Paul Greengrass's "United 93"-- energetic, screw-the-star-system doc-style fiction that tackles sensitive issues inextricably intertwined with the Tribeca Film Festival's host neighborhood -- was an appropriate opening for this fifth edition, which began last Tuesday (April 25th) and ends Sunday (May 7th). In fact, the most impressive movies are heavy in the best way, treating tragic topics or darkly satirizing the unpredictable world we inhabit.
Let's cut to the chase. Besides "United 93", the knockout fiction features are Asian: Japanese filmmaker Toyoda Toshiaki's "Hanging Garden" and Chinese director Ying Liang's "Taking Father Home." (I wrote on this site from Toronto about another excellent selection, one from the Middle East: Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige's French/Lebanese "A Perfect Day," the well-crafted tale of a narcoleptic young man still traumatized by his father's death during the civil war in Beirut 15 years earlier.) Top docs are American Eric Steel's "The Bridge" and Israeli Robert Benchetrit's "Dear Father, Quiet, We're Shooting..." with nods to Iranian Mohammad Shirvani's "President Mir Qanbar," a charming yet slyly subversive work about an eccentric rural Don Quixote who runs regularly for his country's top office; and Americans Chris Hegedus and Nick Doob's "Al Franken: God Spoke," an astute, well-paced fly-on-the-wall observation of the exuberant, politically engaged comedian against the backdrop of our contemporary political morass.
I naively thought that these and some other powerful, provocative works fit neatly into the TFF gestalt, that they lent at least spiritual and cultural support to the renaissance of the battered southern section of the borough. "Four years later we have attracted more than 1,000,000 visitors to Lower Manhattan, helping to lift both the economy and broken spirits of a neighborhood, while screening an incredible range of films in the process," said co-founder Jane Rosenthal at the opening press conference. Yes, there is a range -- 174 features plus shorts -- but you needn't go south of 11th Street to see most of it. I'm talking about movies, not the ancillaries; this is, according to its moniker, first and foremost a festival of films.
I find it now as lonely as ever on Vesey and Chamber Streets, or on the walkway next to the WTC site, even inside the 11-screen Regal Cinemas, where only two theaters are being used (with only sporadic screenings). Last year the TFF used almost the entire Regal complex. A festival atmosphere hovered, but, except for some press at the Tribeca Cinemas and some industry hobnobbing at some hotels and the press/industry lounge, that Tribeca vibe has gone the way of WTC developer Larry Silverstein. The new concept, according to the three co-founders' catalog entry, is "Tribeca travels," and, to quote a spokesperson, creating "pod neighborhoods" by taking films to mulitplexes (all Loews) in uptown zip codes. Projecting on a total of 13 screens north of Tribeca -- four across from Lincoln Center, six adjacent to Penn Station, and three in the heart of the East Village -- is going to make a dent in the feel of these places? In this town?
The mission is also "to give filmmakers as big an audience as possible," per the festival, but I assumed the idea was to bring Mohammed to the mountain. Tribeca has morphed into the Manhattan Film Festival. And, in spite of some fantastic discoveries -- executive director Peter Scarlet is a born truffle sniffer -- the overall quality of the selection doesn't merit such quantity. Given its desire for premieres -- 135 of the 174 are world, international, or North American bows -- fests like Sundance, Toronto, Cannes, the NYFF, and New Directors limit the pool. More is less, no matter how much AMEX coughs up and saturates the ad market.
Ying Liang made "Taking Father Home" independently on video for about $3,500 with a cast and crew of unpaid friends. He still doesn't have the funds to blow it up to 35mm, but, composed primarily of longish static shots in the style of China's Fifth Generation filmmakers, it is amazing to see projected. Like "The World" by Jia Zhang-ke -- whose career trajectory Ying could end up following -- the film touches on globalization, albeit in a more intimate manner. Meek 17-year-old Xu Yun leaves his village in order to search for the parent who went to the bustling city of Zegong to work six years before and became a deadbeat dad and husband -- except to a new family he created. The innocent youth meets up with an amoral thug who teaches him life lessons and shady tricks that he will end up resorting to out of desperation in the new "booming"
China. Xu Yun's pent-up frustration erupts into violence when he finds the tainted man he has sought so obsessively.
"Hanging Garden" is satirical, but it has a stinging socio-psychological ring. Toyoda points the finger at complacency and ennui in the "other" Japan: the sterile, under-populated suburbs. The filmmaker is a genius of flow and style, sometimes blitzing the viewer with a rapid zoom or sudden camera movement that alters the scale in a nanosecond and calls what you've just seen into question. Communication is nonexistent among the Kyobashis, denizens of a monotonous middle-class housing project, though they keep up the pretense, among themselves anyway, that no conflict exists. Dad is having an affair and the sullen 14-year-old son hooks up with his father's tell-it-like-it-is lover, and teen daughter just wants to shop at the international mall. Occupying the film's core is Mom, a former nerd and shut-in who is the most self-deceiving of all. Bored as hell, she waters her balcony garden daily, but occasionally breaks her routine, abandons her plain countenance, and submits to a bloody fantasy realm. Oh, and the whole family, including sarcastic but knowing Grandma, is obsessed with a round-bedded room in a tacky love motel called Wild Monkeys.
