Miami Dade College’s Miami Film Festival will present its 39th annual edition from March 4-13, featuring a mix of in-theater and virtual presentations. With more than 120 films from 35 countries on display, ranging from features to documentaries to shorts, the event will be filled with premieres and special screenings and events.

“Last year we did the hybrid event, with reduced capacity and no parties and limited guests. But this year, we’re back to a normal festival,” says executive director and co-director of programming, Jaie Laplante. “COVID has helped us figure out what we value the most with the festival, and how we reach our ultimate mission, which is to connect art and artists with the audience.”

The festival opens with Fernando León de Aranoa’s Spanish comedy “The Good Boss,” and closes with Abner Benaim’s Panamanian drama “Plaza Catedral,” both films were shortlisted for the international film Oscar. The closing night presentation will take place in the festival’s new awards night gala home, the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.

“The biggest recent change is that audiences have become more selective and are putting more attention on what they’re doing,” says co-director of programming, Lauren Cohen. “People have to really want to see what they’re buying tickets for because there’s still a pandemic, so from a programming standpoint, we have to be certain that the selections will drive people to the theater. It makes you program with a lot more intention.”

The boost from making the shortlist is not lost on “Plaza Catedral” helmer Benaim. “It’s been very important to get on the Oscar shortlist, because it’s a small film, from a small country, with no big names, so the recognition goes directly to the film itself and increases its visibility with concrete outcomes as a result,” he says, while also noting the impact of screening in Miami. “It’s special for our film, especially as the story presents a clear message against juvenile violence, and because the area is a bridge between the Americas. There’s this great cultural mix from the United States and Latin America, so Miami is a perfect place to screen the film.”

Precious Gem Awards, which serve as the festival’s signature honors and are reserved for singular artists whose contributions to cinema are lasting and unforgettable, will be given to Oscar-nominated filmmakers Ryûsuke Hamaguchi (“Drive My Car”) and Ramin Bahrani.

Bahrani’s latest project, the documentary “2nd Chance,” will screen at the festival. It tells the life story of Richard Davis, the man who invented the concealable bulletproof vest, and who shot himself 196 times during the course of his career to prove the effectiveness of his product.

Hamaguchi’s “Drive My Car” received four nominations earlier this month from Oscar voters: best picture, director, adapted screenplay and international film. It has been named best film by the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. and the New York Film Critics Circle.

“I’m extremely grateful to be getting a Precious Gem award, especially after I saw the list of previous recipients, including Pedro Almodóvar and Isabelle Huppert,” says Hamaguchi, who cites John Cassavetes as an early and continued influence. “In order for there to be a human connection in cinema, there has to be a disconnection, and I wanted our film to have a different interpretation for each viewer. It’s a story of despair, but I also wanted to convey a sense of hope.”

The festival’s Art of Light Awards are given to  artists whose exemplary work shines new wonders on the continuing evolution of motion pictures, and will be presented to cinematographer Ari Wegner (“Zola”) and composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer (“The White Lotus”).

“The music in ‘The White Lotus’ is really its own special character, and the cinematography in ‘Zola’ was fresh and exciting, the perfect balance between fun and neon while also showing a gritty, heightened reality. It’s also got a great Florida vibe,” Cohen says.

Crafting the music to one of last year’s buzziest shows has had a lasting impact. “I’m honored to be considered as someone who brings innovation to the table, because expanding the boundaries of what’s normal is very important to me. I think it’s beneficial for everybody to experience difference and novelty in the arts in the same way that traveling the world opens your mind to difference,” de Veer says.

Wegner, who also received an Oscar nomination for her painterly work on the austere western “The Power of the Dog,” truly had a breakout year in 2021. “Light is really one of the big loves of my life! It’s genuinely the way I see the world, not just on set, but in most moments of the day. So to be awarded the Art of Light Award means everything. I’m incredibly honored,” she says.

Knight Heroes, a popular program created with cash-grant support from the John S. & James L. Knight Foundation, returns for its fourth consecutive year, with a new format. Field of Vision’s “IF/Then” shorts co-directors Caitlin Mae Burke and Merrill Sterritt will lead an informative panel for South Florida filmmakers called Scaling a Short Film Into a Short Form Series, which will include development executive panelists.
“We’re working on more filmmaker support programs this year, including a partnership with Oolite Arts, which commissions eight Miami filmmakers, who will create short films, with budgets of $50K each,” Laplante says.
Various cash prizes are up for grabs, including the Knight Foundation’s $25,000 Knight Marimbas Award, which is an international competition for new narrative feature films that best exemplify richness and resonance for cinema’s future. Films in contention include “Paris, 13th District,” “The Box,” “The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future,” “Drunken Birds,” “Freda,” “Medusa,” “Neptune Frost,” “Out of Sync,” and “Soul of a Beast.”
The $55,000 Knight Made in MIA Award, also supported by Knight Foundation, will award three jury-selected prizes to films of any genre that feature a substantial portion of its content in South Florida, and that best utilize its story and theme for universal resonance. The 18 films in competition include “Are You Down?,” “Blackness Is a Luxury,” “Cariño,” “D3C05,” “Daniel & Nate,” “A Date, with History,” “In Beauty It Is Unfinished,” “The Life of Bill Baggs,” “Light,” “Little Havana by Rainy,” “Madame Pipi,” “The Mom Escaped,” “Open Dialogues: Stories From the LGBTQ Community,” “Sirens of the Swamp,” “South Beach Shark Club: Legend and Lore of the South Florida Shark Hunters,” “Un Pequeño Corte,” “Wade in the Water: Drowning Racism” and “You Can Always Come Home.”
Additionally, Variety and the Miami Film Festival are partnering on an Intl. Feature Film Roundtable that will spotlight the Oscar-nominated filmmakers in the category. It will air first on March 10 during the Miami Film Festival and stream on March 11 in the Variety Streaming Room. The panel will be moderated by Variety Awards Editor Clayton Davis.
Other events include a special dedication to the memory of the late Sidney Poitier, and a screening of the documentary “Croqueta Nation.” As well there is planned Quinteto Dominicano, a celebration of the festival’s five feature film premieres from the Dominican Republic: “Candela,” “Carajita,” “A Film About Couples,” “The Lost Children of Jarabacoa” and “Parsley.”

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