An Anti-Cannes for Foreign Flicks in NYC? Tribeca's Wide Wide World
by Anthony Kaufman
It's been said that New York City is the world's capital. And duly catering to its multi-ethnic population, the Tribeca Film Festival is showcasing a cinematic lineup of truly global proportions. Of the roughly 160-plus feature-length films in the program, some 76 come from outside North America. "My job is to show as broad of a selection as possible," says Tribeca's executive director Peter Scarlet, himself a citizen of the world, having run the San Francisco International Film Festival and Paris' Cinematheque Francaise.
Further showing respect for its foreign contingent, the Tribeca Fest's international films are not segregated off into separate, but unequal sidebars, but play across the program. This year's feature competition, for example, is dominated by international films (only four out of 17 are U.S. productions), from Chinese director Li Yang's Silver Bear Berlin winner "Blind Shaft" to Israel's favorite apolitical, military-set, gay romantic-tragedy "Yossi and Jagger" to Korean filmmaker Chan-ok Park's sharp deadpan sex dramedy "Jealousy is My Middle Name" (a winner at Rotterdam and Pusan.)
In the noncompetitive showcase, the program is similarly weighted with foreign titles: among the 37 narrative films, only six come from North America, with countries as diverse as Turkey, Thailand, and Guinea represented, and with highlights including "Common Ground," an affecting tale about Argentina's post-economic collapse, Belgium's three-part genre exercise "The Trilogy," and U.K. co-productions "Sweet Sixteen" and "Song for a Raggy Boy." How's that for broad?
Foreign-made documentaries make an even more indelible impact: "Heaven's Path" follows the young Afghan-Irani star of Cannes winner "Djomeh" as he visits the Hamburg Film Festival, then ends up tragically -- and indefinitely stranded -- at a German refugee camp. Iran's powerful nonfiction entries also include Maziar Bahari's "And Along Came a Spider," a chilling portrait of a man who murdered 16 prostitutes, and veteran female filmmaker Rakhshan Bani-Etemad's "Our Times," called a "devastating portrait of woman's role in society" by Variety. Other celebrated world docs include Italy's "Carlo Giuliana, a Boy" and Lebanese filmmakers Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige's "The Lost Film."
However, new top-notch world cinema premieres -- the kinds of films that make distributors and critics jump to attention -- may be a different matter. With the year's biggest international cinema event just days away in the French Riviera, Tribeca faces programming challenges. "Cannes is the 800-pound gorilla that must have premieres," admits Scarlet. "But there's still a lot of quality work that hasn't been shown elsewhere."
According to Scarlet, the only film that Tribeca lost to Cannes was Cambodian director Rithy Panh's documentary about the victims of Pol Pot's tyrannical regime, "S-21." Scarlet remains upbeat, singling out one feature from Honduras (the country's first), "Calixto: the Landlord," which will play in Tribeca just days before heading to a special screening slot in the Directors Fortnight program in Cannes. "I'm happy that it's playing in both places," says Scarlet. "It's apples and oranges. Cannes is difficult to rival, but there are things about Cannes that are difficult to swallow."
Film reps bringing their movies to Tribeca agree. "We thought about Cannes," says John Roach, the 65-year-old fledgling producer of "Fire Dancer," one of two films from Afghanistan in this year's feature competition that deal with the experiences of Afghan exiles. "But there were some things wrong with Cannes," explains Roach. "One: I was scared of it, because of what an incredible rat-race it is. Two: I am a New Yorker and I would love the film to play in New York." Roach is especially enthused that the film will reach its target audience of Afghan Americans in the city.
As Roach sees it, Tribeca is the "new kid on the block," which makes the festival more suitable for a filmmaker's own first effort, like "Fire Dancer," directed by the late Jawed Wassel. Unlike the New York Film Festival in the fall "where more seasoned, resourced people aspire [to show their films]," says Roach, "Tribeca is for the film with the patch in his pants, starting out with a dime and a dream, and that's us."
Roach also sees the festival as "key" to launching the film into the U.S. marketplace. Depending on his screenings, he plans to release "Fire Dancer" -- either with or without a distributor shortly after its U.S. premiere here. Similarly, Laurent Aleonard, the international representative of the award-winning "Flying with One Wing," a sort of slapstick Brandon Teena story from Sri Lanka, says, "We are at the first stage of the film's life cycle. Like for any international film festival, we hope Tribeca will give our film a chance to be exposed to industry people as well as the general audience."
Film promotions organizations are also utilizing Tribeca's pomp and flash to show off their cinema. Unifrance touts its 17 French premieres in the festival, while the Export-Union of German Cinema is likewise pushing its nine production/co-productions. Oliver Mahrdt, East Coast rep for the Export/Union and the German Film Board, says, "There is a growing interest in the festival's future from German producers and distributors, particularly since most of the U.S. distributors for foreign films are in New York City."
Foreign sales agents, however, approach the festival with more reservations. Neil Friedman, the L.A.-based president of Menemsha Films, which is repping showcase feature "Hejar," a Turkish film that has already played the fest circuit, admits, "I wouldn't use the premiere slot at a festival that has not yet established itself as attracting a core group of buyers. With Peter Scarlet at the helm, this could easily happen, but I would wait until I am secure that it has occurred before."
Wouter Barendrecht, co-president of Fortissimo Film Sales -- which is bringing a full slate of new films to Cannes next week -- is looking closely at Tribeca's progress. "We are carefully observing the positive growth and positioning of Tribeca," he says. "It is still primarily seen as a U.S./North American event, but it does have the potential to be an international launch pad."
"I would never consider it as a launching platform like Sundance or Toronto or New York Film Festival, or even New Directors," counters Celluloid Dreams' Pierre Menahem. "The festival dates are so close to Cannes," he adds, "it makes it impossible for all the industry people who do not live in New York [to attend]."
As the international community waits and wonders about Tribeca's future, Peter Scarlet vows to create an event reminiscent of his old San Francisco days, with "a warmth and openness and passionate audience," he says. "As one filmmaker called it, 'this is the anti-Cannes.'"