While a bit of a letdown, British jack-of-all-trades Michael Winterbottom's important "The Road to Guantanamo" is based on the true story of the Tipton Three, young Pakistani-British men on holiday and wife-search in Pakistan and Afghanistan who are mistakenly taken to Guantanamo and humiliated and tortured beyond comprehension by Gonzales and Rumsfeld's enforcers. The first, frenetic half, focuses on their adventures on the road, and treads territory better mined in the filmmaker's immigrant-smuggling movie, "In This World." Eerily subdued, the remainder works better, echoing the relentless subjugation these fellows endure. "The Road to Guanatanamo" does succeeds as a fiction/doc hybrid--a goal unachieved by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe in their annoying, faux-interview laden British production "Brothers of the Head," in which they connect two twin actors by corset to play real-life conjoined brothers from a '70s punk band; and Americans Malik Bader and Miles Harrison in "Street Thief," a con of a mock-doc which purports to follow a petty criminal cruising around town when in fact the real-life perp is just behind the scenes coaching an actor.
Why do some American docmakers with great subjects fail to trust their audience? Billy Corben cuts on just about every spoken participle and pours on an overbearing background beat in the oversaturated "Cocaine Cowboys," about the emergence of the Colombian-dominated drug scene in South Florida. Sidney Pollack insults us with his hagiographic interviews, not to mention his irritating propensity for solipsism, in "Sketches of Frank Gehry," his langourous whitewash of a gifted architect. In "Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple," Stanley Nelson blands out for us a fantastic story. In an arhythmic arrangement of individual testimony and otherwise revelatory archival footage, he charts the bizarre rise of Pentecostal preacher Jim Jones to cult leader and the suicide-by-poisoning of more than 900 of his "slaves" in their Guyana commune.
Having faith in the spectator pays off for others.
Humans jump off the Golden Gate Bridge in "The Bridge," a hauntingly masterful mix of form and content, but there is nothing gratuitous or vulgar in the depictions that may disturb some. "New Yorker Steel" feels you can handle it. The unfortunate subjects are humanized and treated with respect, with backstories told by family and friends that help to explain their treatable problems and dilemmas, such as mental illness, lack of health insurance, addiction, and homelessness. (Unfortunately, British directors Ramesh Sharma and Ahmed Jamal's conventional, telly-ready "The Journalist and the Jihadi: The Murder of Daniel Pearl"--with awful recreations that can ruin any doc unless Errol Morris is helming -- lingers gratuitously and voyeuristically in its pre-credit sequence on bodies falling from the WTC towers. It feels like baiting.)
In a triumph of access, Steel manipulated the National Park Service and the Golden Gate Bridge District. He set up two mini dv cameras, one with a wide angle, the other with a telephoto lens, just across from the bridge -- the world's leading suicide spot, with only a four-foot railing that almost anyone can scale -- during daylight hours every day during 2004. (The bridge is closed to pedestrians at night.) He captured all but one of the 24 suicides that year as well as several failed attempts, and his team prevented some others with quick cell phone calls to authorities. The combo of interviews, shots of jumpers and countless others traversing the bridge, hauntingly photographed views of the magnificent "international orange" Deco structure and its idyllic environs, and a perfect abstract score adds up to a lyrical, organic exploration of one of society's great taboos, one most people feel should be left behind closed doors. The film has been instrumental in helping to initiate a much-needed study for a barrier long favored by suicide prevention advocates.
Veteran activist and docmaker Benchetrit tracks the conscientious objector movement in Israel in "Dear Father, Quiet, We're Shooting..." These are not the Peace Now protesters who, one person says, have served in the military and feel they are entitled to dissent; these men refused to serve on principle and went to prison. The talking heads are intelligent, articulate; there's no dumbing down to make sure every viewer follows every sentence. Benchetrit uses newsreel and other archival footage when appropriate, creating a potent mix of reflection and actuality.
The momentum began in the early '80s when Israel fought in Lebanon and, among other horrors, enabled the Christian Falangists to massacre Muslims in two refugee camps. One objector speaks of the effect of the Holocaust on Israeli society, that to be strong has been considered a vital necessity, but that the nation has now crossed the line and commits atrocities against Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. (He adds that the Holocaust also taught the value of dissent.) Most flabbergasting of all is another interviewee's quoting from The Jewish State, by chief Zionist theorist Theodor Herzl, who wrote that Israel is "a defense wall against Asia." He says that Herzl predicted that there would always be war there in order to keep Israel from becoming part of Asian civilization and therefore keep it connected with that of the West.
With the exception of a few American titles (and I don't mean the so-so NY, NY Narrative and Documentary competition films), the best of this year's TFF arrives from the Near and Middle East and Asia. Even Herzl would have to admit that borders can not restrain the cinema.
ABOUT THE WRITER: New York-based Howard Feinstein writes about film for several American and British publications -- including The Guardian, indieWIRE, the Advocate, and Filmmaker Magazine -- and he programs fiction, documentaries, and directors' retrospectives for the Sarajevo Film Festival.