Theater / Film

Films Shot In Miami Or About Miami Take on Different Subjects at This Year’s Festival

Written By Jonel Juste
April 4, 2024 at 4:00 PM

The orca Lolita in the Miami Seaquarium in a still shot from the film “Resident Orca” that will have two screenings at the Miami Film Festival. The festival’s 41st edition begins on Friday, April 5 and will have films screening at various locations throughout Miami. (Photo courtesy of Miami Dade College’s 41st Miami Film Festival)

“Miami has great filmmakers living here,” says James Woolley, Miami Dade College’s Miami Film Festival’s new executive director who came on board in late 2023. “And the films in our lineup reflect the wider community around us,” says Woolley. 

Of the more than 180 feature films, documentaries, and short films from over 31 countries at this year’s Miami Dade College’s Miami Film Festival (MFF), the festival’s lineup boasts 10 world premieres of films crafted by local filmmakers with ties to Miami or connections to Miami-Dade College (MDC).

The festival’s 41st edition begins on Friday, April 5 with films screening at various locations throughout Miami’s. The festival closes on Sunday, April 14.

A scene from the movie “Puffing Iron” with actor Omar F. Cordero as Arnold. (Photo courtesy of Miami Dade College’s 41st Miami Film Festival)

Highlighted among the local films and documentaries this year are “Resident Orca,” “Puffing Iron,” and “Mumble: Fate of a Lost Icon.”

“Resident Orca,” the documentary by Sarah Sharkey Pearce and Simon Schneider, is about a conjugated effort between multiple actors to free the orca Lolita (also known as Tokitae) from more than 50 years of captivity (in Miami’s Seaquarium) and return her to the sea. The film narrative asks questions about where Lolita belongs and to whom and follows an unlikely partnership between indigenous matriarchs, a billionaire philanthropist, and orca experts as they take on the impossible task of freeing the killer whale.

In 2019, Pearce and Schneider decided to make a film about the southern resident killer whales, a distinct group of orca from the Pacific Northwest on the brink of extinction. They discovered that only 75 of these whales are left in the wild.

“During our research,” says Pearce, “we learned that in the 1960s and 70s, nearly 50 of these whales were captured and sold to aquariums for profit and only one was still alive. Her name was Lolita and she had been living in Miami since 1970. We were shocked and she quickly became the focus of our film.”

“Resident Orca” directors Sarah Sharkey Pearce and Simon Schneider tell the story of hardship of freeing Lolita. (Photo courtesy of Miami Dade College’s 41st Miami Film Festival)

The process of making this film was very organic and fluid, adds Pearce. The movie co-directors met with all types of people connected to Lolita through their life or work. “It became clear to us that Lolita was at the center of a web of human characters whose lives were profoundly impacted by this one whale. Of all the people we met, (it was) Indigenous Lummi elders Squil-le-he-le Raynell Morris and Tah-Mahs Ellie Kinley who had a connection to the whale like no others. In their culture, the whales were their direct relatives and bringing her home was a sacred obligation that deeply inspired us to pay attention and amplify their message where we could.”

The endeavor to release the orca into the wild encountered significant obstacles and came to an end when Lolita sadly passed away in 2023 at the Seaquarium.

“Advocates in this story faced the challenge of working with the captive industry but also the challenge of time. Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut (Lolita/Tokitae)’s health had declined after poor treatment at Miami Seaquarium under multiple owners, according to findings by the USDA,” says Schneider.

Miami Seaquarium has recently been ordered shut by Miami-Dade County, partly due to Lolita’s passing. But for Lolita, says Pearce, “there is no justice, there is only her legacy.”

“Resident Orca” will be screened at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 6 at Silverspot Cinema and 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, April 9 at Regal South Beach.

Far from the documentary realm of “Orca” comes “Puffing Iron,” a made-in-Miami film, which will be shown at the Koubek Center at Miami Dade College at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, April 10.

“Puffing Iron’s'” two main characters, Jamie (Elijah Moseley, left) and Ace (Bryan Serra, right). (Photo courtesy of Miami Dade College’s 41st Miami Film Festival)

Directed by Chris Rodriguez and Grant Rosado, the 98-minute film follows the story of two roommates living in Little Havana who spend their relaxing, smoking pot, and watching movies. However, when they receive an eviction notice, they realize their only chance of overcoming their predicament is by winning a powerlifting competition. The only issue is that they lack the necessary strength to succeed.

