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How Tribeca Thrives as a Virtual and Actual Reality Showcase

By Patricia Aufderheide

From Camilla Nielsson's 'Democrats,' winner of the World Documentary Competition.

The Tribeca Film Festival continues to be a highly sought-after showcase for new longform documentary work, and an unofficial but key marketplace. Indiewire just ranked it third in prominence for docs, after Sundance and Toronto. Tribeca also continues its eclectic approach. You could find international work mixed in with US films, and styles ranged from observational to public affairs to just downright quirky. "Too many people think documentary is a genre," says programmer Cara Cusumano. "But documentary can have every genre a narrative film can be, and we are open to that range of possibility."

Among the competition films, my personal faves were observational documentary, where intimacy is the currency. A remarkable number of films gave us improbable, sometimes even astonishing access.

The World Documentary Competition winner, Camilla Nielsson's Democrats, follows the unimaginable progress of creating a constitution that can unseat a dictatorship—under the vigilant eye of longtime Zimbabwean ruler Robert Mugabe. As we watch the gambits of the two sparring co-leaders (one from the dictator's party, the other from the opposition), we're witnessing the first steps of a participatory political process in a country where for decades such an effort would result in a death sentence. The access that Nielsson secured is extraordinary. How did she get it? "I'm not even sure," she admits, "but over the months, they [Mugabe's team and the opposition] both came to trust me. Evenings were like therapy sessions, eventually. One of the opposition organizers said to me, ‘I think it's reverse Stockholm syndrome.'"

From 'In Transit,' which won a Special Jury Award. Photo: Nelson Walker

In Transit, the final film from the late legend Al Maysles, who shared directing credit with Nelson Walker, Lynn True, David Usui and Ben Wu, is a remarkable bookend to the Maysles brothers' Salesman (1968). Like that film, in the guise of a ride-along, In Transit becomes a quiet essay on the failures of the American dream. (Hurray for Lynn True, who also edited the film.) The film, which won a Special Jury Award, drops in on conversations among riders on the Amtrak Empire Builder line, which runs from Chicago to Seattle, with much of the film taking place as the train courses through the Great Plains states. Passengers share stories that both win and break your heart; foundationless optimism about change of place keeps them hoping for a better job, partner, self, life. The intimacy of the camera eye is as surprising as the confessional mode it catches.

Out of competition, one of the observational standouts for me was Abigail Disney's The Armor of Light. A conservative evangelical lobbyist, pressed by a grieving mother, decides that taking on the gun lobby is God's will; but what rhetorical frame will work with his NRA-loving colleagues? This film is as fascinating as a human drama of transformation as it is as an inside look at religious realpolitik.

From Hemal Trivedi and Mohammed Ali Naqvi's 'Among the Believers.' Photo: Adil Sheryar

Hemal Trivedi and Mohammed Ali Naqvi's Among the Believers takes us inside one of the most controversial mosques and schools in Pakistan, where head imam Maulana Aziz is proudly raising up jihadis who can fight with ISIS and Taliban. Trivedi and Naqvi managed to secure not only access but, apparently, trust. Meeting Aziz, his followers, and students, as well as a young girl who chose to leave his school, makes clear that the military and political conflicts are also cultural conflicts lived out by millions.

Other films debuting at Tribeca were notable for their research and subject matter. My favorite was Ivy Meeropol's in-competition film, Indian Point, a cleanly made, supremely thoughtful exploration of nuclear safety, looking at the nuclear reactor within evacuation distance of New York City. The film features an astonishing cast of characters: a perpetually skeptical environmental reporter and his die-hard activist wife; a Nuclear Regulatory Commission head who's attacked by all of his industry-friendly colleagues; dedicated plant engineers; Fukushima residents who beg activists to shut down the plant. Although industry advocates and engineers are given great respect, the story ends up being a cautionary tale and an alarm about an ageing industry that does not have answers to crucial questions.

Meeropol was committed to featuring industry views from the start: "If I couldn't get inside the plant, I knew I wasn't going to make the film," she maintained at the Q&A. The retired president of Entergy, the company that runs the plan, explained why he let her in: "You convinced us that you would be fair. If we hadn't participated, then there would be none of our perspective." The ex-NCR chairman, Gregory Jaczko, gave Indian Point his blessing at the premiere, in wonk-words: "The macro issues talked about here are generally reflective of the industry as a whole."

Tribeca has also grouped an eclectic set of associated activities under its "storytelling" umbrella. The curated Tribeca Now website showcases recent online video (film students: check out editor Tony Zhou's Every Frame a Painting!). In a day of TED-style talks by entrepreneurs and innovators, my imagination was caught by Jeremy Bailenson, whose Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford is demo-ing practical uses of virtual reality and measuring powerful physical effects of simulation. His VR lab tested, among other things, your fear of heights.

From Brett Gaylor's 'Do Not Track'

Interactive storytelling was featured on several platforms, most prominently via "Storyscapes," Tribeca's customized lounge for interactive storytelling installations. Indeed, the term was so capacious that a functionary from sponsor Bombay Sapphire Gin told me solemnly that the making of a custom cocktail was an interactive installation. Three of the five projects were one-person experiences, though, which harshly limited access. Two of those—BeAnotherLab's The Machine to Be Another and Karim Ben Helifa's The Enemy—depended on earlier and clumsier versions of Oculus. Do Not Track, Brett Gaylor's online documentary on privacy and surveillance, with interactive features, showed on computers at Storyscapes, but the work is designed for and available on the Web. Perhaps the most powerful immersive experience was offered by May Abdalla and Amy Rose's Door into the Dark, whose most powerful technology was a blindfold, forcing viewers to depend on other senses to negotiate a labyrinth. Door into the Dark won the Storyscapes Award.

Games for Change, the New York-based nonprofit whose mission is to instigate social impact through game-based storytelling, ran its annual festival as part of the Tribeca Film Festival. Never Alone, from E-Line Media, Upper One Games and The Cook Inlet Tribal Council of Alaska, won awards for Most Significant Impact and Game of the Year. The project incorporates video segments retelling Iñupiaq tradition. One big takeaway from Games for Change: Link any tech to your purpose and story; don't do "transmedia" for the sake of it. (But if you've got a humanities-related idea, the NEH has a grant program for you.) Another: If you're thinking of games as facilitating change, think hard about what kind of change you're looking for, and design accordingly.

TFI Interactive featured a "road map" to making an impact with interactive work; it's open for suggestions. Interactivity was celebrated in email, data visualization, comic books, games and yes, documentaries. (Charlie Phillips, late of Sheffield DocFest and now of The Guardian, is looking for lots of documentaries for the newspaper's expanding online video division.) WITNESS' Sam Gregory challenged participants to think about using off-the-shelf platforms to leverage our "distributed willingness" to address human rights (if Tindr can connect us one way…), and asked us sobering questions such as, "Should we be looking if we don't intend to act?"

And some people reminded us that sometimes analog works fine, given your objectives. Eline Jongsma and Kel O'Neill described their battles with technology and upgrades in creating their transmedia project Empire, about Dutch imperialism. To cope with instability and impermanence, they went the old-school route: they created a book. Along those lines, the Priya's Shakti project, which has some cutting-edge digital applications, will achieve outreach throughout villages everywhere in India through an old-fashioned comic book.


Patricia Aufderheide is director of the Center for Media & Social Impact at American University.