Borscht Diez: “While the Miami of beach, boobs and blow definitely exists, it isn’t our experience.”

As Hurricane Irma sweeps through Florida, we witness the devil-may-care attitude of Miamians, responding to rising sea levels with both defiance and a certain stoic acceptance. Our upcoming screening of films by Miami’s Borscht Corporation, billed as coming from the “underwater ruins of the old human city known as Miami” exemplifies that outlook, whilst increasingly seeming less like comic hyperbole, more like a prediction of the near future.

One of the driving forces behind Barry Jenkins’ Oscar winner Moonlight, Borscht is an open-source filmmaking collective dedicated to articulating the idiosyncratic culture of Miami. In addition to commissioning forty new short films each year, Borscht runs an annual film festival, a lawless, gonzo event involving illegal screenings on islands surrounded by alligator-infested waters, body-builder parades and Q&As with filmmakers under hypnosis.

Glasgow Short Film Festival staged the first international retrospective of Borscht’s work in 2014, and we’re thrilled to be welcoming back the latest crop for Scalarama 2017. GSFF Director Matt Lloyd spoke to Borscht’s Lucas Leyva in advance of their Scalarama screening.

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Lucas Leyva at GSFF14

How did you get started? What did the indie filmmaking scene in Miami look like pre-Borscht?

I can’t really tell you too much about the indie filmmaking scene in Miami pre-Borscht. I am sure something existed, as Hollywood filmmakers like Brett Ratner (Rush Hour, X-Men 3) and Dave Frankel (Marley and Me, The Devil Wears Prada) are from here, but Borscht was formed primarily as a response to the lack of infrastructure and support for young filmmakers.

When we were just getting started we reached out to these filmmakers to see if they were interested in advising or supporting us in some way. David Frankel was very generous in agreeing to give half-hour consultations to five filmmakers working on their first shorts. It was very helpful, but after the sessions, he pulled one of us aside and asked, ‘This is nice and all, but what’s the point?’ The concept of community-building through filmmaking was completely alien to him. Brett Ratner could not care less about us. After a while we gave up on trying to get him to champion our cause, and started a Twitter campaign lobbying him to give us a hug. Finally he relented, and gave Andrew Hevia [one of the Borscht founders] a hug at SXSW in 2011. It wasn’t a very good one.

The public school system in Miami is notoriously bad, but there are a few art schools where students must audition to be admitted. Borscht started out of New World School of the Arts. A dozen of us were into making movies. We saw Lars von Trier’s Five Obstructions and loved it – we copied the model and forced each other to make films with increasingly ridiculous obstacles. When we were done we would throw a party and screen the films after hours in classrooms. We called it UnMinced.

We built a robot to host the event and named it Paris Hilton, which confused a lot of people. 

After graduation most of us planned on moving to New York or Los Angeles as most creatives do. But during the holiday and summer breaks we found ourselves collaborating and making more films together in Miami – sort of sharing what we were all learning and bringing it home. Unfortunately there was still no outlet for these films, and at the time I was commissioned to write a play for a children’s theatre in Miami Shores. The owner of the theatre offered us free use of the space if we wanted to screen the films, and so UnMinced became Borscht in 2005. We built a robot to host the event and named it Paris Hilton, which confused a lot of people. The movies were pretty bad but a lot of people came.

We did it in different spaces (the planetarium, a theatre in Little Havana) through the years whenever we had free time and someone offered a free space, but never really took it seriously, even though the free events were always oversold. I graduated from school in New York in 2008 and moved back to Miami to save money before I planned on moving out to Los Angeles. It was right when the great recession hit so there were a lot of artists doing the same thing: waiting out what we thought were going to be a few bad months at home, saving money. There were enough of us that we were able to make another set of films and throw a festival. We still weren’t making good films necessarily, but there was a growing mass of artists in Miami at the time – most of them around our age – and a private foundation called the Knight Foundation started awarding art grants to groups.

We didn’t get one, but teamed up with a group that had, and got a little bit of money for the first time. We rented out the fanciest theatre in town and to our shock almost 2,000 people showed up. There was a line around the block, people scalping tickets for the free event, just madness. To make things more complicated the projector broke just before the films were to start. There was no backup. As we were desperately trying to find one that was suitable for such a large theatre, we were sure most of the audience would leave. Instead, different musicians went on stage and performed. People hung out, drank, and waited for the films. Even though the delay was over two hours, barely anyone left.

It was sort of a watershed moment for Miami culture – there had always been an underground, but this was a crossover of sorts. It announced to the city that this critical mass of young creatives existed, and there was an audience to support them, which was all very exciting.

The next year we got our own bit of funding, set up shop in what was then the up-and-coming Wynwood area, and we were off. Sometime since then, the films have become watchable, and some of them even good. A lot of us realised that instead of moving to Los Angeles to work our way up the industry, we could stay home, build a unique infrastructure around us to support one another, and make movies the way we want to. It’s fun.

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Manila Death Squad, dir Dean Marcial

This isn’t simply a support network for filmmakers in Miami. The city itself is a central element of Borscht’s identity.

We self-identify as Miamians. This sounds obvious, but the city has historically been transient. Various immigrant groups waiting out economic distress or political revolutions in their home countries shaped the city, but they always identified as Cuban or Salvadorian.