The inspiration for this movie, explains Rosado, a filmmaker of Cuban-Bosnian descent, was the “never give up” attitude of classic heroes such as Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky” and Arnold Schwarzenegger who was featured in “Pumping Iron,” the 1977 docudrama about the world of professional bodybuilding.

“There’s an interview with Sylvester Stallone . . . that speaks to the power of storytelling and seeing yourself in a character on the movie screen. The idea for our film came from that interview as we wanted to show other people that their struggles don’t have to seem so daunting,” says Rosado.

 “Puffing Iron” explores themes of transformation and change, focusing first on two friends who must undergo a physical transformation. The film then focuses on the evolving landscape of Little Havana, serving as a backdrop for the narrative. For Rodriguez, capturing this neighborhood on film was crucial “before it’s completely unrecognizable.”

A still from a competition scene in the movie “Puffing Iron.” (Photo courtesy of Miami Dade College’s 41st Miami Film Festival)

“I grew up in Miami and I started to witness how quickly (and drastically) the city was changing after 2020,” says Rodriguez. “I was working in Brickell for a bit and would go right down the street into Little Havana and I saw such a massive divide in economy, in culture, in people, in language . . . These two neighborhoods were so incredibly different and both changing so quickly. One embodies a cultural Miami and the other embodies an Americanized Miami.”

Made-in-Miami film “Mumble: Fate of a Lost Icon” spotlights a fictitious rapper, Young Guttah Nutz, and the people around him as they recount his creation of the mumble rap style and image. 

Directed by Frankie Midnight, this mockumentary combines documentary and narrative while the subjects are completely fictional.

“We are paying homage to the Mumble rap genre by using it as a focus in our film which validates the genre as a pop culture success; there’s no value in a character being omitted from something that made no impact,” says the director.

Frankie Midnight stars in “Mumble: Fate of a Lost Icon,” a mockumentary about a fictitious rapper, Young Guttah Nutz. (Photo courtesy of Miami Dade College’s 41st Miami Film Festival)

This film, continues Midnight, could in many ways keep mumble rap relevant as the genre was at its peak six years ago. Mumble rap is a style of hip-hop music where artists mumble or slur their words over hard beats. “We aren’t aiming to disrespect the genre and its stars with the depiction of Young Guttah Nutz as this is only a fake character that found himself in his unfortunate situation, but the humor is showcased primarily through Young Guttah Nutz as he is a parody of himself.”

 “Mumble: Fate of a Lost Icon” has been likened to iconic mockumentaries such as Rob Reiner’s 1984 “This is Spinal Tap” and “CB4,” which Midnight says inspired him 100%. “They were able to accurately depict the essence of the topics they were parodying  . . .  and I thought it would be interesting to do a take of this style with the Mumble rap genre.”

“Mumble: Fate of a Lost Icon” will be screened at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, April 8 at Silverspot Cinema.

According to the newly appointed executive director James Woolley, the Miami Film Festival is “bringing Hollywood to Miami.” (Photo courtesy of Miami Dade College’s 41st Miami Film Festival)

Woolley also urges attendees to explore compelling local documentaries such as “Stories From The Lighthouse” (Regal South Beach), “Antihero,” which delves into the life of local theater legend Jose Manuel Dominguez (Koubek Center), and “The Miami Bull Project,” chronicling the creation of the sculpture now gracing MDC’s Wolfson Campus (Silverspot Cinema). 

WHAT: Miami Film Festival 

WHEN: Friday, April 5 to Sunday, April 14. Screening times vary. See full schedule.

WHERE: The Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd, Miami; Silverspot Cinema, 300 SE 3rd St #100, Miami; Pérez Art Museum Miami, 1103 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; Koubek Center at Miami Dade College, 2705 SW 3rd St., Miami; Regal South Beach, 1120 Lincoln Road Mall, Miami Beach; O Cinema South Beach, 1130 Washington Ave., Miami Beach; Coral Gables Art Cinema, 260 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables.

COST: Most films are $15.50, general admission; $14.50, students, military, seniors (62 and older) 

INFORMATION: miamifilmfestival.com

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