One evening in 1979, photographers Andy Sweet and Gary Monroe crashed a dance party at the 21st Street Community Center, a Miami Beach hot spot jumping with the youthful energy of Jewish retirees. The dance hall was packed, and there was Sweet holding his camera aloft, weaving through the sea of white hair, shuffling feet and suntanned faces. Monroe noticed his friend was beaming, and as they passed each other on the dance floor, Sweet called over his shoulder, “I feel like I’m dancing with them.”
“That comment summed up everything about our art that needed to be said,” Monroe says midway through “The Last Resort,” a new 70-minute documentary chronicling the rise and fall of Miami Beach’s once-mighty population of Jewish senior citizens and the two photographers who captured it all.
But “The Last Resort,” directed by Miami filmmakers Dennis Scholl and Kareem Tabsch, is also a love letter to Sweet, a wavy-haired, camera-obsessed man who in 1982 was stabbed to death inside his Miami Beach apartment. The film will have its world premiere screening at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 23, at Regal Cinemas South Beach, as part of the 21st annual Miami Jewish Film Festival.
Drawn to South Beach in the late 1970s by the fascinating but fading subculture of aging Jews who called the city home, best friends Sweet and Monroe spent years capturing seniors at play. Sweet’s warmly candid photos, which are as colorful as a beach ball, depict retirees laughing, dancing on the shore and lounging poolside.
“[The Jewish retirees] treated Andy and Gary like the grandsons they never had,” says Tabsch, also the co-owner of independent theater O Cinema. “They were good-looking, young Jewish boys. They didn’t try to make them look ludicrous, or try to make them pose in certain ways. Now, their photography is finally having a moment.”
Long before “The Golden Girls,” the cocaine boom and the Cuban exiles who shaped modern South Florida, Jewish retirees saw a lush playground in Miami Beach, where they were enchanted by the city’s low-rent apartments, abundant sun and Vegas-caliber acts, such as Jackie Gleason and the Rat Pack. They brought Jewish culture along with them: synagogues, iconic delis such as Wolfie’s and Rascal House. According to the film, by the 1950s, the median age in the city was 62.
“In the ’70s, someone identified only as Scott once took out an ad in the newspaper saying that everyone in town was really old,” says Kelly Reichardt, a Miami filmmaker interviewed for the documentary. “He said that if anyone around knew who the Clash was to please give him a call.”
Scholl and Tabsch will discuss the film following its Jan. 23 screening.
“Andy and Gary loved the 305, and they saw this was a moment that was going to disappear,” Scholl says.
“The Last Resort” will join 61 films from 20 countries at the festival, which is holding screenings at 10 Miami Beach and Miami theaters through Jan. 25. This year’s offerings include documentaries on French-Belgian jazz pioneer Django Reinhardt (“Django”) and Leon Vitali, Stanley Kubrick’s right-hand man (“Filmworker”), and actor Martin Landau’s final feature film (“The Last Poker Game”).
The evocative power of music is a major influence on this year’s offerings, says executive director Igor Shteyrenberg, who has helped to increase the Miami Jewish Film Festival’s attendance from 4,000 in 2013 to 27,000 in 2017. (He expects more than 34,000 visitors this year.) Screenings of “Good Deeds: The Conductor Zubin Mehta,” “Reinhardt” and “Sammy Davis: I’ve Gotta Be Me” will be accompanied by live music performances in the theater.
“A film festival must always be a place of cultural discovery,” Shteyrenberg, 34, says. “We’re always looking for cutting-edge things to program here.”
Up north, more Jewish-centric cinema will be showcased at the Donald M. Ephraim Palm Beach Jewish Film Festival, returning Thursday, Jan. 18, through Feb. 11, with 35 films at six Palm Beach theaters. The opening-night documentary, “Body and Soul: An American Bridge,” about Jewish composer Johnny Green, will screen at 7 p.m. Jan. 18 at AMC CityPlace 20.
The world premiere of “The Last Resort” will screen 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 23, at Regal Cinemas South Beach, 1120 Lincoln Road, in Miami Beach. The Miami Jewish Film Festival will host screenings at multiple Miami-Dade theaters through Jan. 25, while the Palm Beach International Film Festival will take place Jan. 18-Feb. 11, at multiple Palm Beach theaters. Admission is $13-$275 in Miami and $12-$43 in Palm Beach. Call 305-573-7304 or go to MiamiJewishFilmFestival.org, and call 877-318-0071 or go to PBJFF.org.
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