Barry Jenkins' "Moonlight"

Our Favorites 2016: Lucas Leyva on “Moonlight” and the Magical Mix of the Borscht Corporation

This week, we’re celebrating the people who made some of the best films of the year possible.

It was a last minute thing, but the Borscht Corporation has become masterful at putting such productions together. As is often the case, Lucas Leyva and Jillian Mayer, the filmmakers who run the Miami-based film collective, might’ve almost been a little too busy to notice that they were having an extraordinary year. With the relationships they cultivated between collaborators and their desire to bring out the beauty in their hometown, they played a part in laying the foundation for some the most indelible films of the year in Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” and Bernardo Britto’s “Jacqueline (Argentine).” Even if the need to keep it going meant there is rarely time to enjoy the moment, there was no way the Borscht Corp was going to let this pass unacknowledged.

2016 Moveable Fest Favorites“When I was watching ‘Moonlight’ in a theater with an audience, I just kept getting chills and was so overwhelmed that this movie existed. It’s why we started this thing, hoping that we would help in some small way to bring a film to life that actually depicted a Miami that’s never been seen on screen, but it’s still authentically Miami and still resonates with the world at large,” says Leyva, after rapidly organizing the mini-flash festival dubbed “9.5,” coming in between Borscht’s usual festival schedule every other year, in October. “It proves the core concept of our mission statement, which is that if these movies are made, there is an audience for them and they can succeed at the highest level.”

For those who may be familiar with the often experimental films that have come with the Borscht Corporation seal, one might be surprised to learn that there ever was something so formal as a mission statement, but it’s been Borscht’s ability to connect the community of artists in Miami and create a sustainable infrastructure to support them since 2004 that has paved the way for some of the most wildly innovative films that hit the festival circuit and beyond. While the goal of showcasing their hometown as a wellspring of talent and a premier filming destination has now been firmly established, the Borscht Corporation has grown up even as they still demonstrate the desire to upend tradition when it comes to how and where films are made.

“We’ve pivoted from trying to be as loud as possible in that way to announce Miami to really building out intelligent infrastructure and taking it seriously in a way we didn’t before, particularly with the help of first full-time employee Lauren Monzon” says Leyva. “I think people look to us more and they’re aware of Miami as a place where you can be creative and you can make work.”

That was something that Leyva admits he wasn’t fully aware of when he was growing up in Miami himself. For high school, he attended the New World School of the Arts, a public arts school where Tarell Alvin McCraney, the future MacArthur fellow and writer of “Moonlight” would graduate a few years ahead of him, and while there was no specialty in film there, the theater student and his friends from other artistic disciplines would make movies on the weekends. Inspired by “The Five Obstructions,” Lars von Trier’s devilish challenge to his mentor Jorgen Leth to remake his short “The Perfect Human” with various impediments, the New World students would push each other in new creative directions.

“We were making pretty bad movies, but it was just fun to show each other these films,” says Leyva. “It started off as this party we would have at our high school and after we graduated, most of us went off to different schools out of state, but we all had this realization that there was something special going on here and maybe it was worth continuing this thing.”

Leyva would go to college in New York and return to Miami, only having an abstract idea of how he could recreate that experience he had in high school on a bigger scale, but he did have friends he could bring together to help him figure it out. He found a kindred spirit in Andrew Hevia, who like Leyva had been interested in bringing regional stories from South Florida to the fore, and later come to join forces with Mayer, a performance artist whose video installations concerning identity in the Internet age were the kind of immediate and stirring conceptual works that Borscht would specialize in. Like the filmmakers who would grow with the organization, it would be through trial and error that the Borscht Corporation (named after the Ukranian stew in which everything is thrown into the mix) came upon a winning formula, dictated to some degree by the venues for screening the films.

“We do [the festival] in opera houses where often 2200 people come and in Miami, if you’re competing against the beach, the parties, the clubs and all the content that’s available on these devices that we’re speaking on right now, we’d better make it worth [the audience’s] while,” says Leyva. “So even if we’re making these esoteric, high-minded, arty films, we still strive to be as entertaining as possible. That informs a lot of our work – having that audience in mind in Miami, we’ve got to put on a show for them.”

Borscht doesn’t disappoint in this regard, giving a platform to films that reflect the vibrancy of the city and points of view as diverse as the many regions that make it up, going beyond Miami Beach to explore Hialeah, Liberty City, Overtown and Homestead in evocative ways. Only a Borscht Corp festival could pull off programming the psychedelic “Adventures of Christopher Bosh in the Multiverse,” depicting the heretofore unknown intergalactic adventures of the Miami Heat’s power forward (that nearly landed Borscht in court) alongside Amy Seimetz’s sensuous, contemplative “When We Lived in Miami.” Fortunately for those who can’t make it to Miami, the arresting nature of the Borscht shorts have made them a fixture on the festival circuit globally, with a place often reserved for them in the shorts programs of Sundance, Rotterdam, Tribeca, SXSW, Toronto, and Venice to make mischief. (Likewise, The Borscht Corp often brings inventive work from elsewhere into their screenings, creating a loop of inspiration.)

A $150,000 grant from the Knight Foundation in 2010, followed by another more than doubling that amount, changed everything for the organization. Borscht didn’t even have a dedicated bank account set up at the time, but the grant provided seed money to commission numerous projects and gave the organization something perhaps even more valuable than money – legitimacy. The combination of credibility and financial credit allowed for their collection of resources, ranging from equipment and crew contacts to more intangible developmental tools, to fully coalesce around any given production and more people willing to take advantage of them.

