New York City: the one place on earth that may, at least in the eyes of its own citizens, come close to being all things to all people. Dizzying variety in every direction has always been at once the draw and curse of the place—and so too has it been for the annual Tribeca Film Festival, which took over its namesake Manhattan neighborhood for the third time this May. Created by Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal to be a catalyst for lower Manhattan’s cultural and economic recovery in the wake of the September 11 attacks, the festival continued its tradition of unapologetically eclectic programming, offering more than 250 films in a dozen disparate categories.
To the untrained eye—hell, even some trained ones—the program schedule seemed to evince a scattershot, see-what-sticks approach. Indiewood mainstays like Lisa Cholodenko and Chris Eyre screened new films with studio ditz-glitz like Garry Marshall and the Olsen twins; staid Iranian conscience-dramas played with animated children’s fare. Three full programs of feature documentaries ran the gamut from gay marriage and prison abuse to lady wrestlers and competitive hotdog eaters. The "NY, NY" Feature Competition pitted a quasi-narrative experimental reverie (The Time We Killed) against an off-Broadway musical adaptation (Tony ‘n Tina’s Wedding) and a gritty coming-of-age story (Cross Bronx), while the "Restored and Rediscovered" section presented East of Eden alongside Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. And that’s just the films—other official festival attractions included a drive-in movie screen showing the final episode of Friends; a free concert featuring Norah Jones and The Roots; a science-themed screenplay reading sponsored by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation; and a display case containing—why not?—the original Declaration of Independence.
But for those undaunted by this tangle of apparently competing agendas, Tribeca offered its share of rewards—not leastwise in the realm of documentary film. "Docs have to be independent by default, so their quality at festivals tends to be more consistent [than fiction films]," said Henry Ansbacher, who produced the short, We Are PHAMALy, about a troupe of physically handicapped actors. Indeed, outside of a documentary-focused festival, one would be hard-pressed to find a more enthusiastic approach than Tribeca’s to nonfiction mediamaking where cash prizes between $5,000 and $25,000 are awarded in half a dozen categories.
Tribeca even granted the documentary form red-carpet status with its Gala Premiere screening of Brotherhood, a full-immersion verité portrait of firefighters in post-9/11 New York. Director Lilibet Foster brought her cameras inside three elite rescue companies in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens, as each was struggling to re-staff after losing invaluable veterans to the World Trade Center attacks. The pall of that tragedy colors every frame, but Foster’s humane understatement keeps the film from flattening into a one-note presentation. Like her stiff-lipped subjects, she knows that the oblique traces of that day—a still-empty seat at dinner, a sudden jump in company seniority—speak volumes for themselves.
Taking the opposite tack—but to equally powerful effect—is the bewitching, oneiric Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, in which alt-country troubadour Jim White leads commercial-director-cum-documentarian Andrew Douglas on a tour through the mythic contradictions of "the poor white South." Wandering through churches, prisons, diners, and junkyards under the constant watch of a concrete Jesus statue, Douglas entwines stylized cinematography and dreamily staged musical interludes with gritty, on-camera interviews to render the peculiar Southern tension between the debauched and the divine: "Saturday night and Sunday morning."
Ken Burns this ain’t, and viewers interested in an objective, exhaustive cultural survey should look elsewhere. In fact, Wrong-Eyed Jesus doesn’t deal at all with familiar touchstones of Southern ethnography such as the Civil War and racial disharmony. Instead, it takes what amounts to little more than a literary vibe—embodied here in White’s haunting music—and teases its essence out of the physical landscape in a pungent melange of tangential images and stories.
