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Booty Call at Sundance PDF Print E-mail
Written by Anne Tschida - BT Arts Editor   
January 2012

The Life and Freaky Times of Uncle Luke has a group of local filmmakers riding high on the festival circuit

Art_Feature_1At the largest independent film festival in the United States, Sundance, which starts on January 19, some familiar Miami names will scroll across the screen. But it may be the not-so-familiar names that will be the attention grabbers in the future.

The Life and Freaky Times of Uncle Luke was selected as one of only 64 short films to be screened in Utah, the second year in a row that a product of Miami’s quirky Borscht Film Festival has been chosen. It stars Luther Campbell, the former 2 Live Crew rapper who, in recent years, has been a Miami-Dade mayoral candidate, columnist, and activist.

The film was directed by Jillian Mayer, a rising star on the local arts scene, scripted by Lucas Leyva, the founder of Borscht, and produced by Rakontur, the group behind the hit documentaries Cocaine Cowboys, The U, and Square Grouper.

Art_Feature_2That whole combo makes Freaky Times a fascinating subject in its own right, and puts a spotlight on cultural developments in Miami at the beginning of a new year.

First, about the film: Shot on trippy, expressionistic sets created by Mayer, the film is loosely based on an experimental and groundbreaking film from 1962, La Jetée, a time-travel tale that takes place in a post-nuclear-war world.

In this updated version, Uncle Luke -- as Campbell is affectionately called around these parts -- has successfully fought for the right of free speech of all kinds and has won election as mayor. But then the Turkey Point nuclear power plant explodes and turns Miami into a radioactive wasteland, which Uncle Luke must now navigate to save humanity. He does that through, yes, the music of booty bass, and booty calls.

There are a number of levels here. Campbell and 2 Live Crew, as many will recall, came to fame through their legal fight to be as verbally raunchy as they wanted to be onstage and off. First Amendment rights and nuclear devastation are no joking matters, but there is obvious humor here, as Mayer uses jiggling, bare, female butts -- a take on the notorious As Nasty as They Wanna Be album cover -- as backdrop, while Luke mugs for the camera.

Art_Feature_3But Campbell’s complicated struggle for free speech is precisely why Mayer and Leyva wanted him as the subject for their film, commissioned by Borscht and premiered last April at the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.

“Uncle Luke is a public figure who people feel very strongly about,” explains Mayer, who has worked on music videos with Leyva in the past. “In his younger days, he focused on being a musician, which made him into a celebrity. The character he may have played several decades ago seems inescapable to the contemporary public. He is now a vocal figure in the City of Miami trying to be involved with politics, but many people can’t stop judging him from a character he played in his musical career several decades ago.”

But, she says, they didn’t think they could actually snag the celebrity for their little indie production. That’s when Evan Rosenfeld of Rakontur got involved, pulling Campbell into the project. Campbell, Mayer says, also worked well within her own artistic exploration: “I was into the fact the he plays with notions of identity and public personas, which is something I address in my own work.”

Mayer is predominantly a video artist who incorporates performance and installation into her work. She’s represented by the David Castillo Gallery in Wynwood and currently has a solo show at the home of the Scholl Collection, World Class Boxing, through January.

Art_Feature_4A previous short she made with Leyva, called I Am Your Grandmother, was an eye-catcher in 2011 -- at the Castillo Gallery, the Museum of Contemporary Art’s annual Optic Nerve film festival, and eventually, on the Internet, becoming a viral hit. Grandmother has been making a tour of Guggenheim museums, screening in New York, Bilbao, and Berlin.

As Mayer was developing her artistic vision in a blossoming visual arts scene over the past decade, Leyva was graduating from the New World School of the Arts High School, where he had helped start a film festival to highlight local work, called UnMinced. While he and fellow filmmakers flew north after high school, some of them wanted to capitalize on what they felt was a talented pool of young people born in the 1980s, influenced by an increasingly vibrant Miami.

So Leyva returned to found the alternative Borscht Film Festival, which, according to the group, is a “quasi-yearly event held at iconic Miami venues that commissions and showcases films created by emerging regional filmmakers telling Miami stories that go beyond the typical portrayal of the city as a beautiful, but vapid party town, forging the cinematic identity of the city.” Now entering its eighth year, Borscht has evolved from a loose and amorphous entity into something far more solid.

In 2011 Sundance picked up the animated short Xemoland, made by Borscht alum and Key Biscayne native Daniel Cardenas, about a seven-year-old boy’s alternative universe on that well-to-do island. Three other Borscht films also screened at international festivals this past year. The exposure has paid off: The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has recognized the Borscht mission, and has awarded it a $150,000 Knight Arts Challenge matching grant.

Art_Feature_5Rakontur, founded by Miami filmmaking duo Alfred Spellman and Billy Corben, has thrown support behind the festival as well. “Leyva and I…collaborate on almost all our creative projects in one way or another,” says Mayer. “But this was my first time working with Rakontur. They were really positive and encouraged the whole project, and the indie film scene in general.” Hence this project involving contributions from across Miami’s contemporary cultural spectrum -- music, writing, film, and visual arts.

Now the group is packing its bags for Sundance. Just what the broader culture will make of Luther Campbell -- and Miami’s -- freaky world is anyone’s guess. But with projects such as this, Miami artists are cultivating a unique identity for themselves and their hometown.

Says Mayer, who will be one of the team on a plane out West later this month: “We’re really excited to bring booty-bass music to Utah!”


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