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TRIBECA CRITICS NOTEBOOK 2 | Docs: Topical or Art? Or Both? The Highs and Lows

TRIBECA CRITICS NOTEBOOK 2 | Docs: Topical or Art? Or Both? The Highs and Lows

EDITOR’S NOTE: In the second of three critics notebooks, New York-based film critic Howard Feinstein takes a look at some of the documentary offerings at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Feinstein, a former editor at the Village Voice and a current programmer at the Sarajevo Film Festival, also offers up some opinion on presenting docs as vehicles for discussion vs. their worthiness as art.

Errol Morris‘s “Standard Operating Procedure” and Mario de Varona and Joe Cardona‘s “Celia the Queen” both deploy recreated scenes, but with a huge difference. Morris’s are a strategy for visualizing and articulating the excesses of Abu Ghraib; De Varona and Cardona’s are minimal and gratuitous, frame fillers for archival footage of the great songstress Celia Cruz. Yet they have both played this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, in theory categorizing them both as cinematic documents worthy of validation.

“Standard Operating Procedure” is probably the finest documentary in Tribeca, but it has now opened commercially so I won’t discuss it here. Two other brilliant docs, James Marsh‘s “Man on Wire” and Guy Maddin‘s faux autobiographical “My Winnipeg,” open soon after the festival ends. And two more excellent achievements, Mark Street‘s “Hidden in Plain Sight” and John Gianvito‘s “Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind,” each about an hour long, have not been unnecessarily stretched out into feature length to heighten commercial appeal, so who knows their fate? For completion’s sake, among these most outstanding of the doc offerings is Douglas Keeve‘s “Hotel Gramercy Park,” a model of rhythmic doc editing and mise-en-scene, with colliding story lines that create sparks as they document seismic shifts in the New York City scene.

Tribeca should be a celebration of film, not, as it often is, a venue for exploring topics addressed on celluloid or video as points of departure for discussion. (Would you go to Carnegie Hall to talk about violin rot?) The super low-budget Havana Film Festival solves this problem every year with an Information strand, which translates into unremarkable films that touch on issues worthy of debate — with no pretense that the vehicles themselves qualify in any way as art.

With a few exceptions, most of the other docs in Tribeca are hardly worth the tape or film they are recorded on. I’d rather read a thorough Atlantic article about their topics than look at all the talking heads and simplistic explanations. Andy Abrahams Wilson‘s “Under Our Skin,” an amateurish but moving study of people afflicted with Lyme disease, is one of many catalog entries that fits snugly into this niche.

Best in Show

Standard Operating Procedure,” dir: Errol Morris, USA

Man on Wire,” dir: James Marsh, UK
Most of “Man on Wire” is necessarily recreation, since the remarkable Philippe Petit‘s traversing of the World Trade Center towers on tightrope happened 35 years ago. It works, very well indeed, aided by some talking heads from over the years and the driven Petit’s refreshingly huge ego. The preparations for this illicit operation were nearly as formidable as Petit’s act itself. There is a Shakespearean component, since Petit pretty much broke all his long-term ties once he achieved his goal.

My Winnipeg,” dir: Guy Maddin, Canada
A surreal essay on the director’s hometown, this hilarious film links bizarre “historical” anecdotes (frozen horse heads poking out of the snow, a stacked Golden Boy contest) with Maddin’s own psychic baggage. He has deep affection for Winnipeg, even as he claims that “demolition is one of the city’s growth industries.”

Hidden in Plain Sight,” dir: Mark Street, USA
Street shot urban scenes in four cities: Hanoi, Marseilles, Dakar, and Santiago, slowing the film down or jump cutting with an intuitive feel for capturing the lives of the citizenry. He is never distant from his subjects, and politicizes the shots with literary references and live speeches. This is brilliant filmmaking, at once engaging and challenging, partisan and universal.

Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind,” dir: John Gianvito, USA
Gianvito’s ideological imagery is much closer to home than Street’s. He films mostly gravestones and monument plaques dedicated to those on the left who were either major leaders or became immortalized by losing their lives in union and similar activity. The strategy is highly effective.

A scene from Douglas Keeve’s “Hotel Gramercy Park.” Image courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival.

Hotel Gramercy Park,” dir: Douglas Keeve, USA
What a tale, of subcultural (Jewish) entropy, of Weissberg familial dysfunction (tacky bar mitzvahs, a son’s suicide off daddy’s roof), of drug-and-alcohol-addled rockers and club kids, of the unique diversity and outrageousness of downtown New Yorkers and their imitators — but ultimately of the pathetic victory of gentrification over anything of substance and meaning. A vulgarian-like Ian Schrager can just come along and wipe out decades of textured life experiences accumulated the old-fashioned way: lived. The old-timers, some of whom still reside at the Gramercy, are divine weirdos. The talented Keeve darts around with his camera, knowing just who and what to film at any one moment: an oddball resident, a contractor, Julian Schnabel officiously analyzing color schemes for the renovation, feisty neighborhood activists who want to preserve something honest about this structural testament to diversity. Now the Gramercy has become all about sameness with more floor space, like pop art going beige.

