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Filmmakers’ Stories in Final Day of Aspen Ideas 2024

Written By Taima Hervas
April 19, 2024 at 12:57 PM

Local Miami filmmakers (from L to R) Joshua Jean-Baptiste, Jayme Kaye Gershen, and LeAnne Russell, plus Hansel Porras Garcia, Cinematic Arts Manager, Oolite Arts.
Photograph credit Dan Bayer.

On Wednesday, March 13, 2024, the final day of Aspen Ideas: Climate, three local filmmakers showcased diverse Miami climate change narratives. These included a simple yet expertly directed piece on Miami locals’ love for mangos, a gripping TV pilot portraying environmental scientists as cool and their work as thrilling, and a poignant tale of a man’s survival on a sailboat in a flooded, post-apocalyptic Miami, highlighting his bond with homing pigeons.

For Aspen Ideas: Climate the three films commissioned by The City of Miami Beach, through the Climate Commissions program, and Oolite Arts to address climate change with Miami stories, brought home the power of film to inspire in vastly different ways. The films, all created by local filmmakers, were “Mango Movie” by Jayme Kaye Gershen, “Ripples,” by Joshua Jean-Baptiste, and “Before the Flood” by LeAnne Russell, who each received $15,000 to create a 10–12-minute film on the climate crisis. They were screened during the climate summit and followed by a lively Q&A, led by Oolite Cinematic Arts Manager, Hansel Porras Garcia. Porras Garcia also opened the screening session, and asked the audience, “As we embark on this cinematic journey, let us heed the call to action embedded in each frame, and let us strive to create a more sustainable and equitable world for all of us. Welcome to the Aspen Ideas Climate screening, together we can harness the power of storytelling to shape a brighter future.”

JAYME KAYE GERSHEN

The first short film, “Mango Movie ” by award-winning local filmmaker, Gershen, a working cut of her latest documentary, was, simply put, juicily about how people eat and love mangos.

Carmen Misé, film still from “Mango Movie”, a short documentary by award winning filmmaker and photographer, Jayme Kaye Gershen (2024). Image courtesy of Director of Photography Oscar Lobo SVC.

This observational documentary short deftly used an emotional lens to celebrate mangos, Miami, the steamy heat of Florida summertime, the wisdom of grandmothers, remembered childhood stories, tall tales, the power of solitude, the advice of strangers, and the silence in the pleasure of eating something wondrous. Gershen’s imagery early in the film established a sense of magical realism with a mango-colored studio backdrop staged with a table, mango, and interviewee, which all took flight over multiple Miami settings real and surreal, then settled down, when interviewees got down to the work at hand of eating and talking.

The film ended with a spoken poem, a glorious ode to the mango, written by Carmen Misé, a local poet and professor, entitled, “When Mangos Last in My Backyard Bloom’d,” which Gershen explained was an inspiration for the film.

The film was joyously received by the summit audience including scientists, new technology innovators, statisticians, climate experts, both private and public investors, and policymakers who appeared to need this seamlessly straightforward but expertly directed story on the final day of a revelatory, but information-heavy summit.

They clapped and laughed and many visibly took mental note of the new or unusual ways depicted of how to prepare a mango for eating. A few members of the audience even licked their lips while watching the juices flow down the lips and chins of the documented mango eaters.

“Mango Movie” is more than a juicy tale, it is a finely tuned film that seamlessly impressed that how people eat mangoes is profoundly connected to family, to heritage, to tradition and directly linked to climate change. Gershen explained, “Mango season was coming; it was on my heart and mind. We interviewed 22 Miamians during mango season at the Legion Park Farmers Market and Cascabelle Studios. The idea was how do you eat a mango, and what stories come up around that.

And it really became a film about family and nostalgia, and I was wondering if we could talk about something we love and could lose before we lost it, and how raising those feelings in viewers might affect the way they think about their future. It was about family, and there was tradition… ‘I learned from my mother’… ‘from my grandmother,’ …and what those connections mean to place – when we tie ourselves to a place we care more about it,” Gershen explained.

