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Foreign films with a Miami flavor

The Miami film community is multi-layered and entrenched in the international, with deep Latin roots. And like many arenas of the cultural arts, the world of film in the 305 is in a period of rich expansion. Film festivals are a big part of the reason for the surge of interest in filmgoers, and the filmmaking community has experienced a surge in both the quality and quantity of local talent.

“There was always a visual art scene in Miami, but since Art Basel came here, it raised Miami to the level of canon, and the same thing has happened with the New World Symphony. … Now it’s time for film,” said Vivian Marthell, co-founder of O Cinema.

With a background in visual arts and science, Marthell opened O Cinema in Wynwood in 2011 with her business partner Kareem Tabsch because she wanted a place to see the the kind of art films that were rarely shown in mainstream Miami movie theaters. Since then, O Cinema has expanded to two more locations in Miami Beach and Miami Shores. It has become the go-to source for independent cinema in Miami.

“We have a series called the Hyphenated American Series. To be called a hyphenated American back in the time of FDR was seen as derogatory, but we are taking it back as a banner of empowerment,” explained Marthell. “We are a hyphenated community here in Miami, and a gateway to the Americas. It is very enmeshed in who we are and our transient population, and we are poised to export Latin American and Caribbean cinema.”

Likewise, the Miami International Film Festival has embraced its position to unite Latin, Latin-American, and American audiences under one multi-ethnic umbrella.

Reflecting on what makes Miami-Dade filmgoers tick, Jaie Laplante, executive director of MIFF, said, “What is extraordinary is that a large majority of Miami’s population is either born outside the country or their mother tongue is Spanish.”

Laplante explained that while it might be expected that Colombians and Colombian-Americans would attend Colombian film screenings during the MIFF, he has seen much more diverse audiences from a variety of countries. Overall, he explained that the mother land and the mother tongue still attract the most diverse spectrum of the Latin audience. Spanish films are consistently successful at MIFF and attendance is wide and varied among different origin groups, as well as English speakers.

“No other major international event in the US is as committed as a portal for Latin work. There is a heavy concentration of Latin film in the MIFF programming, at least 50 to 60 percent. But we don’t set out to be representational. We focus on quality entertainment that pushes boundaries and is sophisticated entertainment.”


In addition to the main Miami film festival, smaller festivals abound, such as the Brazilian Film Festival of Miami, celebrating it’s 19th year on September 12–19. Viviane Spinelli founded the Brazilian Film Festival in Miami, and it has since expanded to other cities like New York. “The Miami local film industry is growing and now new generations of filmmakers are coming here, co-producing and exchanging ideas,” she said. “Just last night, I was at an event for the new MAGIC (Miami Animation and Gaming International Complex), which has all new and beautiful equipment.”

MAGIC is a new Miami-Dade College education and training center poised to serve as a catalyst for digital filmmaking and game design in South Florida, and it’s indicative of one of the reasons for the growth of Miami’s film scene. Spinelli also pointed to other promising signs of a growing infrastructure for film and filmmakers in the city of Miami, making the connection to the Americas even more evident. She’s excited that RioFilme, a Brazilian film distribution company managed by the city of Rio de Janeiro, is poised to sign an agreement to bring its film roster to Miami Beach.

On the grassroots end of the spectrum lies Filmgate, an organization committed to fostering young talent. Ruth Reitan, a graduate instructor in film and former professor of international studies at the University of Miami, sang the praises of Filmgate and its director Diliana Alexander for igniting a community of independent filmmakers in Miami.

“Filmgate is an important incubation for a new Miami filmmaking sensibility. The event NoLA (No, I Won’t Move to LA) is tongue-in-cheek, but true,” said Reitan. “We want to build up a film industry of some capacity, but the problem we face is the spotty tax incentives and rebates.”

Despite the lack of incentives for productions to take place in South Florida, artist loyalty to filming here has allowed quite a few hits to be made, such HBO’s ‘Ballers’ with UM alumnus Dwayne Johnson, which is set in Miami, and Netflix’s Bloodline, set and shot in the Keys, as well as the Hulu-exclusive show ‘South Beach’ by executive producer Bill O’Dowd, who’s taught in the UM film department.

Miami’s role in attracting film productions, nurturing local cinematic talent, and exporting its brand of film outside of the 305 looks bright from the perspective of Laplante. He reflected on the unique ability of the MIFF to catapult certain Latin films to higher stratospheres of success, such as Uruguayan film ‘Tanta Agua’ (‘So Much Water’), which got seed funding and support from MIFF in 2009 and then went on to premier at the Berlin Film Festival in 2013, earning major international accolades.

“Miami will continue to fulfill the unique niche in a major way as the general trend toward Latin flavor and Spanish language cinema increases,” Laplante said. “Other cities may have large Latin populations, but nowhere is close to rivaling our community and tastes.”

By Maya Ibars
Maya Ibars is a human rights lawyer and a writer. She grew up in Miami and has lived in New York, Chicago, Paris, Bogota, Rio de Janeiro and Hanoi. She is passionate about the arts and social change.