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Miami International Film Festival, February 2005

A Report by Barbara Lorey


Miami is not really a place you would easily associate with international cultural events. But the city – known for sex and crime, beaches, sun and sea – is slowly changing. Miami’s great cultural diversity, it’s strategic position as ‘gateway of the Americas’ and a more liberal ambience than the rest of Florida is attracting a new kind of population. New neighborhoods develop with contemporary art and design galleries, the International Art Fair, now in its second year, is raising Miami’s profile as a contemporary art market.

Last but not least, Miami’s International Film Festival is emerging as one of the premiere events of Southern Florida’s cultural life, with a strong potential of getting very big in this city which, as the famous writer Russell Banks, new part-time resident of South Beach and juror in the World Cinema competition put it, " has become one of America's most international cities and, the cultural heartbeat of the Americas".

Since its new director, Nicole Guillemet, former director of the Sundance festival , took over the festival three years ago, it is attracting a broader audience each year, tripling its entries to more than 60 000 tickets sold. Undeniably, the eclectic line-up of 118 films from 47 countries, hand picked by Nicole Guillemet herself and split among 3 different competition sections- world cinema for first and second films, Ibero-American films and feature-length documentaries- along with world premieres, out-of-competition films and shorts as well, present a great opportunity for the public to discover a rich selection of the best of world cinema, most of which would not otherwise make it into Miami theaters.

The presence of filmmakers from all over the world, introducing their films and meeting with the public add a particular attraction. This year, Nicole Guillemet put up a new challenge by adding for the first time also screenings at noon and in the afternoon, each of which she personally introduced, to “reassure the filmmakers”, but which turned out to be surprisingly successful.

Conviently (and very pleasantly) located in the Art Deco Section of Miami Beach, the festival’s headquarters and numerous guests were hosted at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, right on the beach and in walking distance from the main theater.

The duo of Gusman Premieres were screened each night in a highly festive ambience at the stunningly beautiful and opulently decorated Olympia theater in downtown Miami. The theater, a masterpiece of Moorish fantasy-architecture with twinkling stars and moving clouds at the ceiling, originally opened in 1926 as a silent movie theater and became later a vaudeville hall whose stage had seen the Marx brothers, Sarah Vaughan, Elvis Presley and Pavarotti. This year it was the setting for the joyful Career Achievement Tribute presented to the ever radiant Liv Ullman.

The festival , organized and strongly supported by Miami Dade College which offers a broad program in filmmaking, Entertainment and Design Technology , seems to speak to the fact that the Miami region may attract a larger pool of young aspiring filmmakers and be set to play a increasing role in the filmmaking industry, making Southern Florida a new focal point in this domain.

Both juried and audience awards were given in dramatic and documentary categories.

Besides the jury’s choice of British filmmaker Amma Asante’s « A Way of Life », the other highlight among the 14 films in the world competition section was the startling directorial debut film, « Mitchellville », written, directed and produced by John D. Harkrider, a New York corporate lawyer and independent outsider-filmmaker in all terms of the word . His masterly crafted scenario, shot on HD, interweaves in dreamlike, achingly beautiful images, the story of two men searching for redemption for their mistakes. During a routine psychiatric examination, in a maze of dreams and reminiscence, a corporate lawyer (played by Harkrider himself) is peeling off the layers of an emotional shell which had hardenend around him since his traumatic experiences in early childhood. His inner search intersects with the life of Ken, an old black flutist and jazz-musician (played by veteran Hollywood actor and jazz musicien Herb Lovelle) whose own burden of the past takes us back to the oldest free African-American communities on the sea islands off the coast of South Carolina.

“Mitchellville’s “ mysterious and haunting dreamscape remains inscrutable up to and beyond its very end and left me with a strong urge to see the film again. John D. Harkrider is definetly a filmmaker to watch out for.

Best dramatic feature in the Ibero-American competition, was given to peruvian Josue Mendez's "Days of Santiago", the bleak story of a former Navy seal's difficulties to adjust to civil life in Lima's slums, a film that made aleady very successfully its way through the international festival circuit.

The Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary World &Ibero-American Cinema Competition went to the powerful film ”La Sierra “(Colombia) by first-time filmmakers Margarita Martinez and Scott Dalton,. It takes us into the intimate life of the right-wing paramilitaries in a neighbourhood in Medellin, thus providing a singular, unflinching first hand look into Columbia’s endless civil war and cocaine trade that has ravaged the country for 40 years. Martinez, a Columbian journalist working for Associated Press, and Scott Dalton, a freelance American photographer, spent almost a year in “La Sierra”, a hillside neighbourhood high above Medellin, sharing intimately the everyday life of the mostly very young paramilitaries, a life defined by violence in a community wracked by a conflict that has long since disposed of ideology. Instead of judging the nihilistic kids in uniform, often simply depicted as monsters, the films shows them as “real people”, trapped in their no-future world of destruction and despair, and gives them for the first time a voice..

Another film that cuts straight through the stereotypes, here to the myriad of recent liberal PC films about the war in Iraq, is the startling, very controversial and utmost puzzling “Gunner Palace”. Packaged as a deeply human story, the documentary provides an first-hand raw and intimate inside view of the US Army’s “Roughriders” , the so called "Gunners" 2-3 Field Artillery Division, stationed at the mansion formely owned by Udai Hussein. The filmmaker team, the American Michael Tucker and his German wife Petra Epperlein, who embedded themselves unofficially with a United States Army artillery company in Baghdad in the year after President Bush announced from the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln that major combat in Iraq " was over”, avoid taking sides and portray the soldiers without any political agenda. Instead, they present a mixed, raw assemblage of impressions and anecdotes, punctuated by soldiers performing free-style rap- and interviews. Political questions, or statements why or how the war is fought are seemingly deliberatly left out, and little is seen of the war's brutal consequences. Compared to Michel Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 this savage first-hand account presents quite a different portrait of American troops and doesn't assert a singular point of view.

" It shows where we were and what we went through."comments one solder, and "For ya'll this is just a show, but we live in this movie," raps, another one.

Officially listed as a German production, the film had been rejected en bloc by all German TV networks on the grounds that “given the current state of the public discussion of torture and Iraq’s future it will be difficult to find a station willing to broadcast [the film]”, as quoted from one rejection notice. As Tucker explained, even those broadcasters who thought his film was the most vivid available portrait of American soldiers in Iraq were afraid their viewers wouldn’t understand.

The filmmaker, himself born into a family of soldiers, claims for himself leftwing positions but so Tucker, "This is an experience. I'm not going to decide for people what they should think , viewers will see what they want in his film, regardless of their political bent. I wantthe public to also include people who supported the war .»

When “Gunner Palace” is released in March 4th in the US, there is a great chance that his wish will come true! Tucker will certainly find himself been patted on the shoulder by the "wrong" people, but it may come as a surprise to the German editors that "Gunner palace" has also been already highly applauded by the American liberal press, such as NYTimes, whose critic praises "its raw inconclusiveness as the truest mesure of his autheticity as an artefact of our time and of its value for future attemps to understand what the United States is doing in Iraq", and welcomes the film " as an antidote to the self-convinced rhetoric of pundits and politicians. It may not change your mind, but it will certainly deepen your perception and challenge your assumptions, whatever they may be".

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