By Indiewire | Indiewire April 20, 2005 at 2:00AM
Tribeca Festival Thinks Big, and Globally
by Anthony Kaufman
Well, you can't fault the Tribeca Film Festival for thinking too small. The 250 films from 44 countries announced in the festival's 11 main sections just weren't enough. Last week, the program was still swelling like an overripe tomato: late additions included "Tickets," an omnibus film from Ermanno Olmi, Abbas Kiarostami and Paul Laverty, Shane Meadow's "Dead Man's Shoes" and the world premiere of Iranian-American director Amir Naderi's "Sound Barrier." Still, it's difficult to get too excited about Tribeca's international films when the Cannes Film Festival announced its lineup of heavy-hitters from the likes of Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke the very same day that the TFF began. Call it bad timing, but then again, is it fair to compare a 4-year-old event with the 58-year-old granddaddy of world cinema?
A better comparison might be the Sundance Film Festival's newly revamped World Cinema competition. Striving for relevancy on the international scene, Sundance's world selection is a mix of also-rans, occasional crowd-pleasers, and one or two gems. Under the continued guidance of worldly Festival Director Peter Scarlet, Tribeca is similarly trying to keep a focus on foreign titles, although pesky premieres of studio schlock and mediocre American-indies often steal their thunder (as they do each year in Park City).
But even the festival's glitzy sections skew foreign-tongued: in the Spotlight and Special Screening sections, distributors like Sony Pictures Classics, Fox Searchlight, and Wellspring have handed over their most anticipated subtitled releases, Wong Kar-wai's re-cut "2046," the Russian supernatural-gothic blockbuster "Night Watch" and Jacques Audiard's "Fingers" remake "The Beat That My Heart Skipped" for their North American premieres. Also on tap, Italian master Ermanno Olmi's "Singing Behind Screens," which Miramax was at one time associated with but is now back on the market, and well-received Berlin entries, Costa-Gavras' white-collar black comedy "The Axe" and Robert Guediguian's bio-pic "The Last Mitterrand," both still available for U.S. distribution.
While indie film execs still see the event as more of a pre-Cannes nuisance (ever after moving its dates earlier this year to avoid clashing with the French giant), the TFF does offer the opportunity to catch-up on worthy films that have shown already at prior fests. (As one biz insider says, "There's nothing I feel like I have to see.") But Tribeca fest organizers say only about 20-25% of titles are culled from other fests like Toronto, Rotterdam and Berlin. Some standouts this year include surreal Rotterdam cine-poem "4," Venice FIPRESCI critics winner "Vento Di Terra," indieWIRE undistributed favorite "Days and Hours" from Bosnian filmmaker Pjer Zalica, Belgian handicapped comedy "Aaltra" and "Czech Dream," an arch documentary about a heavily marketed super-mall in Prague that is a complete fabrication by the filmmakers.
The festival's commitment to foreign fare can also be seen in the Competition programs, both narrative and documentary, where only about a third of the films hail from the U.S. and the rest come from as far and wide as Bosnia and Herzegovina and Burkino Faso to Switzerland and Syria.
Recently bumped from the Wide Angle section into the Narrative Competition, TFF programmers are high on "Play," the pop-fueled feature debut of Chilean filmmaker Alicia Scherson (shorts "The Last Olive," "Crying Underwater") about a couple searching for love in Santiago and "My Brother's Summer," another world premiere feature debut, from Roman critic and filmmaker Pietro Reggiani ("The Book Junkie") about a young boy's imagined relationship with his soon to-be-born brother. Other lauded tyro efforts include Sebastian Festival entry "The Wandering Shadows," by 23-year-old Colombian filmmaker Ciro Guerra, about two offbeat outsiders in Bogota, and from Rotterdam, "Boats Out of Watermelon Rinds," Turkish newcomer Ahmet Uluçay's portrait of two teenage cinephiles set in the 1960s.
And if previous festivals are any indication, the world premiere of the Chinese film "Stolen Life" (aka "Life and Death Plunder") by acclaimed female melodramatist Li Shaohong ("Blush") will be one to watch: the highlights of TFFs 2 and 3 were Chinese films, Li Yang's "Blind Shaft" and Liu Fen Dou's "Green Hat," both top victors in the main competition. Anticipated Asian titles are also in the Midnight section with Thailand's homegrown horror hit "Shutter," and two recent J-horror pick-ups from Lions Gate, "Premonition" and "Infection." Sounds like an excellent drive-in double feature.
The presence of more intriguing world cinema entries may be a growing sign of foreign sales agents taking Tribeca more seriously as a place to launch pictures available for U.S. distribution. "People are turning their heads internationally," says one acquisitions exec. "I keep hearing, 'What do you think of Tribeca?'"
Last year's TFF was also good to documentaries (the fest's big Audience Award winner was "Every Mother's Son," a tearjerker about mothers of kids killed by the NYPD). And this year's event features a number of overseas nonfiction notables, from artist profiles like UK doc "George Michael: A Different Story," which played in Berlin to much buzz, Locarno favorite "Touch the Sound" about a deaf percussionist, and French auteur Claire Denis' "Towards Mathilde," a look at modern dance luminary Mathilde Monnier, to more political documentaries like UK filmmaker Adam Curtis' 3-hour epic "The Power of Nightmares," about the parallel and inextricably linked fear-mongering of Islamic extremism and U.S. neo-conservatism.
In this year's documentary competition, look out for "A State of Mind," a look at gymnasts in North Korea already acquired by Kino International; "A Flood in Baath Country," Syrian filmmaker Omar Amiralay's controversial indictment of the Baathist ruling party in Damascus; "Favela Rising," a world premiere about Rio's slums and Afro-reggae music; and "The Devil's Miner," a gorgeously photographed and harrowing portrait of a fatherless indigenous 14-year-old working as a silver minor in "the mountain that eats men," Bolivia's famous Cerro Rico. Both a fascinating human rights expose and a touching coming-of-age document, "The Devil's Miner" is the kind of subtle, cultural study that is easily lost amidst the hype of a big film festival. Of course, the best Tribeca can do is program such films; it's up to the audience -- and the press -- to seek them out.
[ indieWIRE's coverage of the 2005 Tribeca Film Festival continues daily in a special Tribeca blog on indieWIRE.com. ]