According to one member of the audience, Tehya Jennett, who attended the conference as a delegate of the 110 “Future Leaders,” an Aspen Ideas Climate Initiative, she found the mango movie to be wonderful. Jennet elaborated, “I’ve been talking (at the conference) about all these different perspectives and sharing stories, and there is so much that connects us that we can draw from, from our family experiences, from our cultural experiences, and then we find this connection through a fruit that we all eat in different ways, but similar ways, and we can enjoy the fruit of life and just see that joy while talking about climate.

We are seeing ecological degradation, and it is going to have ecological grief, but we can come together in our love for the smallest fruit and talk about our deep connection to it.”

Gershen summed up, “It is a real honor to be here, I’ve wanted to make this mango movie for ten years and so when The City of Miami Beach and Oolite Films commissioned me to make the climate movie, I thought yes, the mango movie is my climate movie!”

JOSHUA JEAN-BAPTISTE
Joshua Jean-Baptiste, a Haitian-American writer, director, and casting producer presented his narrative “Ripples,” a short film, and the seed for a dramatic series related to climate change.

Jean-Baptist explained the development of the project, “I was really obsessed with the TV show “Suits” over the summer, and I was inspired. I realized that there were no engaging, compelling dramas that involved scientists, so I created a drama that follows two environmental scientists doing impact reports on real estate developers and how they get into some kind of shady situations with the developers. It takes place in Miami, which I feel is the front line for a project like this!”

Dr. Barrett, played by Rita Cole. Film still from “Ripples” by Joshua Jean-Baptiste.

The story follows Dr. Barrett, played by Rita Cole, and Luz, her student-turned-employee, played by Gabriella Arias. Luz is an environmental researcher who discovers the dirty dealings of the developer they are working with and is obstinate with Dr. Barrett not to let him slide. Ill at ease, yet nonetheless working for the developer, Luz takes photos and makes social media posts recklessly, like those of a local hero street artist-activist, played by Jean Hyppolyte.

Dr. Barrett warns Luz before going into a meeting with the developer, “Luz, now, these meetings, they can be tricky.” To which Luz responds, “What’s tricky about their project flooding neighborhoods?” To which a wiser Dr. Barret replies, “Politics, business, and science require tact. Keep that in mind…You know, of all my students, you were the brightest, and that’s why I feel you can handle these meetings.”

But Luz is radiantly stubborn and willful, always right, until she is very wrong. And here begins the dramatic intrigue and tension that carries the film, because it is Luz’s passion for climate justice that drives the story, and it is their underlying respect for each other that engages the climate solutions-driven audience.

Jean-Baptiste’s goal was to make a science-based series that would be relatable but didn’t inundate people with too many facts and figures, where he said, “They (an audience) can relate to characters and then I can slowly trojan horse some of my climate themes after we get them on board!” Jean-Baptiste sees the crowd at Aspen as the people doing all the work, and added, “My job as an artist is to use the work they do and flip it and remix it to have a mass appeal and inspire people to say, ‘I wanted to be an environmental scientist — I didn’t know they could be cool.’”

LEANNE RUSSELL
Filmmaker LeAnne Russell’s “Before the Flood” is a poignant character study about a silent, determined young man alone on the water in a sailboat, painstakingly preparing for a cataclysmic climate event. The concept stems from a character Russell is developing for a feature-length film, “Mater Maris” (Mother Ocean), set in a post-apocalyptic, flooded Miami in the not-so-distant future. Featured in “Before the Flood” is actor Jaafari Stephens, who portrays the man as he prepares and trains his camera-rigged homing pigeons for future flights when they will seek and videotape any remaining land in a water world.

The informing storytelling voiceover in Haitian Creole (with English subtitles) is that of the same man, much older, reflecting upon this moment in his youth, and is spoken by Haitian actor Atibon Nazaire.

