MIFF Merits a Bronze

The Miami International Film Festival concluded its 26th year last night, with a few scattered screenings at four different theaters, which is a pretty decent metaphor for the festival as a whole. After Art Basel and the Miami Book Fair, MIFF should be the third biggest cultural event in the city's calendar, but it's hard at this point to rank it anywhere near those other two. AB-Miami is the best art fair west of the Alps, while the Book Fair ranks only behind L.A.'s. Where does MIFF rank nationally, much less internationally, among film festivals? Somewhere between Fort Lauderdale and Rotterdam?

Most screenings were respectably full, but if you've ever been to Sundance and stood in a four-hundred person line in driving snow to see a short film made by a 19-year-old Sri Lankan, you realize how far MIFF has to go. (The only film that created "around the corner" lines was Jens Hoffmann's 9 to 5: Days in Porn, which had the unfair of advantage of cum-swapping.)

Part of MIFF's mixed performance is due to its transition in 2003 into the purview of Miami-Dade College, an potentially awkward marriage, and having its third director in three years doesn't help either. The festival currently seems trapped between being a Latin American Cultural Celebration (the cinematic Calle Ocho) and becoming a fledgling international player in the film industry. You can't accept every single Cuban-related feel-good story on nitrate and expect to compete with Tribeca.

Ironic as it may sound, MIFF needs to move past the "Gateway to the America's" PR schtick to become relevant to the America's. And I actually think Tiziana Finzi is the person to do it. She showed real promise in the degree of daring in her programming, and while I disagree with the choice of Abel Ferrara as worthy of a lifetime achievement award, at least she went out on a limb. (And Ferrara came packaged with Willem Dafoe, a legit celeb who attended, literally, every major event.) The question is: how far will Miami-Dade College, basically another city bureaucracy, let her go?

Another issue is geography. The festival screened in six different theaters spread out between the Beach and Coral Gables.The advantage to the scatter-shot placement is that it draws viewers from different neighborhoods who might not otherwise make the drive. The downside is that there's no locus of energy. Again, and it's cruel (and perhaps unfair) to compare MIFF to Sundance, but main street in Park City during that week is a better event than 85 percent of the  screenings. Lincoln Road has the potential to be that same kind of pedestrian-malestrom, so as much as I like the Gusman as a venue, I think Finzi needs to think seriously about using the Regal for its red carpet. The participants already stay on Collins; the festival and press check-ins are in the Raleigh and the Royal Palm; why not also screen the premieres in Miami's glitziest neighborhood? Why not throw the after-parties in the after-party capital of the East Coast? (Instead of at Everglades on the Bay!? Never heard of it? Me either.) There's no fun in having a VIP badge if other people aren't watching when you use it.

In short, MIFF needs to play to Miami's strengths a little more, instead of trying to single-handedly overcome its weaknesses. The festival shouldn't act like a giant syringe, injecting culture wherever the government thinks it's needed. Its first responsibility should be to its own integrity. Make Harvey Weinstein pay attention, and then bus his fat ass out to the Tower Theater for an empanada and an 87-minute documentary on Celia Cruz.

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