understandably Beasts of the Southern Wild’s Benh Zeitlin, as I noted in my mid-fest diary over the weekend. Guest curator Bob Weisz also thankfully highlighted the work of the Ross brothers by showing an excerpt of their fantastic new documentary Tchoupitoulas and part of a behind-the-scenes documentary they did for the Beasts of the Southern Wild DVD – which I’d probably never have seen otherwise. He also showed his own music video for bounce star Big Freedia’s “Y’all Get Back Now,” which I’ve re-watched way too many times since leaving Miami.

As for the other presentations, I really enjoyed the different approach taken by music video director Seth Metelerkamp (Die Antwoord’s “Zef Side”). He primarily showed what his community in South Africa is doing with the music video format and documentary (the two trailers for nonfiction features we saw also involved music), but first he gave us a lengthy history of mainstream representations of and from his country’s cinema and music to provide context (to see what his generation grew up on, Google Leon Schuster). To contrast that, Philadelphia’s guides, who are starting their own regional Borscht Film Fest, showed a whole lot of stuff without any comment or context. And East Oregon’s Ian Clark showed two shorts, including his own Searching for Yellow and Sam Kuhn’s Peter. While neither film is bad, they weren’t my cup of tea, and at 16–25 minutes each, they seemed very long and filling amidst a weekend filled with quick bites.

And part of the selling point by the Borscht Film Festival is that their program’s selections are really short, so if you don’t like any one of the films you only have to wait a moment before it passes. That certainly applies well to the crop of the mostly experimental works we saw Saturday night, too. There’s also a matter of some of the films being screened unfinished. One in particular was missing its CGI monster money shot at the end. Others could use a bit of feedback on clarity, and that’s okay since as a real intimate communal event, part of the point is to get constructive criticism to determine what could help these shorts get out to the larger festival circuit.

Because I’m not a part of the scene (I was merely an observer), I’ll focus on the good stuff, such as Celia Rowlson-Hall’s surreal love story Si Nos Dejan, a visually captivating work I want to liken to Maya Deren by way of Baywatch. There’s Andrew Zuchero’s one-note yet fast-paced and gory The Apocalypse, which immediately appeased me by starting Martin Starr. Another spectacle from Coral Morphologic (again, see my previous post). Metelerkamp’s crazy contribution to this year’s limo movie trend, Soul O. Indie “It Girl” Amy Seimetz, who under hypnosis showed her feature Sun Don’t Shine on Friday, also showed up in the main event and stood out with her new dramatic short When We Lived in Miami.

She stars in that and also appears in one of the best, and weirdest, shorts of the fest, #PostModem(pictured at the top). Made by performance artist Jillian Mayer, a Borscht employee and apparent star of her own scene, along with co-director Lucas Leyva, this catchy surreal sci-fi musical inspired by Ray Kurzweil’s theories on singularity is going to provide an earworm for Sundancers next month. Mayer and Leyva are returning to Park City following last year’s appearance, when they screened their popular 2 Live Crew film Life and Freaky Times of Uncle Luke. They’re definitely doing stuff nobody else is doing and producing work incomparable to anything you’ve ever seen. And they’re the sort of film artists that probably could never succeed in feature length, which is fine since the shorts world needs them (according to Mayer’s website, though, #PostModem is in fact being made into a feature).

Finally there was the main attraction, Bleeding Palm’s Adventures of Christopher Bosh in the Multiverse, an animated superhero fantasy that both celebrates and parodies the titular basketball star and the Miami Heat’s Championship win earlier this year. Like much of the program, it’s indication that Borscht is an event especially for people who’ve grown up on Adult Swim and in the age of memes and viral WTF-ery. At least it’s hilarious, even for someone like me who’d never heard of Bosh before, and this is once again in part thanks to Mayer, who co-directed and plays the film’s villain (joined by her teeny dog, Shivers, as henchman). The short also helped the fest get a lot of attention this year, albeit controversially, via a cease and desist order the Borscht Corp. received from the NBA as a result of its use of trademarks and game footage.

Attention is good, especially considering I had never heard of the fest before we were invited down (and you’re likely reading about it for the first time as well). But there is an appropriateness to how small, intimate, quirky, fringy, freaky, drunky, hipstery, underground-y Borscht is. I’ve only ever been to the city for the Miami International Film Festival, your basic regional “best of” event for the near-mainstream cityfolk, and this time I feel I visited a whole different world, unlike I ever imagined residing beneath the main stage of palms, thongs and tans. To a degree I consider Borscht more like a very laid back conference than a film festival, a place for likeminded artists and truly indie film types to converge and share what’s going on in their field in other parts of the world.

To call back Stark’s quote from above, the Internet helps get some of these artists’ voices out, too, but not centrally and attentively the way an event like Borscht can. Cinema may be a visual art, but it’s also wrapped in a very tactile sort of experience – both in the space of production and exhibition – if you take to it correctly to its fullest. And I think Borscht gets that really well. If you’re a maker of short films or a lover of short films and regional film culture in general, you need to visit this fest the next time it happens.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.