The O Cinema Dream Team
by jason fitzroy jeffers
Vivian Marthell and Kareem Tabsch at O Cinema in Miami Shores
Apparently, O Cinema cofounders and -directors Kareem Tabsch and Vivian Marthell disagree about nearly everything. But they wouldn’t have it any other way. The self-described “old married couple” first met when they were both working at the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. Over daily lunches at the now-defunct South Beach restaurant Noodle Shop, they argued about movies, plotted a short film they’d rather forget, and engineered the temporary rescue of a floundering performing arts festival. “It got so bad that our boss told us we couldn’t take lunch together anymore,” Tabsch chuckles.
Eventually, they brainstormed O Cinema, a homegrown film space that would screen indie, off-kilter, and foreign films—the kind of stuff that won raves at festivals such as Sundance and Cannes, but would never be shown at a South Florida multiplex. “If there was something we really wanted to see, we often had to watch it on trips to New York or LA,” Marthell recalls.
It was 2008, just as the Knight Foundation announced its inaugural Arts Challenge in Miami, awarding $400,000 to winning ideas that furthered the local arts community. The pair applied, won, and after two years of location hunting and raising matching funds in a bum economy, they opened in February 2011 on 29th Street in Wynwood.
“We were really determined,” Tabsch says. “If it meant a bedsheet and a projector in an abandoned building somewhere in Little Haiti, it would have happened.”
The constant tête-à-têtes from which they spin their magic follow a long tradition of duos associated with the silver screen, from Laurel and Hardy to Siskel and Ebert—except these two are our very own. For nearly two years, they’ve been indulging and schooling Miami film buffs from their beloved, edgy clubhouse-like outpost. Last October they opened their second location in Miami Shores at the Miami Theater Center, originally a movie house dating back to 1946. They had initially scouted it for a temporary location while the Wynwood space was being retrofitted, but a ban on film screenings in the cozy municipality squelched that vision pretty quickly.
“By the ’80s, it had become a 99-cent movie house showing soft-core flicks,” says Tabsch. “Miami Shores is a very family-friendly time-capsule of a village, and it wasn’t in keeping with that.”
However, once their credibility was established in Wynwood, the ban was lifted, giving them the green light. Wynwood continues to focus on “weirder stuff and documentaries,” while the Shores location screens more narrative-based movies, and foreign and family films.
Now, with two screens to tend to and Miami’s arts scene bursting at the seams, they find themselves at the forefront of the creative conversations pushing this city further than many thought it might go. “Miami is a place where suntan lotion and alcohol serve as appetizers for culture,” Marthell says. “It’s always been that way, [but] I knew there was burgeoning soil here. ”
“When I was a kid, I couldn’t wait to get out of here,” Tabsch adds. “Miami has long had a reputation for being vapid, and I’m always so pleasantly surprised to learn that’s not true.”
photography by jim arbogast