Jaafari Stephens, film still from “Before the Flood” by filmmaker LeAnne Russell. Image Credit Javier Labrador Deulofeu.

Russell explained, “I wanted to explore the frame of mind of a character who had experienced many floods and natural disasters in his past and is preparing for a great flood. With this piece, I wanted to connect and put myself in the shoes of a character who has already experienced something similar, like many who belong to the Haitian community here in Miami. I wrote the text in English though it was important for me to have it translated to Haitian Creole as it is an interior monologue. Gifrants, a Haitian-American composer and lyricist, did a wonderful job interpreting and translating the text into a more vernacular, personal Creole that Atibon felt spoke to him and performed beautifully. The music in the film is also by Gifrants.”

Borrowing from the flood-myth motif and applying it to a contemporary South Floridian landscape, both “Before the Flood” and the in-development “Mater Maris” use metaphor and allegory to delve into the individual’s experience of the pressing issues of climate change and collective climate anxiety. Specifically, that of a character who might be a climate refugee, and their experience of the overwhelm associated with displacement. Dwelling on the flood-myth birds, Russell also researched and became curious about homing pigeons and discovered and joined a local community of pigeon racers in Miami, the Florida Pigeon Derby in the Redlands.

In fact, the actor pigeons are her pets. She taught Stephens how to handle and work with the pigeons. She elaborated, “Jaafari doesn’t come from an acting background, but I have worked with him over many years and thought he would be a natural actor. He did an excellent job, with a compelling presence. There is a lot going on — he’s 25 but he has a depth about him, and a levity and tenderness that I hadn’t seen until seeing him working with the birds and how careful he was with them. I wanted to explore the man’s connection to nature. The more docile relationship he has with the homing pigeons versus the more unforgiving nature of the ocean he feels is closing in on him.”

Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs Director Marialaura Leslie summarized the arts at Aspen Ideas Climate Miami 2024, “Artists in Miami-Dade County have emerged as potent partners in creating a resilient place, demonstrating that the arts are integral to American communities and a powerful force for community building around social issues. Through our Arts Resilient 305 program, Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs is proud to have partnered for a third year with the City of Miami Beach to engage the public in innovative ways through artistic interventions for the 2024 Aspen Ideas Conference.”

PAMM’S FRANKLIN SIRMANS
At Aspen Ideas: Climate Miami 2024 the first expert panel session was entitled “Cataloging the Past and Shaping our Future: Museums Change the Narrative.” Miami’s own Perez Art Museum Miami Director, Franklin Sirmans joined Paola Antonelli the Senior Design Curator or Architecture and Design at Modern Museum of Art in New York City (MOMA), Sean Decatur, President of the American Natural History Museum, Alison Rempel Brown, President and CEO, Science Museum of Minnesota. Moderating the panel was Jake Barton, the founder and principal of Local Projects design firm, creating museums and public spaces, including the 9/11 Memorial and Museum.

The conversation was engaged to discuss the topic around how a growing number are using exhibitions to shape our response to the future—specifically to climate change. The museum leaders discussed their role in storytelling and balancing honesty with advocacy. They then explored ways to cut energy use and how to share these practices in exhibitions to educate visitors.

Franklin Sirmans of PAMM, speaking at Aspen Ideas: Climate Miami, in “Cataloging the Past and Shaping our Future”. Photo credit Dan Bayer.

After discussing how museums can change narratives, Sirmans explained that the Perez Art Museum Miami (PAMM) aims to inspire visitors to find climate change solutions by showcasing globally relevant art through a Miami-focused perspective. He expressed hope that the art alone would be impactful but believes combining it with educational programs ensures it inspires action.

Sirmans was confident in knowing that PAMM engages hundreds, maybe thousands, of students from the Miami Dade County Public School system with a free museum membership. He said, “I know that they (the students) come in and engage in our programs and with our teaching artists. It is our mission to educate and entertain. We are engaged in that (climate change solutions) conversation…and we are educating teens who want to be involved in museums within that conversation as well.” He closed by saying that as Miami’s students participate in the museum’s mission and programs, he is privileged to witness their growth and impacts on the world.

