It’s not easy to rattle Jaie Laplante. But the newly hired director of the Miami International Film Festival has plenty of good reasons to be anxious: Laplante is the fifth director to helm the Festival over the past decade, a disturbing employment pattern, and one that speaks to an ongoing identity crisis on the part of the Fest itself.
“I’m not intimidated,” Laplante says matter-of-factly, sitting inside his office on the downtown campus of the Festival’s host, Miami Dade College. So no escape parachute stuffed inside his briefcase? “I feel different from the previous directors in the sense that I’m from here, I’m a part of the community,” he counters. His predecessors “didn’t come here to live. They came here to work.”
A scene from Susanna Bier’s In a Better World
A native of Alberta, Canada, Laplante first arrived in Miami in 1998. Thirteen years later, “I definitely understand this city and what a mass of contradictions it is. I embrace it!” He points to his own Miami Shores neighborhood, just up the road from where nationally renowned restaurants and streetwalkers coexist: “I’ve always felt the most comfortable where you can go to sleep in your beautifully manicured house, and across the street is a drag queen prostitute smashing in her john’s car window with a trash can,” he says with a laugh. “I like that buzz!”
Indeed, Laplante is well-acquainted with drama. In his previous job as associate director of the Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival, he dealt with more than a few divas—culinary and otherwise. (Miami Dade College officials are clearly hoping Laplante’s wooing skills extend to enticing some Wine & Food Fest corporate sponsors into developing an appreciation of cinema.) Prior to that gig, Laplante served as codirector of the Miami Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, helping to rescue it from crippling debts at a time when many questioned whether—following the ouster of its founding director—it was even worth saving.
But the most colorful line on Laplante’s résumé is his role in 1995’s Frisk, a graphic, often gruesome, exploration of the darker side of gay sado-masochism. The movie remains polarizing—its premiere at the San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival drew mass walkouts and angry boos. Yet the picture has its share of present-day defenders, including the appreciative website Cinemale, where Laplante can be viewed in all his character’s stripped-to-his-underwear glory.
From Fernando Trueba’s Chico & Rita
“I was in some films. I wouldn’t say I was an actor,” he quips with a roll of his eyes.
Still, the heated audience reactions to Frisk did give Laplante a profound appreciation for the power of an old-fashioned cinema screening that speaks viscerally to its audience. It’s in that spirit that Laplante says he assembled his Fest’s 2011 slate, avoiding what he deems the mistakes of his predecessors.
“The Festival seems to have morphed into trying to explore other parts of the world. We are an international film festival, but Ibero-America is the core of what makes us special. I’m also really invested in keeping our industry component strong. For a film festival to not only survive but thrive—at a time when every town in America has its own festival—industry people drive interest. If they know business is going to get done at a certain film festival, they bring their best films there.”
That viewpoint, transforming the Miami Film Fest into an Ibero-American Sundance, is more than just an aesthetic nod to the earlier goal of Festival director Nicole Guillemet—whose 2002 to 2007 tenure was the last time the Fest was on the national radar.
Accordingly, don’t expect a repeat of 2010’s opening night spotlight on British director Ken Loach. “I thought that was a really strange choice,” Laplante scoffs. Instead, this year’s opening night selection is Fernando Trueba’s animated Chico & Rita, which seems tailor-made for Miami. Spinning out a love story between a jazz pianist and a torch singer, stretching from 1948 Havana to today’s New York City and featuring the musical stylings of Cuban legend Bebo Valdés, the film is already drawing advance raves.
Though much of the rest of the Festival’s schedule remains in flux at press time, Laplante says to expect several new films from Argentina and Mexico, as well as a tribute to Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier. Wait—a retrospective of somewhat obscure Danish films? Isn’t that, à la Ken Loach, straying a bit off the Ibero-American path? “I program with my heart for what is the right director with the right film at the right time. You are going to be moved!” he promises.
The 28th annual Miami International Film Festival runs March 4 to 13.