The Tribeca Film Festival has had more than a decade to prove itself. While the event demonstrated its ability to be a regenerative force in the wake of 9/11, bringing celebrities, parties, and movie-studio dollars to New York in the springtime, there is only one area where the festival has truly distinguished itself: as a platform for documentaries.
Sure, an occasional critically acclaimed American indie drama will pop out of its competition, a selection of hard-to-find foreign films receive some deserved exhibition, and the festival’s showcase of interactive storytelling is a welcome and forward-thinking addition to the festival landscape. But forget the starry premieres, family films, and genre fare: The TFF could very well rechristen itself the Tribeca Documentary Film Festival, and audiences and industry-ites would probably be better served as a result of it.
A dozen years into the fest, and one can count the breakout dramatic films on one hand ("Roger Dodger," "Transamerica," and…anything else?) But year after year, there are stellar nonfiction films from both experienced and emerging documentarians that come out of the festival.
Veteran filmmakers Marshall Curry and Alex Gibney, for example, have become faithful contributors to the festival — as they should: Both Curry’s "Street Fight," which premiered at the festival in 2005, and Gibney’s "Taxi to the Dark Side," from 2007, went on to garner Oscar nominations (and "Taxi" won). This year, the filmmakers are showing two of the program’s most anticipated docs: Curry’s "Point and Shoot" was already praised by John Anderson in Indiewire, and Gibney’s unveiling a work-in-progress screening of an untitled documentary about James Brown.
The list of strong works from lesser-known filmmakers is also long, including recent entrants such as Alma Har’el’s "Bombay Beach," Nisha Pahuja’s "The World Before Her," Yi Seung-jun’s "Planet of Snail," Dave Carroll’s "Bending Steel," David Redmon and Ashley Sabin’s "Downeast," and Dan Krauss’ "The Kill Team."
This year’s standouts include "The Newburgh Sting," which presents a convincing and appalling case for the U.S. government’s post-9/11 policy of entrapping hapless individuals in order to spread paranoia and further demonize Muslims; "1971," a well edited chronicle of a group of activists who snuck into a FBI office that year and leaked documents about widespread surveillance efforts, including its infamous Cointelpro program; "Art and Craft," a portrait of an elderly and eccentric art forger and diagnosed schizophrenic who has duped dozens of museums around the country; and “Regarding Susan Sontag,” a conventional, yet revealing portrait of the intellectual artist and activist, going back to her early days writing op-eds and poetry at the age of 15.
And there are others with promise. Ace cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes’ "Ballet 422" may be slow-going for those uninterested in the back-stage goings of a new dance production, but a two-minute continuous take of an intensely passionate music conductor, whose hands shake, lips quiver and body bounces along with a rousing score, is a potent reminder of the power of the human mind and body at work.
Tribeca’s distinguished documentary programming is as much a testament to the work of the festival as it is the strength of current documentary filmmaking. Sundance’s documentary competition section still remains the number one destination for launching nonfiction films, but with only 16 slots, there are a number of other worthy docs that inevitably get overlooked. While festivals such as South by Southwest, Full Frame, and Hot Docs will pick off a small handful of films for world premieres, many others will show up at Tribeca.
For years, the festival’s advocates suggested that Tribeca could become an American independent film marketplace just a wrung lower than Sundance. With New York’s specialized film distributors just a subway’s ride away, the thinking was that big buyers would aggressively target the film’s lineup. And they do, reluctantly, to some extent. But the festival’s close proximity to Cannes in May — with its all-important Marché — has always served as a huge distraction for the major players, who would prefer to use Tribeca as a place to launch films, not acquire them.
But documentaries are different. Many of the broadcasters and smaller distributors interested in docs don’t put so much emphasis on the costly trip to Cannes. Tribeca becomes a major spring event. And because the quality of the festival’s doc programming makes it an essential destination, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: Good docs make for industry interest, which spurs more good docs to submit to the fest, which generates more industry interest, and so on. And when commercially successful documentaries emerge out of Tribeca — such as "Bully," which the Weinsteins did acquire and earned $3.5 million in 2012, and "Jiro Dreams of Sushi," purchased by Magnolia, which made $2.6 million in 2012 — it only further perpetuates the feedback loop.
Tribeca’s narrative films have not benefited from this same positive cycle. While an increasing number of VOD buyers have made a play for Tribeca’s dramatic films, it’s hard to think of a single one that’s broken out. And the fact that Tribeca Film’s for-profit day-and-date distribution business acquires so many of the few available narrative films with any commercial potential may be off-putting to competing distributors.
Interestingly, Tribeca Film has seized upon relatively few docs. Whether it’s not their business model or doc producers would rather find other distribution channels, it’s difficult to say. But you’d think the company would more readily embrace the value of docs: After all, as the Tribeca festival has shown, the best content appears to be nonfiction.