The Ziff Ballet Opera House at the Adrienne Arsht Center was barely half-full and those in attendance had to wait 50 minutes past the 8 p.m. sharp start up time to begin the festival, after some awkward introductions from the Borscht producers; the most ironic coming from Nick Ducassi who moved to New York months ago clowning a little-too-loud-for-the-acoustics: "305 till we die" or till you move away.
On Saturday, after 20 months between Borscht festivals, we were an audience filled with hunger, yet what we were served constituted a long, sprawling, sloppy menu that is almost impossible to digest in its entirety. There's a difference between dark, creepy and awkward; Borscht 8 was awkward.
The first movie, our introduction, was a whiny apologetic rant, incredibly rough and probably filmed within the last week, regarding a cease & desist letter the Festival received from Miami Heat player Chris Bosh's attorneys. Borscht, which not only ignored the legality of the letter and played the movie, seemed to double down by twirling their mustaches at the process. It immaturely played like an unveiled attempt at trying to get extra attention to the minor attention it already received, which now might get them extra negative attention. Not smart for a grant based group.
The 2nd movie Miami 1996, directed by Nick Corirossi, was disjointed and also awkward as they officially began the fest by taking us back to mid-90's Miami, which apparently consisted of a senseless barrage of coked out partying, loose snakes, booty dancing chongas and back yard fights. The only thing missing was a figurative roofie to forget the whole experience happened so we could move onto the next film, which hopefully would be great.
#PostModem, directed by Jillian Mayer and Lucas Leyva, had our toes tingling with anticipation. Ms. Mayer and Mr. Leyva are the art & soul of the Borscht group. They are pretty dang talented, intelligent, and progressive. Albeit a little bit complicated, they're worthy of their laud. Then their movie starts with a montage of little six-year-old kids meditating on their inevitable deaths. Ugh! No. Don't go there. Not today! With the flags outside the theater lowered in half-staff; with the 24-hour news cycle literally still breaking the news of the Sandy Hook Elementary School Shootings; it was the most uncomfortable fifteen seconds of film; literally cringe worthy with awkwardness. Agreeably, it's not fair to assess the movie or the festival on 15 seconds of awkwardness amplified by current events, but it's a perfect example of the immaturity and short-sightedness that was on display. Honestly, the movie should've been pulled, or at least edited.
It will take up too much time to dissect the rest of the festival on an individual basis. Here's a quick peek at my notes: if you jumble adjectives and comparisons together it sort of makes for a soup, a la a borscht: silly, senseless, fleeting, incomplete, Blair Witch Project meets Half Baked, rough, poignant, awkward, anti-climactic, nonsensical, sprawling, funny, gross, cute, vulgar, boring, Clash of the Titans meets Amazon Women on the Moon.
There were some poignant moments; particularly in films like Sea Devil and When We Lived in Miami, but almost every feature ended anti-climatically. If this essay stopped right now, you'd get a good idea of how it felt watching a movie at Borscht 8. There were at least three movies that went to silly nonsensical dimensions; a sci-fi niche that really doesn't pay off in short films. There were a few animated flicks; a couple of one-minute fillers.
There was one thing consistently missing from all these movies: writing.
Truly it's not that hard to tell a story. Here's a crash course in creative writing: create a character, make them want something, challenge them with conflict and have them struggle, provide a resolution and notice them change. Boom. Are art house features not supposed to follow the basic techniques of narrative? Is plot completely thrown out the window in the name of metaphor?
Last year, the Borscht line-up was so delicious: Piratas, La Paegent Diva, I Am Your Grandma, Play Dead, Chlorophyll, Otto and the Electric Eel, Hair Cut, Birdwatchers, The Life and Freaky Times of Luther Campbell, the Leslie Scoggins fillers. I don't think there's a writer in this city who was more inspired by Borscht 7; seeing the full house at the Arsht Center in 2011 made me feel alive and young and proud of our city. I gave Borscht so much free press in New Times, even after they rejected a manuscript I submitted.
In some ways, it's unfair to pick on Borscht. They're entitled to an off-night. There's beauty in darkness. They played up an end-of-the-world Mayan calendar theme. I am just one voice; although most I spoke to felt the films were anti-climactic, incomplete and pointless.
There's a bigger issue here.
The Borscht Corporation just received a $500,000 matching funds grant from the Knight Foundation. Borscht isn't the only non-profit arts group to be given very large grants by the Knight Foundation; however, they are the ones currently on trial and the Knight Foundation has to stick by them, and of course they will, even as they put on a blatant amateur hour on Saturday, may get sued by a NBA basketball player, and allowed a movie to screen featuring children talking about their inevitable death the same day as one of the worst national tragedies in our history.
The Knight Foundation is a blessing and a burden. It's absolutely great to pour millions of dollars into local arts organizations. Of course. They are contributing to the burgeoning development of our city. It's awesome. Yet no matter how they spin it, when it comes to choosing who gets "knighted" there are politics involved, as well as personal biases from a select few who are given too much power when it comes to deciding what is good and worthy. The media specifically needs to be aware of the trap in believing that everyone the Knight Foundation chooses is worthy. This is not so much a critique against Borscht, but more a call-to-action to realize that there is more talent in this city beyond those who are "knighted." The Knight Foundation is not the bottom line when it comes to what should be considered as reputable, endearing and enduring. In some ways, they deserve a little mud on their face for a slight tendency of riding through the forest on such a high horse. But this is not a critique on the Knight Foundation. That's ongoing.
This is about a festival run by a group of young, ambitious, scurrilous filmmakers who could use a little more narrative, a little less metaphor. A little more commercial scene and a little less art house reflection. With the Knight Foundation doubling down, maybe it's time for Borscht to mature. For starters, let's hope Borscht 9 has films with beginnings, middles and ends.