Among the more popular films that have screened so far at the Tribeca Film Festival here in New York City are three movies — two docs and one fiction feature — that are eyeing potentially unlikely audiences. A documentary about evangelical Christians is trying to play to both sides of the aisle, a film about Iraq veterans hopes for support from those for and against the war, and a star-driven movie about the TV business is striving to stir interest among those outside the entertainment industry. Each movie filled theaters at festival screenings in Manhattan, provoking discussions among ticketbuyers and film industry insiders alike.
America’s social/political was in the spotlight in recent days at the Tribeca Film Festival. “Boys of Baraka” filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady screened their latest effort, “Jesus Camp” in the International Documentary Competition, to a packed house in Lower Manhattan. The emotional doc, from A&E IndieFilms profiles “Kids on Fire,” a summer camp in Devil’s Lake, North Dakota devoted to inspiring children towards a deeper devotion to the evangelical Christian movement. Organizer Becky Fischer, who has dedicated her life to spread her religious beliefs to the young, is a polarizing yet affable figure who is likely viewed as a hero to some and frightening to others. Backers of the film told indieWIRE that the film can play to audiences on either side of the political spectrum, and quite frankly, it’s true.
“[The Christian right] feel empowered right now and they gave us a lot of access – more than had we done [the film] some years earlier,” said co-director Heidi Ewing following the film’s screening Thursday. Ewing and Grady said that Ms. Fischer had seen the film and was pleased with its content, although, unfortunately, she was not present for the screening because she was attending a charismatic conference in Los Angeles. “Becky saw the film and loved it,” chimed the directing duo.
One particularly inflammatory scene in the film takes place at a revival meeting at the camp lead by Fischer and her associates, in front of well over 100 children. Fischer takes a life-size standup photo of President Bush to the stage, with a large American flag in the background, and asks the crowd to raise their hands towards him as they begin to chant for him to appoint conservative judges to the Supreme Court. Fischer and her fellow evangelicals view Bush as their primary hope to push their right wing agenda regarding abortion rights, prayer in school, and gay rights, and the film captures the emotional devotion instilled on a new young generation of evangelicals. Many in the mostly liberal New York audience could be overheard saying that the film should be a call to arms for people on the left side of the cultural/political divide. The evangelicals, however, are reveling that their message has become an entrenched and potentially irreversible reality.
“The War Tapes”
Also playing to both ends of the ideological gamut is Deborah Scranton‘s doc “The War Tapes,” which screened to a near capacity house on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in the huge Tribeca Performing Arts Center. The film, produced by Robert May and Steve James, is the story of three members of the National Guard deployed in Iraq who were given cameras to capture their experiences, yieled some 800 hours of footage. Sergeant Steve Pink is a carpenter who aspires to write, and Sergeant Zack Bazzi is a Lebanese-American college student who speaks fluent Arabic. Specialist Mike Moriarty is a father who hopes to find honor and respect for his service. Perhaps not surprisingly, the men are not without their opinions about the war and the media’s coverage of America’s involvement in Iraq. “It’s not about oil,” says Moriarty in the film.
The screening, however, was interrupted consistently by several men sitting in the front row who also served in the same unit in Iraq. “Bullshit!” they screamed any time there was a suggestion in the film that the United States’ involvement in Iraq was anything but benevolent. Although the individuals yelled throughout the film, they were not asked to leave, and police only showed up at the end to discourage their outbursts during the Q&A.
Bazzi questioned the U.S.’s presence the most, though he maintained a strong affection for the war. “I love being a soldier and the Army, I just wish we could pick our wars,” he said in the film.
At the party following the film, several people questioned whether the film was pro or anti-war. Although the soldiers in the audience may not completely agree, most felt “The War Tapes” could play to both ends of the political divide.
The debate may continue in movie theaters soon. The filmmakers are planning to self-release the movie starting early next month. Former United Artists president Bingham Ray has been enlisted as a consultant on the release.
“The TV Set”
Another film with its sights set on a theatrical release is Jake Kasdan‘s “The TV Set,” perhaps the hottest industry ticket of the Tribeca Film Festival so far, with buyers ranging from TWC’s Harvey Weinstein, Picturehouse‘s Bob Berney, and reps from numerous other companies spotted at screenings of the film this weekend. Cinetic Media is repping the movie, produced by Kasdan and Aaron Ryder.
Set inside the world of network TV series development, the film stars David Duchovny as a TV sitcom writer, Sigourney Weaver as a brash network president, and Ioan Gruffud as a new TV exec brought in from the BBC to spruce up pilot programming.
Polled informally at festival parties this weekend, a number of New York acquisitions execs were downright excited about the film, but some expressed a concern that the world of television development might be a bit too insular for mainstream moviegoers.
“I feel like we could have (made the movie) about any industry,” Kasdan said Saturday during a post-screening Q & A session, but the former director of TV shows “Freaks and Geeks” and “Undeclared” added, “This particular (subject) is something I know very well.”
Comparisons were frequently made to the recent “Thank You For Smoking,” acquired by Fox Searchlight at the Toronto International Film Festival back in September, with buyers buzzing this weekend about whether or not it is as marketable as Jason Reitman‘s satire about the tobacco industry.
Insiders will no doubt be monitoring the reactions of execs from companies like Searchlight, Focus Features and Paramount’s unnamed specialty division. None of those three companies were represented by top decision-makers at screenings of “The TV Set” in Tribeca this weekend, according to insiders; an L.A. screening for buyers early this week was rumored.
ABOUT THE WRITERS: Eugene Hernandez is the Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of indieWIRE and Brian Brooks is the Associate Editor of indieWIRE.
[indieWIRE is publishing daily dispatches and iPOP photos from the Tribeca Film Festival in a special section.]