the miami film festival, now in its 18th year, is a model of how to run a manageable local festival: 26 films in 10 days, all screened at a central location. It's tied into the local community by an extensive program of Spanish and Latin American films. Miami is, after all, only marginally an American city -- you have to specify in coffee shops that you don't want Cuban coffee.
In talking to a couple of festival organizers, you get the sense that they want to have a bigger film fest, one with an international draw. You'd think they'd have a head start on that just because of their spot on the calendar.
I, for example, applied to be on the FIPRESCI Jury at the Miami Film Festival because the idea of 10 days in south Florida at the end of February was much more appealing than the idea of going to the festival in Tromsø, Norway, in January, when they get exactly one hour of sunlight a day.
Geographically and demographically, Miami is perfectly situated as an American launching point for Latin American film. The non-latin program is mostly films from last year's festival circuit: Wong Kar-wai's In The Mood For Love, Patrice Leconte's The Widow Of Saint-Pierre, the awful Merchant Ivory adaptation of The Golden Bowl.
Picking up some world premieres might give the festival a chance to steal thunder from December's Havana Film Festival. (Sticking it to Fidel is an idea that retains considerable appeal in this part of the world.)
People around the Miami Film Festival will tell you, "I don't judge Miami by this area," that is, the downtown area where U.S. 1, running south on its way to the end of the continent, crosses the Miami River.
North of the river is a rather dull business area with a gem of a 75-year- old picture palace, complete with statuary in niches, rococo mouldings and an organ that serenades the hall before each evening's screenings. South of the river is a range of towers, mostly belonging to banks and large chain hotels -- Hyatt, Sheraton, Holiday Inn, Ramada and so on.
If you want action, people say, excitement, actual street life, you must go somewhere other than Miami proper -- east across the causeways to Miami Beach, a mile or two south to Coral Gables and Coconut Grove, or, of course, west into the Everglades for a different kind of wildlife.
As a city, Miami is sprawlingly huge and not pedestrian-friendly. Driving in from the airport, I'm taken through miles of suburban blankness.
The organizers have that American horror of actually walking anywhere, so if jurors and other festival guests need to get from headquarters at the Sheraton Biscayne Bay to a screening at the Guzman Arts Center, they're quick to offer a car and driver. This is on one level startling and on another bizarre, as the distance can be covered easily on foot in about six minutes if the drawbridge across the Miami River isn't up.
And if it is, a car isn't going to get there any faster.
I never cease to be astonished by people who volunteer at film festivals. When I came out of the early show Sunday evening with an hour to kill before the late screening, one of the festival drivers waiting outside the theatre offered to take us on a quick tour of South Beach.
I guess driving foreign dignitaries -- and I'm using that term very loosely -- around South Beach is probably more fun than sitting in a car waiting for them. *