Caption: A new documentary explores Miami Beach’s history as a destination for Jewish retirees. Credit: Andy Sweet Photo Legacy

Long before Art Deco became a movement and prior to the arrival of MTV, Miami Vice and Madonna, South Beach was home to the largest cluster of Jewish retirees in the country. 

Attracted by the low cost-of-living, sunny beaches and thriving social life, they came by the thousands, seeking refuge from the Northeast's brutal winters. By the 1970's, these former New Yorkers were turning from snow birds to year-round residents, making Miami Beach home to a population that was primarily over 70 and overwhelmingly Jewish.

In “The Last Resort,” opening on Feb. 15 at Coral Gables Art Cinema and O Cinema Miami, filmmakers Kareem Tabsch and Dennis Scholl will take viewers on a journey back to the iconic Miami Beach of yesterday—as captured at the time by young photographers Andy Sweet and Gary Monroe. 

With cameras in hand, Sweet and Monroe embarked upon an ambitious 10-year project to document the aging population living in the sunburned paradise of 1970s Miami Beach and into the changing, turbulent 1980s. 

Working in different styles and approaches, Sweet and Monroe captured the end of an era. Monroe’s black and white portraits offered a stark contrast to Sweet's captivating candy-hued color photos. The result was one of the most fascinating photographic documentaries of a community ever caught on film.

“A couple of years [ago] I saw an article in the Washington Post with a gallery of images of Andy Sweet’s work. I was immediately fascinated by it,” recalled Tabsch, a longtime Miami resident who is also openly gay. “The Miami New Times then did a cover story about his work and life, such a fascinating story and the pictures were so beautiful. Now, fast forward a year after that, Dennis and I had been longtime friends, but never made a film before. Over dinner, we discovered we both had a fascination with those images. That’s when we decided to do the film.”

“I actually knew Gary for decades and met Andy once or twice when we were both in our 20s,” added Scholl. “The project they were doing was known in the community, but there wasn’t a big noise about it. I like to make films about art and artists and here are these hometown Miami Beach guys who went away to school and came back and decided to tackle this project, capturing a subculture that they knew wouldn’t last long.”

While Monroe had been meticulous about cataloging and preserving his images, much of Sweet’s collection was lost.

“One of the challenges when you’re making a film is that you can’t just rely on static images. We had to go out and find video that would help contextualize the photographs. The other thing that happened, we thought we were making a film about two photographers who were capturing a subculture, but when we finally found that archival footage it caused us to rethink the entire story,” said Scholl.

Tabsch added, “When we think of South Beach, we think of that early ‘90s renaissance, but this era is particularly interesting, this elderly Jewish population was coexisting alongside a growing gay community, but they had almost nothing to do with each other.”

The filmmakers also noted that, while Sweet never came out, many family and friends believed him to be gay.

 In addition to archival photos and film, their documentary features interviews with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edna Buchanan, filmmaker Kelly Reichardt, Jewish Museum of Florida executive director Susan Gladstone, Miami Book Fair co-founder Mitchell Kaplan and photographer Gary Monroe.

Kareem Tabsch and Dennis Scholl’s documentary, “The Last Resort,” opens on Friday, Feb. 15 at Coral Gables Art Cinema, 260 Aragon Ave. in Coral Gables, and O Cinema Miami Beach, 500 71stSt. in Miami Beach. More info at TheLastResortMovie.com.