MORE ABOUT THE ASPEN INSTITUTE
Since 2005, Aspen Ideas has been committed to harnessing the power of art to foster a free, just, and equitable society through the Arts. Their mission includes bridging artists and leaders to tackle major challenges. They started an artist-in-residence program in 2007, with Hank Willis Thomas currently holding the position. The Arts Program, led by Danielle Baussan, recently introduced an “Artivist” fellowship at Aspen Ideas: Climate Miami to empower Washington DC artists on climate justice.

The Aspen Institute’s 2024 Future Leader Climate Fellows, a diverse group of 110 young leaders aged 22-30 from around the world, were photographed at the Aspen Ideas: Climate Summit in Miami Beach Convention Center. Photo credit Dan Bayer.

Art plays a central role in Aspen Ideas events, from summits to panel discussions, emphasizing its significance and utility. At the 2023 Aspen Ideas: Health summit, the “Your Brain on Art” session explored art as essential for physical, mental, and spiritual well-being, linking neuroscience to its benefits in health and wellness. Similarly, the main 2023 conference highlighted “The Case for Art as a Civic Glue,” examining art’s ability to mend social divisions and strengthen communities.

This year’s Aspen Ideas: Climate focused on “Narratives of Change,” discussing how narrative art can inspire action on climate change. Speakers included PBS docuseries producers of “A Brief History of the Future,” authors like C. Pam Zhang and Téa Obreht, who weave climate themes into their fiction, and Future Leaders who use storytelling to envision new futures.

Orion Camero, a mentor for the Future Leaders 2024 and an alumni of the Aspen Ideas Future Leader Climate Initiative, is a narrative artist from California focusing on climate migration. He led a unique performance in a convention center lobby, where over fifty Future Leaders aged 22 to 30 from various sectors unwrapped a 90-foot scroll by artist Rachel Schragis depicting the climate crisis. Together, they created a moment of unity and emotional connection through a participatory “scroll song,” using the scroll’s images to spark collective singing and clapping.

Camero noted the profound emotional impact of the activity, emphasizing its role in processing the grief of the climate crisis collectively. He advocated for integrating arts, creativity, and culture making into interdisciplinary efforts and cross-sector organizing, not as an afterthought but as a central element of addressing climate challenges.

CLOSING WORDS FROM A MIAMI POET
At the Aspen Climate Closing Plenary, Miami-based poet Cherry Pickman read two poems highlighting the contrast in Miami between its tropical paradise and the looming threat of climate change. Her works, “How to Greet the Spring” and “Resilience Committee,” explored the coexistence of hope and horror, reflecting the city’s dual reality.

“How to Greet the Spring”
by Cherry Pickman:

The sun was out
the flood came anyway                        the sea rose
to take the city plinth by plinth        amaranth bled red
into twitching schools of silver
buttonwoods to think              what you could have given
up          here even the gulls           are starving the fishermen
are fighting all the waters of the world
are troubled         and suspect the Little River the little
god in you who lets you              go on each day
is out                   of its depth out of darkness
you reel in dented cans           they empty
through rusted stars as the world       warms
and the rooftops clamber
for higher          and higher ground

READ PART 2 OF THE SERIES HERE.

Artworks were presented by the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs through its Arts Resilient 305 Initiative, made possible with the support of the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs and the Cultural Affairs Council, Miami-Dade County Mayor and Board of County Commissioners, City of Miami Beach Mayor, City Commission, and City of Miami Beach Tourism and Culture Department’s Cultural Affairs Division.

 ArtburstMiami.com is a nonprofit media source for the arts featuring fresh and original stories by writers dedicated to theater, dance, visual arts, film, music, and more. Don’t miss a story at www.artburstmiami.com

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