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A Human Rights Theme Threads Through Third Tribeca Film Festival

By Skye Dent

Classical pianist Nelson Freire, from João Moreira Salles' 'Nelson Freire.'

The cultural plans for New York City's Ground Zero—the site of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001-calls for attractions that infuse life back into the site of so much death.

For ten days in May, the Tribeca Film Festival did just that.

Where else could you leave a post-screening party at 2:00 a.m. and walk two blocks for a $7 manicure? See smiles light up as a security guard refuses to back down from an arrogant film director trying to sneak into his own screening without a proper pass? Have greater access to film tickets by virtue of being a resident New Yorker? Or be treated to an impromptu sidewalk performance by violinist Lorenzo Laroc as he waited to enter a screening?

Despite the celebrities, despite the hoopla, despite the many journalistic attempts to compare it to Cannes and Sundance, the third Tribeca Film Festival is still relentlessly defined as much by the audience as by the films themselves. 

Tribeca organizers say they wouldn't have it any other way. Robert DeNiro, Jane Rosenthal and Craig Hatkoff created the festival in large part as a way to help rebuild the lower Manhattan community after the terrorist attacks.

And just to make sure that the only rule defining the Tribeca documentaries shown was "quality," Festival Director Peter Scarlet expanded the categories to three for documentaries and a fourth for both features and documentaries. The documentary competition was for first and second-time filmmakers. Then, "To avoid any accusations of ageism, we've kept our Documentaries >2 competitions for more veteran filmmakers," says Scarlet. "And because the festival was founded to celebrate New York, 2004 featured a new addition, Documentaries NY-NY, for films by and about New Yorkers."

Director Peter Gilbert's premiere of With All Deliberate Speed was in a separate category of 36 "outstanding features and documentaries," appropriately called Spotlight. The film brings a soulful, sincere and personal perspective to what many know primarily as the distant, but groundbreaking US Supreme Court decision on Brown v. Board of Education that declared public school segregation unconstitutional. 

The national media have focused on what the 50-year-old desegregation case has done for today's American students. But Gilbert's film reflects on the more personal story of what the decision did and didn't do for some of the original poor Southern black plaintiffs, who had everything to lose--and many of did—all to make education better for the next generation.

What makes the documentary unique are Gilbert's commitment to explore the subject of race and the former plaintiffs' risk to re-open their own wounds by returning to the towns in which fighting for desegregation broke up families and destroyed jobs. "They did something that was really great and they're really proud of it," says Gilbert. "But all of them possess some kind of anger and resentment. It's still painful to them."

Discovery Channel, through its theatrical division, Discovery Docs, didn't greenlight With All Deliberate Speed until October 2003; following its Tribeca showing, the film opened in five major cities in mid-May.

At a panel titled "Making Money: Profits and Ethics in Documentary Filmmaking," Mark Urman of THINKFilm emphasized the importance of theatrical distribution. "If you don't get the theatrical, you don't get the big reviews, you don't get the Academy Award nominations," Urman explained. "It's like entering on a float in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. It has much more force and power. And then it can still go to video."

Even without that kind of oomph, certain documentaries demand a widescreen presentation. An Unreliable Witness, independently produced by panel member and 48 Hours producer/director Michael McHugh, is a self-exploratory documentary that follows British-born journalist David Tereshchuk as he travels from his current New York home to Northern Ireland to describe what he saw and experienced on "Bloody Sunday," January 30, 1972, when the British Army opened fire on a Catholic civil rights march protesting Britain's detention of IRA suspects without trial.  Tereshchuk was one of more than 900 witnesses who gave testimony before an inquiry about the tragedy.

 "For us, we were not as concerned with theatrical distribution. Being in Tribeca was the big thing," McHugh maintains. "Tribeca is so quickly being recognized as one of the premiere festivals, that being accepted really confirmed for me that we made a good film."

Scarlet says that films such as An Unreliable Witness and Arna's Children (Juliano Mer Khamis and Danniel Danniel, dirs.; Pieter van Huystee, prod.), which shared the Best Documentary Feature prize with Cathy Henkel's The Man Who Stole My Mother's Face, were deliberately chosen for their unique views of foreign worlds. "It's no accident," he asserts. "I believe a film festival's role is to keep the eyes of Americans open to the rest of the world. So much of the molding of American minds takes place in Hollywood. Documentaries such as these help the audience to connect with reality, to identify with what the level of suffering is like." 

McHugh says the fact that Tribeca presented so many documentaries which drew such large audiences shows that the public is interested in the type of news the media is not covering.

Urman, Gilbert and the rest of the panel agreed that documentary filmmaking was not the path to profits, even with a theatrical opening. "Discovery knows it's not going to make any money," said Gilbert, who admitted that he keeps his company alive and well through commercial work. "But theatrical distribution gives you credibility, gets more people involved, helps its library values and its life for years to come."

"Spellbound, one of the top five grossing documentaries of all time, made just shy of $6 million," Urman noted. "Van Helsing made that before lunch yesterday, in just two zip codes."

