A documentary about a woman who collects art made by prisoners in American prisons may not immediately seem like a blockbuster hit.
But when filmmaker enthusiast Rodney Mayo and documentary filmmaker Jose Jesus Zaragoza, co-founders of the Subculture Film Festival, saw Ask Her About the Art, a heartwarming documentary directed by West Palm Beach filmmaker Karim Dakkon, they worked together with Subculture Film Festival’s Co-director, Noelia Rabino to put it on a path to be screened at the Norton Museum of Art on the festival opening night. And who knows where it will land next?
Think back to the early 90s, when the rise of independent films through the film festival circuit put established actors such as John Travolta, Bruce Willis, and Tim Robbins back on the big screen.
The thing about film festivals is that while they may be seen as just another industry event, largely attended by filmmakers, film enthusiasts as well as critics, and journalists, their influence can be huge and draw a bigger crowd than any studio-produced film. Film festivals are the buzz house for independent movies and sometimes determine whether a distributor picks one up for a wider public release, building on the momentum all the way to awards season. As an audience, knowing you could be part of that magic is exhilarating. Today, more than ever, the public is a filmmaker’s biggest ally.
Mayo, who started his career in the public eye working in real estate, entertainment, filmmaking, and other creative innovations, understands that. “It’s interesting how filmmaking has totally changed and become the new mainstream,” he says. “But you would think that there would be more avenues, more easy access to making films these days. And I guess those avenues are the Internet and YouTube where independent short films and documentaries are getting picked up.”
Film festivals, Mayo observes, have taken over Hollywood studios in producing the kinds of films and documentaries—realistic dramas and comedies—that were long the core of studio fare.
“Today, new technology has provided a great deal of interest for people to make their own films. Many filmmakers are taking control of their own productions. If anything, that’s what a film festival can do,” explains Rodney. “It encourages not just the filmmakers showcasing their films and helping advance their careers, but others in the audience with the same dream, thinking, ‘I’m going to make a film so I can show it at the film festival next year.’”
A film festival is no easy feat, and Mayo knows it well. So, he partnered with local filmmaker Jose Jesus Zaragoza, and together they co-founded the Subculture Film Festival. “Rodney and I connected in 2020 when we collaborated on a number of projects ranging from his nonprofit organization, Hospitality Helping Hands, which provided meals to the community during the COVID-19 shutdown, to film projects and events engaging the community,” explains Zaragoza.
For 16 years, Zaragoza was the publisher of three community newspapers in Glades and later the communications director for a nonprofit organization serving low-income residents in the region. Every year, Rodney has a holiday toy drive that benefits children and residents of the Glades communities.
Mayo and Zaragoza share a common interest: filmmaking.
“I told Rodney about a number of my close friends who have been creating incredible documentary films in the Glades region, many of which have gone on to screen at Sundance, Tribeca, Berlinale, etc., but they had made few headlines here at home,” recalls Zaragoza. “Rodney and I are big fans of documentary films and there was a time when every time we got together, we had a few documentary films to recommend to each other. I suggested we have a monthly screening club, something small with like-minded film fans coming together to watch and discuss films, and Rodney said, ‘Why not a film festival?’ He provided the prize money and we got to work.”
The Subculture Film Festival was held in West Palm Beach in March of 2022 for the first time.
Why this location? West Palm Beach is an interesting place for both Mayo and Zaragoza. Mayo likens it to New York City, or at least to the NYC of old, the one he would like to recreate with a tropical twist. Close, but still far from the Miami art scene, and with filmmakers of its own, West Palm Beach’s vibe is different, they think.
Palm Beach County filmmakers have a unique voice but few places to showcase their work and fewer places to connect with other filmmakers, explains Zaragoza. “This is what we bring to the table—an opportunity for filmmakers to connect, trade notes, work together, and continue building the vision for cinema in our region.”
The last few years have given our community and the world at large a new perspective on life. And many of those moments and stories have been captured on film by these independent filmmakers.
Having worked for the Miami Film Festival for several years, Rabino has been an integral part of the team. She has not only brought a wealth of experience to West Palm Beach, but more importantly, she has elevated the festival’s partnerships, vision, and scope. This year, she has made key connections in the community, starting with The Norton Museum.
“The Norton has been really gracious in allowing us to showcase some of the films in their space. Our festival poster design was created by Adam Sheetz, a local artist who has captured the spirit of West Palm Beach through a unique blend of creativity and geography,” says Rabino.
Sheetz drew his inspiration from a map of West Palm Beach. The design is a beautiful urban tapestry that introduces the diverse range of cinematic experiences that Subculture Film will deliver.
Everybody is invited to attend this festival. It will run from October 20 to 22, starting at The Norton Museum and continuing at G-Star Studios. It will close at The Peach on October 22. The three-day event will provide a curated collection of independent films from South Florida and beyond, with industry panels, filmmakers’ talks, and technical workshops.
“I remember meeting Chuck Strand, one of my film professors who was an incredible avant-garde filmmaker,” says Mayo. “He introduced me to these films that had a bit of a Warholesque feel to them. And all I wanted to do in life was make films like these. Kind of my plan was to make enough money in the nightclub business and then go and make a film. Well, two years turned into five. Five turned into 10 and then 36. I simply got sidetracked. But in the back of my mind, I’ve always wanted to make documentaries . . . I’ve always loved films.”
It looks like co-founding the Subculture Film Festival is his way back into it.
Tickets for this year’s Subculture Film Festival will go on sale the first week of September at subculturefilmfest.com.