Venus and Serena

A still from "Venus and Serena," a documentary on Palm Beach tennis champions the Williams sisters, which will open at the Miami International Film Festival. (Magnolia Pictures/Courtesy / March 1, 2013)

As they filmed a certain pair of Palm Beach Gardens tennis champions for their documentary "Venus and Serena," co-directors Maiken Baird and Michelle Major were granted unfettered access to the sisters' private and often-chaotic lives, which included no less than several trips to the hospital and the foibles of their father, Richard Williams.

The access was, perhaps, too unfettered, since the Williams sisters, among pro-tennis' winningest racket-swingers, reportedly skipped the movie's world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. Both, reportedly, disliked scenes involving their father, depicted, in one scene, with a 78-page manifesto charting out the sisters' burgeoning careers since elementary school; and the myriad, lingering cinema vérité shots of Venus and Serena undergoing treatments for an autoimmune disease and for near-fatal blood clots, respectively.

"I'm disappointed the sisters didn't like everything that was being shown, because we really set out to tell a true story that was very inspiring," Major told the Los Angeles Times in September. Of the sisters' disagreement, she insisted they never stipulated conditions before letting cameras capture some 450 hours of footage, now packaged into a chronicle of Venus and Serena's scrupulous and tightly curated public image.

So Baird and Michelle, veteran broadcast journalists who declined to be interviewed for this story, are bringing no small measure of drama to the 30th annual Miami International Film Festival, which begins Friday. "Venus and Serena" will be screened March 9 at the Olympia Theater at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts, one of the half-dozen venues showing the festival's 142 films.


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The 10-day, star-studded affair bows Friday with the opening-night film "Twenty Feet From Stardom," a documentary about black backup singers and featuring interviews with Bruce Springsteen and Mick Jagger, at the Gusman Center. Actors John Leguizamo, Carrie-Anne Moss, Eduardo Noriega, Oscar nominees Lena Olin and James Cromwell, and Zoe Kravitz, daughter of rock star Lenny Kravitz, will walk the red carpet. The same goes for Miami’s resident Rakontur provocatur Billy Corbin, who with co-founder Alfred Spellman will present “Cocaine Cowboys: The Series,” a discussion on the pair’s strung-out editing aesthetic and hyperkinetic “pop-docs,” on March 9 at Miami Beach Cinematheque.

About a dozen Miami-set films, shorts and documentaries will span the festival, including the Will Farrell-esque, "Nacho Libre"-inspired comedy "Tony Tango," starring Maxx Maulion, formerly of Fort Lauderdale, and Andres De Oliveira, formerly of Coral Springs. Shot in 2010 in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood, the film tracks Maulion's titular character, an overweight Latin dancer who joins a dance competition to save his family's Miami studio. The character's singular voice and delivery carries a low rasp with an Antonio Banderas-like sultriness. Or …

"He sounds like Puss-in-Boots," says De Oliveira, who plays Tango's sidekick, Pablo, with a laugh, speaking by phone in advance of the film's screening on March 6 and March 8 at Regal South Beach Cinemas. "He's a weird character, who is so delusional but is so interesting to watch. Maxx doesn't speak like him at all. He's a gringo, and can string a few words of Spanish together. He can definitely get to a library or a shoe store, that's it."

De Oliveira, who co-created the film with Maulion, trekked across the Broward County line for numerous key scenes: Tango's mother's house is really Maulion's home in Fort Lauderdale, while the character's rock-bottom moment of despair, in which Tango inhales several ice cream containers before collapsing in a sugar-induced coma, was filmed at 20th Via Venti Cafe on Hollywood's Harrison Street.

"We researched Miami's Latin dance culture quite a bit. Jerry Perez, the guy who plays the antagonist, has been a pro dancer in Miami for about 15 years," De Oliveira says. "Those dancing extras in the film are all his dancing buddies."

Perhaps the Miami International Film Festival's most-controversial film is the North American premiere of George Sluizer's unfinished project, "Dark Blood" (opening March 6 at the Gusman). Filmed in 1993, the movie includes the final onscreen performance of River Phoenix. That year, the infamous Gen-Xer and older brother of Joaquin and Summer died on the sidewalk outside Johnny Depp's nightclub in Hollywood, Calif., of cocaine- and heroin-induced heart failure.

"Dark Blood" was abandoned and never released. But in 1999, Sluizer learned that distributors intended to burn the footage. So he stole the film.

"I was not the producer of the film. I was the co-writer. I had no rights. I did steal it," says Sluizer, now 80, speaking by phone from his home in the Netherlands, and who claimed during the 30-minute interview to be "very sick" and suffering from heart arrhythmia. "Morally speaking, I should be praised. If a child is drowning in the river, you should save him. I thought it was totally stupid to destroy the material."

As it stands, however, Sluizer's treatment of the 83-minute film is an oddity, punctuated with still images overlaid with Sluizer's soothing voice-over narration as a substitute for Phoenix's missing scenes. Phoenix, who died when the film was only 75 percent complete, portrays a young widower named Boy, who retreats to the Utah desert following the death of his wife from nuclear radiation poisoning. Sluizer recalls being captivated by Phoenix's onscreen presence.

"I was very surprised. I got along with River, and I'm old enough to consider him like a son," says Sluizer, who will attend the premiere. "I'm someone who wanted to finish the film we were making before I got too sick to do so."

Miami International Film Festival

When: 7 p.m. Friday, March 1 through Sunday, March 10

Where: Coral Gables Art Cinema, 260 Aragon Ave.; Miami Beach Cinematheque, 1130 Washington Ave.; O Cinema Wynwood, 90 NW 29th St., Miami; Olympia Theater at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts, 174 E. Flagler St., Miami; Regal Cinemas South Beach, 1120 Lincoln Road, Miami Beach; and Tower Theater, 1508 SW Eighth St., Miami

Cost: $12-$14; $7-$9 students, $11-$13 seniors, $25-$125 for opening-night film, awards night

Contact: 305-237-3456 or MiamiFilmFestival.com