Miami went nuts when “Moonlight” won the Oscar for Best Picture. It was the ultimate underdog story. And in acceptance speech after acceptance speech, a familiar name kept popping up: Borscht.
We knew the name, we knew they did something with the local film industry, and we knew they had a batshit crazy website, but we realized we knew pretty much nothing about who they are or what role they played in making “Moonlight” happen. So we called them up.
Borscht Corporation, a Miami film collective, was the connective tissue that made “Moonlight” happen. Founded in 2005, their goal is to tell “Miami stories and redefine cinema in Miami,” explained co-founder Lucas Leyva.
And when this low-budget indie film about a poor, gay, black boy living in Miami managed to nab the highest honor “in an industry that’s ignored those stories and ignored Miami,” Levya got chills. It was the perfect ending to Borscht Corporation’s 10th annual film festival.
As the festival wrapped up on the heels of this win, we spoke with Leyva about what it felt like to get Miami on the spotlight and help change local cinema in a little more than a decade.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
It seems like Tarell Alvin McCraney and Barry Jenkins can’t stop talking about Borscht when they talk about “Moonlight,” but for the people out there who are wondering — what is Borscht?
We are a non-profit collection of filmmakers and artists who operate under the mission to tell Miami stories and redefine cinema in Miami … to that end we make and help make a lot of films and other media and then throw an event called the Borscht Film Festival every one-and-a-half to two years to showcase these works. That’s the dry version of it.
What’s the other version?
We’re a group of filmmakers who wanted to do stuff in Miami but there was no support in what we were doing. The festivals didn’t want to play our work, the movies were bad, and the work wasn’t getting out there. You were kind of seen as a loser if you were making work in Miami — everyone was wearing L.A. Dodgers hats and pretending like they were doing L.A. stuff.
We came in with a different rhetoric, where Miami stories matter more. We’re more interested in that than how were depicted by outside forces. We were hoping one day someone would tell a Miami story that spoke to the whole world, and we had a hunch that it would be successful. Then “Moonlight” came and proved the whole thing.
When did Borscht start?
We started in 2005. Back then, it was a different landscape. There were less than a third of the amount of indie cinemas, there was no Indie Film Club or Filmgate Interactive or Miami Filmmakers Collective. If they had they been around back then maybe we wouldn’t have made Borscht. Even Miami Film Festival has pivoted around Miami and now our rhetoric around “Miami stories matter,” and it’s cool and it’s mainstream.
That’s pretty cool — but what’s up with the name? What does Borscht mean?
We always have some BS we say — it’s a Ukrainian beet soup made from disparate homegrown elements to make a quirky thing. The reality is we never thought we’d be named that forever. We came up with it in 2005 when we were at the Miami Shores performing arts theater called The PlayGround Theatre. They had a Russian artistic director and he wanted to get young people in the audience and he made borscht soup for us.
I’m Cuban so didn’t know anything about that, but we couldn’t think of a good name so we just used it and now we’re stuck with it
It’s kind of hard because people can’t spell it. My parents can’t pronounce it. They’re like like “Borshhh? Que?” It presents some problems, but it’s better than being something like the Miami Young Film Festival.
So why are Tarell and Barry singing the praises of Borscht? What was the organization’s hand in making this movie happen?
We had worked with both of them before. Tarell I’ve known for years — he was my mentor as a playwright. I’d send him my work when he was getting his Masters in Fine Arts at Yale and I was an undergrad at a Fordham in New York. I would drive up and go see his work and he encouraged me to write and do things about Miami.
I was doing Borscht and we made a movie with Tarell called “Day N Night Out,” and I didn’t think it was good but he said “let’s do another movie” and he sent me “In the Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.”
Around the same time in 2010, a man named Andrew Hevia who went to film school with Barry was helping me with Borscht, when we got our first Knight Foundation grant.
Barry is from Miami and he sort of swore it off and was living in the Bay Area where he made a movie called “Medicine for Melancholy,” where San Francisco is a living, breathing character. Andrew was like “If he did this for San Francisco, which is an adopted town, imagine what he can do for Miami, which is his hometown.”
Through Borscht he came down and produced a short film called “Chlorophyll,” and was reawakened to the city when he had such a positive experience. Then we started sort of thinking about the script we had from Tarell. I wasn’t the person to make this movie, but [I thought] Barry might be.
We made the introduction very carefully and they got along and that’s how it went.
How does it feel to be the connective tissue for something this big?
It’s crazy. Even just watching the movie premiere during our Miami Mini Film Fest in October — being in the room and watching, I was getting chills. I felt like crying. I couldn’t believe it existed.
We bet big on the last 10 years on this happening — it’s crazy to see it come and go all the way to the highest award a film can get in the industry, in an industry that’s ignored those stories and ignored Miami.
And it’s crazy to see the community support it. At the Oscar party at the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center, people were cheering like the Heat won the title. I’ve never heard of an indie film having a city root for it in that way.
Hopefully this is just the beginning. We’ve been doing the work to groom other filmmakers to be ready for opportunities like this. There is an audience and we’re going to see more Miami stories coming out of the city, but it’s going to be difficult, because there’s no state tax incentive which means anyone doing a movie has to convince financiers to spend 20 percent more than they would to produce a film in Georgia.
But “Moonlight” was made without state tax incentives.
For every “Moonlight” that does it on their own, there are potentially 10 that can’t.
You guys just wrapped up your 10th film festival. Congrats! But quick question: Why was the theme “Borsht Diez” and the tagline “pray4Borscht” if you guys just had such a mega success? Did Borscht die?
Diez actually comes from ten in Spanish. Again it started off as a dumb joke then we started taking it seriously. It’s also playing on the current zeitgeist that everything is a bit more apocalyptic. For Miami, the impact of sea level rise and that mentality is reflected in a lot of films screened. They’re not literally about flooding but more about Miami and this sense of mortality and fatalism.
What does it mean to be creating things in the face of destruction? That mentality is sort of what we wanted to explore.
Plus, from our perspective we never intended to be around this long. We never ever wanted to be this institution that’s sucking up resources, so we’re always evaluating what is the impact we’re having? Originally our mission was to redefine cinema in Miami and with “Moonlight” and success of short films, the people that come to Miami for this festival, and the new voices coming out of here — we’ve done that.
It’s about what’s next? If we’ve already changed the dialogue and discourse in the city, “diez” sort of ended perfectly. The Oscar win put a nice period on our first cycle of Borscht. Now we’re going to start over, and how it starts over remains to be seen.
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