“Sometimes all people need is a check for sound design to finish up a movie, which is easy for us, but sometimes someone writes saying, “I work in this strip club and know all these really amazing strippers with these great personal stories — I’d like to make a movie about them – how do I do that?” says Leyva, noting that it was through the application process he met his creative partner Mayer. “In those situations, we put aside some money for the budget, we give them a producer to help them bring it to life, we do some writing workshops and we develop the project and oversee it from the kernel of an idea to screenplay to finished film and then we help get it out into the world.”

Borscht Corp holds an open call for new projects every year, enabling artists to pitch their ideas or even come with a script or a rough cut, the only condition being that the film in question has a tie to Miami, whether in subject matter or filmmaker. But they have also actively sought out filmmakers with idiosyncratic voices that could say something new in sinking their feet into the city’s firmament, such as the Texas-born Terence Nance (“Swimming in Your Skin Again”), or those with Miami roots that unlike Leyva didn’t return for some reason.

In the latter case, one such filmmaker was Barry Jenkins, who had gone to film school at Florida State with Hevia, a co-founder of Borscht, and had made his debut with the San Francisco-set “Medicine for Melancholy.” Seeing how Jenkins brought the beauty out of the Bay Area, Hevia set about bringing Jenkins home and while Jenkins was resistant at first, his painful past in the city alluded to in “Moonlight,” Hevia and Leyva reintroduced him to Miami, leading him to dip his toe back in with “Chlorophyll,” a short commissioned for Borscht Film Fest 7 in 2012. Around that time, Leyva had been in touch with Tarell Alvin McCraney, who had been trying to figure out what to do with a semi-autobiographical script, “In the Moonlight, Black Boys Look Blue” that didn’t necessarily lend itself to the stage, where he had made a name for himself.

“Andrew and I realized that Barry and Tarell had a very similar upbringing – they grew up literally three blocks away from each other, but they didn’t know each other and both their work echoed each other in strange ways, so we made that introduction,” says Leyva. “And Barry and Tarell, A24 and the whole team behind “Moonlight” have done such a huge thing, I’m still sort of at a loss for words when I speak about it because it’s like a dream come true that this movie was made.”

It wasn’t just “Moonlight” that Borscht Corp could be proud of playing a role in when they recently held their flash film festival in October, but also presenting the feature films from writer/directors whose short films they had commissioned. The first steps towards Celia Rowlson-Hall’s inimitable desert pilgrimage “Ma” could be seen in her 2012 Borscht commission “Si Nos Dejan,” in which she embedded in Little Havana to quite literally take a plunge into marriage. Director Bernardo Britto also refined his voice under Borscht’s watch, brought into the fold by producer Brett Potter, who had seen Mayer’s reworking of Chris Marker’s “La Jetee” by way of 2 Live Crew’s Luther Campbell, “The Life and Freaky Times of Uncle Luke” at Sundance in 2012 and suggested that Leyva should meet his NYU classmate. Over the course of two shorts, “The Places Where We Lived” and “Yearbook,” which in winning the Grand Jury Prize for narrative short at Sundance in 2014 proved to be a calling card for himself and Borscht as it went on to play festivals around the world, Britto sharpened his rapier wit and was emboldened to push audiences to uncomfortable places with his feature debut “Jacqueline (Argentine).”

Although Borscht Corp has helped get several features off the ground, they’ve been working towards initiating their first feature that will be produced and financed under the Borscht Corp banner. (All Leyva will say is the story involves a speedboat.) To do so on their own terms has taken time, but with increasing sponsorships with the likes of Cinereach and Time Warner 150 and greater attention being paid by talent agencies that can extend their reach, Borscht Corp is well on their way to taking the entire operation to another level, while protecting the unique artistic perspectives that have made Borscht Corp films so distinctive in the first place.

“There was a really cool quote about ‘Moonlight,’ from Miriam Bale [on how] it might be one of the few honest depictions of poverty on film,” says Leyva. “That’s directly a function of film being this prohibitively expensive art form. People talk about the lack of diversity in film, and one of the reasons is because for the most part, people who are privileged enough to make films — and go to film school or even have access to the expensive equipment — come from more wealthy backgrounds, so it’s their stories being displayed onscreen. We’re trying to combat this issue by empowering people who didn’t study film in that way, but they still have amazing stories. Developing them and teaming them up with technicians and producers to create their stories is a big part of [what] we do.”

Although bigger things clearly lie ahead, nothing is more predominant in Leyva’s mind right now than delivering a festival that could top the last one with Borscht Diez, set to take over the town between February 22-26, and the impending premiere of two Borscht productions at Sundance — Rachel Rossin’s virtual reality installation “The Sky is a Gap,” placing viewers inside an explosion, and Leyva’s latest collaboration with Mayer, “Kaiju Bunraku,” set in a world of monsters.

“It’s all puppets. There are no humans in it, and honestly, having these nontraditional narratives is another adaptation that comes from being in Miami,” Leyva says of “Kaiju Bunraku.” “Since the Florida tax incentive went away, it’s been hard to find good actors or crew, so often we end up making films that are more conceptual. We don’t have a big budget for fancy gear or high production value, but we do know a lot of visual artists and musicians that are doing really amazing work in Miami, and that will often be the impetus for a film…The biggest resource we have here is the talented artists with these stories that no one else has.”

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