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Hearing voices 

The gorgeous girl in the beauty-contestant costume fit right in with the crowd of Orlando art types that showed up last Friday evening at the AMC Fashion Village 8 theater for the opening of the 16th Central Florida Film & Video Festival. Amidst the lineup of vampire wannabes and retro-'40s hipsters, who would notice an extra runway queen or two?

It wasn't until the program got underway that we learned this was indeed the real-life Miss Cuba, hauled in by Telemundo Channel 40 to help introduce "I am Cuba," the 1964 "documentary" whose screening the station had elected to sponsor. It was clear from the outset that this edition of the CFFVF wouldn't shy away from controversy, as Telemundo representatives warned the audience that what they were about to see was a propagandistic pack of lies meant to glorify the Castro regime. They were right about the film's agenda: It was a starry-eyed, intentionally skewed paean to the glories of the revolution that unseated Battista, presented as a series of playlets dramatizing the alleged evils Western capitalism had wreaked on the island in the days before the uprising. But as everyone present had to admit, it was also beautifully made, full of eerily lit black-and-white images and genius-level camera work.

Unfortunately, it was also far too long at two hours and 21 minutes. Good propaganda demands brevity; after 90 minutes, preaching to the converted is the best you can hope for.

Begging controversy

The fur really began to fly when screenwriter Yevgeny Yevtushenko appeared to take questions from the audience. His opening remarks seemed to last another half-hour, leaving festival staffers and audience members shifting nervously in their seats. His interminable apologia could have been summed up by the statement, "I was a little naive, but Castro seemed like a good guy at the time. Shit happens."

After Yevtushenko had been politely signaled to wind things up, a stinging rebuke came from one Dr. Corto, another member of the Cuban community Telemundo had invited to present its side of the issue. Pointedly noting that he was two hours overdue in getting home to his sick wife, Corto added that Yevtushenko's film made him ill himself every time he had to watch it.

And so it went between the two factions, with a lot of finger-pointing taking the place of a genuine exchange of ideas. By the time cinematographer Alexander Calzatti had his turn to field questions about the film's actual artistic components, the battery on the hand-held mike had gone all but dead, rendering his statements inaudible to those more than two rows away. There's a comment to be made here about politics getting in the way of art, but it seems too obvious to point out.

At an after-party at the Langford Resort Hotel, Telemundo general manager Laura Santos was still fuming. She had wanted the film to be seen, she told me, because she loves living in a country that provides platforms for divergent viewpoints. But she was incensed that Yevtushenko, in her estimation, was "unrepentant" and "still a Communist." She suggested to me that he should go and witness the Cuba of 1998 with his own eyes, instead of residing in America and continuing a cycle of lies while living off the welfare rolls her tax dollars pay for. Huh?

Meanwhile, Yevtushenko held court at the pool, engaged in conversation with a local left-leaning journalist of my acquaintance. It was clear he wouldn't be venturing into the hotel's Empire Room to tango with Santos anytime soon. Instead, the entertainment was provided by a belly dancer, who spiced up her act by balancing swords on various parts of her anatomy. She was no doubt unaware that she had landed the safest, easiest job of the night.

Friendlier fire

The discourse was a lot friendlier the following afternoon at Rollins College, where social theorists George Gerbner, Todd Gitlin and Jerry Mander convened for a media forum that explored the negative influence of commerce-driven communications on American culture. Their message met the ears of an appreciative, interested audience, albeit one that seemed to number at least a few college students there for credit ("Do we have to take notes?" one asked another).

This time, I was disappointed in the relative brevity of the program. Each man limited his remarks to about 15 minutes, and Gerbner left the subsequent Q&A early in order to catch a flight. Still, there was enough reasoned analysis of the failings of electronic media to whet appetites for Thursday night's screening of the terrific "The Ad and the Ego," which covers similar themes. Those who sought more immediate wisdom were able to purchase copies of books the three scholars had authored, including Mander's "Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television." Wait -- weren't there SIX Osmonds?

