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Echolocation: On Set with the Borscht Film Festival

Nathaniel Sandler

Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Silva swimming at Dolphin Cove

“Vanilla Ice was too expensive,” claims Jillian Mayer, through an early morning wry smirk. Apparently Bob Matt Van Winkle of ice-ice-baby-A1A-beach-front-avenue fame quoted his services at $10,000 to be involved in a film for the Borscht Film Festival and then jumped his rate to $50,000 as the deal started coming together. Cold blooded Ice. At the same time as this conversation was happening, Mayer the multimedia artist and filmmaker was serving up coffee and bagels with Publix-brand vanilla-flavored cream cheese at the Borsht Corp. offices. The vanilla-related synergy wasn’t purposeful and the cream cheese was fucking gross.

But you can’t blame Jillian; Publix brand fare sometimes ends up all stacked together in the aisles, and the word “vanilla” was pretty small. A handful of people getting ready for the film shoot that day casually discussed whether or not the cream cheese was any good, and midway through this indecision the festival’s director Lucas Leyva came in with an iPad and with an app blazing Vanilla Ice’s pretty boy mug. He flipped it to disco mode, and Vanilla Ice’s eyebrows started bouncing and his pouty face moved along with a pre-processed beat. It was genuinely ridiculous. Borscht finds a way.

It seems like there’s a concerted effort to reveal a sense of the genuinely ridiculous into the larger scheme of Borscht Corp.’s storytelling tentacles. The festival is in its ninth iteration, having grown from a group of high-schoolers tooling around trying to understand their city, to a group of skilled professionals doing the same. Borscht has spent nearly a decade defining the Miami bizarre while combining it with beauty and tragedy, all in a concerted effort to show people a side of the city not typically shown on the big screen. It is a working underbelly, malleable depending on each filmmaker’s vision. But always the genuinely ridiculous shines through, whether in joy or melancholy.
As I woke up with Borscht around their office kitchen table we talked about Vanilla Ice over vanilla bagels. This is a ridiculous thing to do first thing in the morning. But here we were, readying for a shoot with Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Silva who was already in Key Largo swimming with the dolphins. It is a satisfying and inquisitive type of ridiculousness with a proud South Florida rally cry. We have got dolphins and not many cities can claim that.

Apparently the good people of the Dolphin Cove facility won’t let you GoPro the dolphins. It’s the kind of rejection that doesn’t really require too much of an explanation. Of course you can’t strap a recording device to a captive marine mammal. It’s also not surprising that the Borscht crew asked. The trainers answered, whichever one, or perhaps all of them loudly chirping in unison through their swimmer’s build as though directing us like a bucket of fish. Swimming with the dolphins requires a whole host of people making sure that each and every dolphin is fed and kept in line. And slippery delicious fish is always the payoff.

“Like Superman, yaa!” a German tourist yells to his son across the 50-foot or so lagoon. The tourists were splayed about, squealing joyously. At the forceful behest of the trainers, the child held his arms out like the Man of Steel and had two dolphins pull him across the lagoon hovering just above the surface. It was a devastating moment for anyone with a sense of both verbal irony and world history, but the family was in a state of ecstasy, wrapped around the finger of the natural world as the boy was dragged along by smiling mammals for probably the first and only time in his young life. It was a moment that would have fit in a Borscht film, but they were just waiting their turn.
There were two cameramen on set, one with an aquatic housing unit that allowed visuals underwater of both Silva and the dolphins with a second out of the water catching the action of the dolphins jumping over Silva or swimming around him. Silva himself is a charming man, and it’s not hard to see how his artistic career has been so successful to this point. He has shown at Sundance, had gallery shows, and cut albums. For Borscht, he’s been commissioned to do whatever it is he wants and he wanted to swim with dolphins.

“They hate us,” Silva is convinced, as the pod shrieks for fish, neutered by captivity playing tropical circus for whoever has a few greenbacks and a flimsy sense of adventure. Silva thought the sideways glance was a stink eye, askance at intrusion and he mentioned that they were physically more aggressive with him than he was expecting. It was difficult to argue that the captive beasts were angry, even though it’s possible it just looks that way because their eyes are on the side of their heads. Projecting on animals is an age-old human game, and dolphins in captivity are the most confusing. Their happiness incessant, but their freedom wretched. One of the trainers told a story about the wild dolphins that swim by the Dolphin Cove enclosure. The males use it as an opportunity to display their courtship rituals, either by breaching or slapping the water in crushingly symbolic impotence. Many of the dolphins had rubbed their rostrum (snout) raw from incessantly searching the same series of sea rocks below their enclosure.
But projecting sadness on animals is never that simple. Leyva was wearing a shirt with a smiling dolphin on it and the pictures he took with them are joyous. The day was fun. The whole crew sat around and reminiscently listened to the Michael Jackson’s “Will You Be There” from Free Willy. And Mayer poignantly blurted out to general agreement that “they’re good for the universe.” It’s true. They are, cackle, squeals, and everything. At one point one of the dolphins dredged up a target pole, a long stick used for training and tricks, and offered it to Silva, seemingly an olive branch gift, or a sign of deference. It is important to occasionally have an intimate moment with a wild animal, and to transfer upon it the qualities you see best in the world and yourself. The target pole was stashed somewhere in the mangroves and the trainers were surprised to see it again.

Echolocation is the process by which dolphins orient themselves to and find objects underwater. The clicks they clack underwater bounce echoes until they hit something, and based on what registers back the dolphin is able to surmise what is nearby.

“Our best projects have been about successfully identifying things that no one else really has,” Leyva puts flatly. What he means are South Florida-specific motifs, props, or people like local rap legend 2 Live Crew’s Uncle Luke, who starred in The Life and Freaky Times of Uncle Luke. Or, for instance, a dolphin pod. This year they’ve got Trina and Udonis Haslem keeping with the theme of roles for Heat players made viral by the Adventures of Chris Bosh in the Multiverse. The sequel to that psychedelic hard-court space adventure will screen at Borscht 9, and there will be a Multiverse theme park in the spirit on the YoungArts campus.

All of this is genuinely ridiculous in the most meaningful way. For better or worse, Borscht hears its city and seeks out what allows Miami to stand out in a style and story that matters. Like the target pole tucked under the waterlogged branches, each short film and its setting brought out from hiding into the bright light of day. Miami is a salty island and the filmmakers dolphins; captive yet beautiful, entertaining with both exuberance and sadness.

“I’d like to do a collaborative painting with a dolphin,” Mayer told a Dolphin Cove staffer on our way out. We’d been admiring a series of artworks produced by the cetaceans clumsily holding brush to canvas. We all want to see that painting and the film that goes with it.

Nathaniel Sandler is a freelance writer and editor from Miami. He is the founder of the Bookleggers mobile library.