Tribeca’s narrative feature offerings provided just as much quality and variety. Liu Fen Dou’s sexual psychodrama The Green Hat won awards for Best Narrative Feature and Best New Narrative Filmmaker and netted cash prizes totaling $45,000. Competition in this category was stiff, as the contenders included some truly striking films from first- or second-time directors. The French entry, Demi-Tarif (Half Price), came bearing a quite auspicious endorsement, having been compared to Breathless by no less an authority than reclusive French documentarian/cine-essayist, Chris Marker. Controversial praise aside, the impressionistic film—helmed by twenty-one-year-old first-timer Isild le Besco—exhibits a near-unprecedented level of naturalism from its trio of child leads (two girls and a boy, aged seven, eight, and nine) as they fend for themselves in Paris following the mysterious disappearance of their mother.
"The world from a child’s perspective" is almost always a sentimental cliché when applied to films made by adults, but Demi-Tarif inhabits that point of view with thrilling, mysterious integrity. Like a child’s consciousness, the "story" has only the wispiest sense of big-picture causality; everything happens in its own singular instant, gigglingly vivid and then gone. One moment the kids are running through the city streets dressed up in Mom’s clothes, shrieking, and twirling in an orgy of unmannered glee; the next, they’re sobbing uncontrollably in bed, sick with fever and afraid of the dark. How does one lead to the other? Who knows? Did you back then?
Unsupervised children (albeit of the late adolescent variety) drive the drama of another impressive festival debut, Cross Bronx, which follows the fortunes of four pals as they move out of Westchester into an inner city apartment together during their last semester of high school. The story doesn’t break any new ground—inevitably, priorities shift and relationships change, forcing each boy to go his separate way by the final reel—but the young cast’s effortless chemistry and writer-director Larry Golin’s sharply observed, unsentimental script both raise the bar of the material. Exceptional cinematography never hurt an indie, either, and Cross Bronx’s gorgeous, crisply saturated visuals generated quite a few comments in the post-screening Q&A session. When Golin revealed that the movie was shot on high-definition video rather than film, the audience let out an audible gasp. After seeing Cross Bronx, even the most sclerotic purists will have to admit that, in the right hands, HD is indistinguishable from celluloid—and the film justifiably earned the festival’s award for Best HD Technology.
"It was our maiden voyage, and it went unbelievably well," says Golin of the world premiere screening. "I always wanted to [bring Cross Bronx] to Tribeca. Based on the New York story that it is, and its subject matter and tone, I thought, ‘Where better is it going to go?’ To be in something with Bob [De Niro] and Scorsese and those guys—that’s the place for me."
Golin added that, based on the film’s festival response, he’s already in negotiations with a distributor. "You work your way up the ladder to the big guy, and we already have, like, ten screenings set up for different people at the studios," he said. "It’s tricky because everybody has just left or is leaving for Cannes right now. But in the meantime it’s kind of good for the movie, because we’re getting added industry buzz from the rush."
There may not have been studio agents in the audience, but experimental films also played to packed houses throughout the festival. Under the guidance of Tribeca’s experimental programmer Jon Gartenberg, avant-garde films were not ghettoized into their own category, but instead were sprinkled liberally throughout the festival’s narrative and documentary programs. Jennifer Reeves’s The Time We Killed beat out more traditionally accessible competition to win the award for Best NY, NY Narrative Feature; and documentary competitions included film-portraits of avant-garde figures James Benning, Grahame Weinbren, and Amos Vogel.
"It’s a very deliberate idea that experimental film would be included in the larger rubric of the festival," said Gartenberg. "So I’m thrilled when there are people here who know experimental film, but also when I see the people who have not been exposed to it. These filmmakers are not telling them what to think, how to think it, or what emotion to feel at what point. And having been doing this for two years, I know there are people [in the audience] who have never seen experimental film before, but still ‘get it’ on a visceral level."
Indeed, visceral appeal is the one thing the Tribeca Film Festival as a whole can bank on—drawing people to suffer overbooked screenings and interminable door sales lines, scatterbrained programming, and schizophrenic weather changes. "So disorganized," was one New York couple’s curt opinion of the festival after being barred at the door to an oversold screening. Still, they snuck into the theater next door, determined to see a Tribeca film. Would they come back next year? Oh yes, came the reply, which would surely make De Niro proud: "It makes us want to rent here."