Dirges in the dark

Back at Fashion Village, Yevtushenko had returned for a showing of his own directorial project, "Stalin's Funeral" (no angry Cubans in sight this time). We suffered through another of his endless monologues before proceeding to the film, which fortunately turned out to be considerably less heavy-handed than "I am Cuba." Still, its portrait of the public melee that greeted the 1953 internment of the revered Uncle Joe was bogged down by some melodramatic performances and over-the-top dialogue. Sample snippet: "What kindled your evil flame?" I'm dying to use that line on someone. Heck, on anyone.

Afterward, Yevtushenko turned the Q&A into a springboard for another rambling sermon. What was sad was that his comments this time contained more than a few pearls of pith and poignance, but they were all but smothered by the verbosity, self-aggrandizement and thinly veiled disdain for American audiences I had already come to expect from him. He ended the program with a reading of his own poetry, cooing Russian love lines to a tickled young woman in the second row who looked less than half his age. The CFFVF's harried Jason Neff called for him to please be brief, a request Yevtushenko countered with the observation that he had been to 94 cities in his career, but had NEVER been asked to edit himself. He might forgive Orlando, he promised only half-jokingly, but he'd never forget it.

Score one for our side. I'm hardly a political person, but in two days, the festival had taught me a valuable lesson: The next time I encounter a Russian intellectual, I'm going to shoot first and ask questions later.

Splash of local color

Sunday, it was our community's turn to pat itself on the back for real, with the day's agenda given over to shorts produced by Florida filmmakers. "The Art of the Illuminati" offered profiles of a handful of visual artists living and working in the Central Florida area. Many of them were in attendance at the screening, and their friends teasingly patted them on their shoulders when they were seen bemoaning the less-than-supportive environment in which they have to operate, and singing the praises of media that don't require expensive tools. It must be doubly daunting to go on record calling for greater reinforcement of your efforts, and then realize that it's mostly your friends who are hearing the message.

The hometown boosterism was to continue with "Remarkable," a well-meaning but amateurish documentary about the Orlando dance-music scene. This was clearly the evening's main event to the audience of Cairo refugees that had begun to file in, and they were restless and mostly unresponsive to the shorter, Florida-made films they had to sit through while waiting for their immortalization onscreen. Behind me, the undying "roofies vs. nitrous oxide" debate continued loudly and unabated.

This version of "Remarkable" was shorter than the one I had seen before the festival. At least one entire scene had been excised, a segment in which DJ Remark (the most charisma-challenged central figure around whom a doc could revolve) professed his undying love of the Pet Shop Boys. Was it cut to keep the running time manageable, or to propagate the myth that the influences of pop music's hip young lions don't go more than five years deep?

It was difficult to gauge the crowd's appreciation of even the film's humble stabs at insight. Most of their mental energy seemed focused on picking out events and locations they could easily identify ("I was a Zen Fest too! Look, there's Sasha"). When the voice-over narration asserted that the "drug epidemic" that had killed the late-night scene had been drastically overstated, a loud chorus of sarcastic laughter went up. It's a good thing Mayor Hood wasn't sitting in that theater with you, kids, or you'd never get your after-hours clubs back.

Even if it hadn't quite held their winnowed attention spans, "Remarkable" was treated to a healthy round of applause when it finally ran its course. Why not? It was the next best thing to seeing yourself on TV.

After the show, some of the stars of "Illuminati" and "Remarkable" retired to the Sapphire Supper Club to demonstrate their talents in real time. In one corner, painter Carl Knickerbocker momentarily abandoned the canine thrust of his "Ethnocentric Dogs" series to work on an image of two children; across the room, Remark accepted the plaudits of well-wishers, in anticipation of his turn at the onstage DJ stand. I would have liked to have caught his set, but I was beginning to feel myself turn into a pumpkin as the witching hour tolled, so I headed home instead. Maybe the decline of late-night doesn't bother me as much as I thought it did.

Monday night at Fashion Village amounts to an international feast, with a viewing of short subjects of the Cuban and Italian varieties. Those unafraid to examine the complicated workings of the heart can stay for a program of relationship-themed films, while the less introspective can opt for the "Apartment E" party at Monaco (56 E. Pine St.). Down a couple of corniches and strike up a conversation with a stranger; you'll find you suddenly know a lot more about film than you thought you did.

For a festival overview, read Steve Schneider's preview story.

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