Compelling Docs

My Life Inside,” dir: Lucia Gaja, Mexico
Illegal Mexican worker Rosa Jiminez was railroaded by a Texas jury into taking the rap for the death of an infant under her care. Gaja got unbelievable access to the Austin courtroom and to the family and friends of the accused. What no one had was the power to block out peoples’ worst racist tendencies. Adequate but not especially structurally invigorating, “My Life Inside” is so heart-wrenching that its form is secondary.

Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” dir: Gini Reticker, USA
Tina Fey and other armchair Clinton feminists could learn a thing or two from the heavily committed women of Liberia who essentially ended the nastiest of civil wars and the corrupt regime of dictator Charles Taylor by resolutely declaring their solidarity. Christians and Muslims working in tandem for the first time, the women used the culturally taboo threat of disrobing publicly as an effective tactical strategy. They sat outside meetings between entrenched warlords and they refused to capitulate to the men who had abused them and their homeland, men who has swiped their underage sons to serve as soldiers. The result: Taylor got booted out, and Liberia elected the first woman president in Africa.

Playing,” dir: Eduardo Coutinho, Brazil
Countino places the women he interviews (he found them in newspaper ads) in front of him, then switches to actresses playing them. Whose version is more real, the one who has lived the recounted experiences or the professional interpreter? The stories are fascinating, Coutino’s spare style exhilarating.

Two Mothers,” dir: Rosa von Praunheim, Germany
This true story of von Praunheim’s search through Latvia and Germany for traces of his biological mother is so fascinating yet bizarre that it would be rejected out of hand if it were a fiction script. After painstaking research, following his adoptive mother’s death, he finds that his mother lost her mind in a Riga hospital and his father was the Nazi commandant of the city. The journey itself is fascinating.

A scene from John Gianvito’s “Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind.” Image courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival.

Let Downs

Not just a bad doc but probably the worst, most insensitive film of the festival has to be Nathan Rissman‘s “I Am Because We Are” (USA). It is probably charitable to give Rissman any credit at all because this embarrassing piece of outrageous self-absorption is a Madonna project from the first frame on. Anything about the million Malawian AIDS orphans leads back to Madonna’s life journey. You get goose pimples listening to her affected, clipped voiceover after hearing testimony from those dedicated Malawians who walk through sewage and talk easily to the camera as they try to do something positive for their nation, the second poorest on earth.

Of the more overtly political docs, Robb Moss and Peter Galison‘s “Secrecy” (USA) pushes the word of the title itself as a subject, drawing it out and weakening data about America’s recent fetishism of government security measures. Michael Christoffersen‘s “Milosevic on Trial” (Denmark) is a lightweight rendering of the Yugoslav dictator and war criminal’s trial, and suffers from the same TV look that characterize many of the Tribeca docs. An attempt to counter that languor is Trisha Ziff and Luis Lopez‘s “Chevolution” (USA), a hopped-up account of the phenomenon of Che’s image. Geared toward the MTV set, the film addresses none of the new information about the subject that is right out there for the picking.

Usually Tribeca offers an outstanding selection of docs from and about the Near East, but this year’s are just okay. Ivan O’Mahoney and Laura Winter‘s “Baghdad High” (UK, Iraq) uses the overdone device of giving cameras to the film’s subjects, in this case high schoolers in Iraq. (Omar Broadway and Douglas Tirola’s “An Omar Broadway Film,” USA, does the same thing: Someone sneaks a camera into a New Jersey detention facility but uncovers little that is particularly novel.) Mohamed Al-Daradji‘s “War, Love, God & Madness” (UK, Iraq) presents the difficulties involved in shooting the (awful) Iraqi feature “Ahlaam” in 2004. Mohammad Rasoulof‘s “Head Wind” (Iran) surveys the effects of new technologies on an info-hungry public in Iran, but without the oomph that makes a doc great.

A large number of the documentaries are about performers and other celebrities, whether they are observed backstage or just living their lives. Artists like Meryl Streep (John Walter‘s “Theater of War,” USA), Diego Rivera (Diego Lopez and Gabriel Figueroa Flores‘s “A Portrait of Diego: The Revolutionary Gaze,” Mexico), Celia Cruz (de Varona and Cardona’s “Celia the Queen,” USA), and Keith Haring (Christina Clausen‘s “The Universe of Keith Haring,” Italy) are, or were, special, but their treatment on film is not.

Worst of all are Julie Checkoway‘s “Waiting for Hockney” (USA), which is not about artist David Hockney at all but about a mediocre artist who desires his blessing, and Paul H-O and Tom Donahue‘s “Guest of Cindy Sherman” (USA), ditto and creepier because it’s an onanistic project for the opportunistic H-O. Most stomach-churning of all is Christopher Bell‘s “Bigger, Stronger, Faster” (USA), a study of anabolic steroids centering on the director’s own use.

You can see why an information section like Havana’s would work here. It would certainly separate the accomplished from the merely serviceable.

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