In 1987, most American viewers hadn’t yet heard of Lasse Hallström. The Swedish director himself couldn’t predict that My Life as a Dog, his quirky childhood adventure, would be nominated for two Academy Awards and achieve cult status after making its US premiere at the Miami International Film Festival (MIFF).

“It came out of nowhere, but the reaction here was really strong,” Jaie Laplante, MIFF’s current executive director, says of the film. “It’s this festival that discovered Hallström. Since then, he’s gone on to a great career in Hollywood, directing films such as What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Cider House Rules, and Chocolat.” It’s fitting, then, that Hallström is one of two honorees at this year’s 30th anniversary of the festival, returning with a new, Swedish-language crime drama called The Hypnotist.

MIFF wouldn’t be where it is today—a respected forum for independent American and international films—without the assiduous efforts of Nat Chediak, who founded the festival in 1983. He spearheaded the event for 18 years, introducing South Florida audiences to directors as compelling and diverse as Spain’s Pedro Almodóvar, France’s Eric Rohmer, and Canada’s Atom Egoyan. A devoted cinephile, Chediak handpicked all the screenings, greeted filmmakers onstage at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts, and held court at indelible afterparties.

In 1999, however, things got complicated. Florida International University took control over Chediak’s nonprofit Film Society of Miami, reportedly to expand the festival; its relationship with its original creator soon became acrimonious. Contention continued as the festival went on yet struggled to retain its director. By 2003, FIU backed out after losing $20 million in state funding (and accumulating an $800,000 deficit), and Miami Dade College became the new sponsor. At that point, Nicole Guillemet, formerly codirector at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, took the helm, until 2010, when Laplante was named director. He says, “Miami isn’t always the easiest place to understand, and it’s important to have someone fully invested in this city.”

This year, Laplante is looking forward to screening The Artist and the Model, the new film by Oscar-nominated Spanish director and producer Fernando Trueba (this year’s other honoree), along with Dark Blood, River Phoenix’s last movie, which has never before been screened in the US; Everybody Has a Plan, an Argentine/Spanish production with Viggo Mortensen playing twin characters; The Boy Who Smells Like Fish, starring Zoë Kravitz; and a new series of culinary cinema (including Meat Hooked and Why Did We Leave?, documentaries about butcher culture and five French chefs who relocated to Brazil, respectively), curated by Lee Brian Schrager, the force behind the Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival.

“We owe Nat a lot,” Laplante says of MIFF. “He’s left quite a legacy.”

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