The panelists also took on the subject of the tricky issue of payments. Spellbound director Jeff Blitz admitted that although most of the participants saw the project as a student film and thought it very noble, one family not only wanted to get paid, but also wanted more money for each round that its child won. Ultimately, he said, the family saw its section of the film, fell in love with it and took back their demands.

Gilbert freely admits that although his success with Hoop Dreams and other films made it easier for him to obtain money for With All Deliberate Speed, it was made easier by the fact that he was not a person of color. 

LisaGay Hamilton, an actress who has also delved into both the feature and documentary worlds in recent years, was equally blunt during a panel discussion on diversity. "It doesn't matter if you are a doctor, lawyer or filmmaker, the journey is harder—period—if you're a person of color," Hamilton asserted. "But our cultures are all different and rich and intricate."

One of the filmmakers of Project 10, an anthology of documentaries from South Africa that look at change through the eyes ordinary South Africans ten years after the fall of Apartheid, had even more basic concerns in shooting his documentary. Just to get to the auditions, Rudzani Dzuguda, the director of Mix, ended up quitting his job as a cameraman/editor in Durbanto."I was really scared," Dzuguda admitted. "But that is what filmmaking is all about."

Steered to fruition by Marten Rabarts from the Maurits Binger Film Institute in Amsterdam, Holland, Project 10 attracted the talents of film experts from South Africa, America and Denmark. SABC1, South Africa's top public broadcaster, developed and commissioned the series.

The works comprising Project 10 range in quality and content. Victor Khulile Nxumalo's With My Children (Nabantwa Ban) is a painfully mediocre portrayal of two totally different black brothers: one a pretentious yuppie benefiting intellectually and financially from the new South Africa, the other a  hip street guy financially dependent on his brother and mother. Finding one person in this documentary who was not totally self-conscious before the camera was an exercise in frustration.  

The sanitized, sterile feel of With My Children was in sharp contrast to Mix, in which Dzuguda followed a white female and a black female, both in their early 20s, as they tried to break into the world of DJ mixing in South Africa. There's the soft-spoken black Tumelo, determined to have her voice heard in the outside world, yet silent inside her own home, tormented by the disappointment her choices bring to her more traditional parents. And there's the warm-hearted, buoyant white Dominique shown fleeing her dysfunctional "Jo'burg" family and being embraced by the poor community of Gugelethu.

Mix is filled with insights rarely seen in today's media that concentrate so heavily on profound national post-Apartheid politics. For the characters in the film, freedom was the fight of the past generation; self-expression is their challenge. "South Africa is a country where traditional cultures have to work alongside the new," Dzuguda said.

However, the courage with which filmmakers from war-torn countries are facing the future was clearly evident, both in the Project 10 films and films such as Afghanistan: The Lost Truth. Shortly after the fall of the Taliban, Iranian filmmaker Yassarmin Maleknast took a cross-country journey through Afghanistan, billing herself as the only woman and filmmaker to have traveled such distances since the fall of the regime. The film offers more disquieting questions than it answers, but it is noteworthy for the many portraits of unexpected beauty, optimism, peaceful settings and architectural grandeur that provide a sharp contrast to most media images of Afghanistan.

Scarlet says there was no overall theme chosen by the committees that picked the documentary films. And yet, there were two films on Carandiru, the now dismantled Brazilian prison notorious for murders and other human rights violations committed by both inmates and guards. Hector Babenco's fiction film will certainly get the greater amount of attention, but the brutal images from director Paulo Sacramento's documentary Prisoner of the Iron Bars are the ones that could neither be scripted nor easily digested. 

Sacramento gained access to the prison by telling the officials that he wanted to teach a film course to inmates for a few months. "In the end, we had a lot of material that was shot inside the prison," Sacramento reflects. "The people inside didn't know it was going to be a film." Sacramento earned the Tribeca Film Festival Award for Best New Documentary Filmmaker.

Scarlet says he's not sure whether the fact that the festival was created after 9/11 to reunite the people who lived and worked in the Twin Towers neighborhood unconsciously makes one think of many of the films in terms of human rights, or if perhaps most documentaries inherently deal with even the simplest of rights for a human being.

Even a concert film such Joao Moreira Salles' Nelson Freire, which documents the life of the famed Brazilian classical pianist, had elements that made one think he was a prisoner of his talent. While Freire's music brings accolades and joy to millions, he himself is presented as isolated, cloistered as a child, and now a man with few friends who comments about how wonderful it must be to be a jazz musician and have the ability to improvise.

Presented with this analysis of Tribeca Film Festival as a human rights festival, Scarlet reaffirms that the thread was unintentional. However, he says, if one film or the totality of films make one think about human rights in the current political sense or in the personal sense, that's certainly a worthy goal.

"We did not pick the films with the belief that they would make people do something," Scarlet allows. "But if even one of our documentaries puts one person in touch with the human world, I have no complaints."


Skye Dent, an IDA  and WGA member, writes for documentaries and dramatic television from her home base at the University of Connecticut.