New York, NY — With the Democratic candidates busy beating themselves up, the U.S. economy beating itself down and the price of a night on the town equivalent to a week on the job, New Yorkers have good reason to feel a bit bruised and confused. Which has given me a great excuse to seek the perfect distraction and hike on down (who has cab fare?) to the Tribeca Film Festival, which runs from April 23-May 4.
While the polls have barely opened on this one, I can already report that this year’s edition promises to be one of the best programmed I’ve attended since the festival was founded in 2002 by Robert DeNiro, Jane Rosenthal and Craig Hatkoff as an artistic and social response to the aftermath of 9-11.
Politics aside, this is the only convention that can make New Yorker’s thrilled to wait through long lines for a reasonably-priced ticket, and it’s now a solid landmark not only on the City’s cultural scene, but also in the world-wide film festival circuit.
This year, Tribeca will screen around 120 feature length films along with 13 short film programs. Of the feature films, nearly half — 51 — are documentaries, proof of just how popular this genre has become with the programmers and the public here.
A week ago I went to the Producers Guild of America East party at the Tribeca Cinema, one of the festival’s hot-spots with three screens as well the Tribeca Cinema Gallery, and lots of space for parties and receptions. PGA member and Festival co-founder Rosenthal gave the welcoming speech, noting the strong documentary line-up and one of this year’s festival themes, “Childhood Interrupted,” represented by a series of films about children who are forced to become “parents” of their own mothers and fathers.
Rosenthal highlighted two films in particular: Tennessee by Aaron Woodley, about two brothers returning back to their home to reconnect with their father, starring Mariah Carey; and War Child from filmmaker C. Karim Chrobog, about the hip hop artist Emmanuel Jal, who was a child soldier in the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army and now uses his music to raise awareness for his country. Both films are world premieres at the festival and will screen in the feature film and documentary competition, respectively.
Besides a competition section for both narrative and documentary films and a wide selection of short programs, Tribeca also presents a number of sidebars. Among them: “Spotlight,” screening films that will hit theaters shortly after the festival; “Encounters,” which features films by established filmmakers and/or with controversial subject matter; “Discoveries,” which unearths new and emerging talents in docs and fiction; “Showcase,” a sidebar of films that already successfully played at other festivals; and a “Midnight” sidebar of horror and thriller films.
I had the chance to watch some of these films already, thanks to some pre-festival press screenings, and one common theme that struck me was reconciliation. That’s fitting, considering the reason this festival was established — as a way to help heal the wounds of a devastated Tribeca neighborhood.
Here are a few of the films I thought were especially noteworthy:
A President to Remember, by pioneer documentary filmmaker Robert Drew, about the inspirational presidency of John F. Kennedy. Using footage from his own productions, including Primaries and Crisis, as well as archival material, Drew gives us a comprehensive overview of the successes and struggles of JFK’s presidency and closes gracefully with its tragic ending. It’s a film with the strength to let audiences draw their own conclusions, as well as their own connections to our current political situation.
Worlds Apart, by the Danish filmmaker Niels Arden Oplev (Discoveries sidebar). In this dramatic feature a young woman from the Jehovah’s Witnesses has to decide whether to remain a member of her congregation or to abandon it and live without further contact with her family. It’s sensitively filmed with a strong cast, notably lead actress Rosalinde Mynster. Oplev’s films are well-known from other festival showings, such as the Berlinale.
My Mothers, the latest and most autobiographical film from Germay’s leading queer filmmaker Rosa von Praunheim. Just prior to her passing, von Paunheim’s mother disclosed to him that he was adopted. A few years after her death, the director set off in search of his biological parents. The result is a film that is both very personal and a journey into German history, and which makes us realize how strongly the echoes of World War II still resonate within us.
And here are a few films with strong buzz that I plan to catch:
Man on a Wire, James March’s award-winning Sundance entry that garnered some more kudos at the recent Full Frame Documentary Film Festival; Football Undercover, Ayat Najafi and David Assmann’s documentary that successfully premiered at the Berlinale, about a German female soccer team that travels to Iran to compete against the women’s team in Tehran; and Everywhere At Once, from photographer Peter Lindbergh and experimental filmmaker Holly Fisher, starring French legend Jeanne Moreau.
So there’s plenty of promising films to feast upon, which should be a real tonic for my mid-spring, big-city economic and political blues. Also on my menu are two series of talks with filmmakers and professionals – “Conversations in Cinema,” a behind-the-scenes look at a selected film, and “Tribeca Talks,” focusing on current filmmaking trends.
I’m especially curious about the forum and meeting place called Tribeca All Access, where young and emerging filmmakers present their works in progress and meet with established film professionals to help them get their films produced. And on the last weekend comes the Family Festival Street Fair as well as the Tribeca Drive-In screenings. More great Tribeca appetizers!
Oh yes, did I mention that this year’s festival boasts the subheading “Enjoy Responsibly”? Which I certainly shall do. I only wish I could say the same about watching more endless Hillary-Obama dust-ups this season, or watching the dollar turn into The Incredible Shrinking Thing as I try to figure out how on earth I’ll manage to swing Cannes this year.
But that’s another movie altogether.
Since moving to New York from Germany in 2003, Tanja Meding has worked as a producer for Maysles Films and other independent production companies. Her latest documentary as a producer, SALLY GROSS – THE PLEASURE OF STILLNESS, centers on the work of downtown choreographer Sally Gross and is directed by Albert Maysles and Kristen Nutile. It premiered at last year’s Locarno Film Festival and made it’s U.S. debut at the 2008 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.