To the rest of the world, the city was defined by Miami Vice and Scarface – media made by outsiders depicting the city in a specific way. While the Miami of beach, boobs and blow definitely exists, it wasn’t our experience. We found the city to have a lot more interesting stories, and have mined these stories and characters for our work.

What’s really great about the democratisation of means of production and distribution is that the gatekeepers have been mostly emasculated. No one needs to ask permission from the people in Los Angeles or New York holding the cheque books to tell their stories. Filmmakers everywhere have been empowered to depict their worlds as they see them, and share them with the world at large through digital means. I believe in the internet as a meritocracy – if it is good and/or entertaining, people will watch it. This is particularly exciting because we get to see truly fresh stories and understand cities in new ways – whether it’s big cities like New Orleans or Miami or Glasgow or Johannesburg or Havana, or more rural regions like Eastern Oregon. Scorsese made Mean Streets about the neighbourhood where he grew up in New York and shaped the cinematic identity of Little Italy. Now filmmakers can define their own cities for themselves.

Coppola’s dream with Zoetrope was to create an entirely new system independent of the studios, but he failed. Our generation has a chance to enact his dream deferred.

New York itself has been closed off to young artists making personal work for quite some time (ask Patti Smith), yet they still need workers, fresh blood to come in and staff the television and media programs. The image of NYC as it was in the 70s and 80s is perpetuated, every time the city is introduced it’s ‘from the greatest city in the world’. It’s bullshit – you can no longer afford the rent or cost of living as a young artist unless you were blessed with a trust fund, or spend most of your time working for someone else, perpetuating the lie. It’s like an Epcot theme park attraction: a city full of people playing city, convincing other people that it is still a city.

If you don’t care about the industry or making Hollywood films or commercials, there is absolutely no reason to live anywhere geographically specific. You can make pro-looking work anywhere and share it with the world. Why live in a place you can’t afford? Or even a place that has cold winters? New Orleans exists. Miami exists. You can buy a house in Detroit for a few hundred dollars.

The first American New Wave in the 60s and 70s was heavily influenced by a similar sort of regionalism. Those filmmakers were successful because they were able to infiltrate the studio system to make their personal films. While the ultimate failure of this revolution can be blamed on the rise of blockbusters or the excess of the filmmakers, in hindsight it seems to me that the promise was always sort of false. The means of production were still tightly controlled and the threshold was still millions of dollars and after that, there was no way around the entrenched distribution system. Coppola’s dream with Zoetrope was to create an entirely new system independent of the studios, but he failed. Our generation has a chance to enact his dream deferred. A well-organised and decently funded network of regional collectives and companies could potentially build this system as the new distribution landscape organises itself. It’s lofty, but no one knows anything, including me.

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My Trip to Miami, dir Dylan Redford

Tell me about the mechanics of production on Borscht films – do filmmakers collaborate on one another’s projects? Do you see it as a collective?

Up to this point our structure has been pretty amorphous. There is a free open call for filmmakers who are from, living in, or inspired by Miami to submit projects for funding or other support. If a story or idea is good, the organisation shapes itself around the project in whatever way supports it best. Sometimes it’s a matter of cutting a cheque and saying good luck. Other times we develop projects from concept to final edit. I would say we are a loose collective because there are a bunch of us around but it is a rotating cast. But while the collaboration isn’t usually formal, by virtue of everyone being in the same space we influence one another greatly. I’ve heard it’s a lot like film school in that we also help out however we can as crew. I’ll hold a boom mic on one set and then edit another film, for instance. It’s kind of complicated.

Much of the Borscht work consists of non-realist forms – animation, collage, expressionism – and unconventional, even radical, narrative structures. Can you suggest why these strategies are common to the Borscht filmmakers?

These strategies developed from necessity. Our first year at Sundance we were shocked to find out the first shot of one of the short films in the program cost more than our entire production slate that year. We are a non-profit that isn’t particularly well-funded. We don’t have access to fancy equipment or good actors or special effects. We simply can’t compete head-to-head in this way, so we designed our own parameters. If our work looks or is shaped or feels different from things people are used to, we provide our own context and can’t be compared with anything else. Either you like us on our terms or you don’t, but we can never be objectively inferior to these mainstream films. Our only advantage is our creativity and our city, so we leverage these as best we can.

This also comes from the fact that the vast majority of us have no formal training in filmmaking. Most of us come from theatre or visual art backgrounds, and have no notion of the ‘right‘ way to do or make things. We don’t know what a set of films is supposed to be like, and since we are geographically isolated we have developed our own way of doing things in a vacuum. Everything is an experiment and we are constantly learning – sometimes the experiments turn out beautifully and some fail spectacularly.

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Fanimaltastic, dir Karen Linda Johnson and Ms. Garcia’s 7th Grade Film Explorer’s Club

There’s a fantastical element to many of the Borscht films, but it’s rooted in or draws from very specific realities.

We often incorporate layered realities on top of the already-strange one that we exist in. We talk a lot about how living in Miami is like living in a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. It’s the closest thing to Macondo in the United States – a bizarre magical realist town where it rains iguanas from trees when the temperature drops below 70 degrees Fahrenheit and alligators end up in your backyard and the strangest crimes in the world are committed. We don’t need to use much imagination to make up stories, so we focus less on the what and why and more on the how. It’s an innocent, almost primitive way of approaching things: essentially explaining how these crazy things came to be. Miami myth-making.