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Decidedly Downtown: Tribeca Finds Its Focus with Impressive Doc Slate

By Cathleen Rountree

Like a phoenix rising from the dust, ashes and misery of September 11, 2001, the Tribeca Film Festival launched itself in Lower Manhattan in 2002. But given the turbulent winds of both industry and public criticism, the flight has been shaky. Accused of being more of a Barnum & Bailey three-ring circus than a serious world-class festival, TFF has struggled to find its point of reference. This year’s list of exceptional documentaries (at least among the 27 I viewed) definitely take a leap in the right direction.

Fittingly, one of most noteworthy and moving docs, Man on Wire, pays tribute to the World Trade Center (without once mentioning 9/11) where, in August 1974, the French daredevil and poet of movement Philippe Petit and his motley crew smuggled literally a ton of piecemeal equipment up to the 103rd floor of the South Tower. Once the cable was strung between the Twin Towers, Petit inconceivably “danced” his way back and forth–eight times–between the Towers. The original footage is truly awe-inspiring, and director James Marsh pulls off some of the most realistic, seamless re-enactments that have ever graced a documentary.

Certainly Petit is an artist of the air, but the festival featured a number of films about visual artists: Guest of Cindy Sherman, Waiting for Hockney, The Universe of Keith Haring and A Portrait of Diego: The Revolutionary Gaze. In Sherman and Hockney, the eponymous artists remain peripheral to the “characters” (there’s no other word for them), who (according to some) semi-stalked the respective art world celebrities. Sherman co-director Paul H-O insinuates himself into the 1990s NYC art scene through his public access show GalleryBeat. When he meets the camera-shy Sherman, they soon form a romantic liaison, which takes H-O on an unexpected, and unwelcome, journey into male angst.

Hockney’s presence in Waiting for Hockney is primarily through photographs. The real star is Maryland artist Billy Pappas, who spends seven years, working seven hours a day, on a graphite portrait based on a world-famous iconic photograph, and then single-mindedly seeks an audience with the British pop artist. I kept thinking I should rush off to a more “consequential (read: political)” doc, but I was hooked. Does Billy ever meet Hockney? Will he break into the antagonistic art arena? Julie Checkoway directs with a winning combination of humor and affection for her subject as she confidently weighs in on the capricious and often cruel inner workings of the art world.

“I paint what I see,” declared Diego Rivera, considered the greatest Mexican painter of the 20th century. Upon the 50th anniversary of Rivera’s art career in 1949, he, photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo and cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa set out to capture el Maestro’s process on film. Before completion, however, they shelved the project. Nearly 60 years later, Gabriel Figueroa Flores (Figueroa’s son) and Diego Lopez Rivera (Rivera’s grandson) discovered the lost footage and, retracing the trio’s steps, revisited their haunts. Archival footage and interviews with Rivera’s friends and relatives establish the historical context, while evocative clips from Mexico’s Golden Era of Cinema dramatize the cultural milieu. The original film’s remarkably personal imagery, in gorgeous muted pastel tones, reveals Rivera in Mexico’s natural environs among the earthy peasants and pre-Columbian art he loved and commemorated in his humanistic paintings.

As a companion piece of sorts to Steven Soderbergh’s much-anticipated two-part fiction film of another Latin hero, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, Chevolution maintains the right balance between irony and repugnance. That iconic image of Che in uniform and beret, replicated everywhere from T-shirts to beer bottles, was snapped by journalist Alberto Korda in 1959 at a Cuban funeral march. Directors Trisha Ziff and Luis Lopez thoughtfully and entertainingly investigate how the photo became the most reproduced image in the history of photography, and came to symbolize revolutions from Paris and Prague to Berkeley.

Following the court proceedings in Milosevic on Trial during the Hague Tribunal is heartbreaking, and absolutely required viewing. Danish director Michael Christoffersen was granted exclusive access to the trial that began with promising expectations in 2001 and ended with a whimper four years later, with the former Serbian president’s sudden fatal heart attack in prison. Defending himself against widely credited charges of genocide, Milosevic appears unsurprisingly (given his reputation) defiant and pompous, as he denies any responsibility for the ethnic cleansing of 125,000 people and the displacement of three million. Christoffersen maintains objectivity by counter-pointing the two primary attorneys: the sharp, witty, yet stoically resigned British prosecutor, Gregory Nice, and Dragoslav Ognjanovic, the defending lawyer, who befriends Milosevic and refers to him as a “hero.”

An unanticipated treasure was Theatre of War, starring Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline. Director John Walter filmed the preparation of a 2006 Public Theatre outdoor production in New York of Tony Kushner’s new translation of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children. Showcasing this collaborative creative process alone would have made for a noteworthy subject, but Walter deepens the film by including captivating biographical material on Brecht’s life in both Germany and the United States (where the lifelong Marxist testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee that he had never been a Party member) and the playwright’s exploration of the theater as a forum for political ideas and the creation of a critical aesthetics of dialectical materialism. The film is thorough in its history and timely in its observations about the complex convergence between war and capitalism.

Speaking of war and capitalism…for Baghdad High, directors Ivan O’Mahoney and Laura Winter gave four Iraqi high school seniors digital cameras and basic instruction in filmmaking. The result is a wrenching look inside a country tormented and destroyed by a war that has produced four million refugees. Each of the boys—all friends—belongs to a different religion or sect, including a Christian who must hide his affiliation. In between bomb explosions, electrical outages and military-enforced curfews, they listen to American popular music, talk on their cell phones, and do their best to prepare for their final exams, even as they must adapt to a daily world of “no good news.” But when two of the boys and their families (and half the students at their high school) flee north from Baghdad, it marks the end of their filming and the continuation of an uncertain future.

In Secrecy, directors Robb Moss and Peter Galison examine how public access to the mounting information about our government’s process and proceedings on, say, the War in Iraq, has been increasingly restricted since the end of World War II. Last year, for example, the US government spent $8 billion classifying five times the number of pages they added to the Library of Congress. Why this obsession with secrecy? Does it really aid in our fighting “terrorism”? This flawlessly produced, authoritative and politically imperative doc exposes a little-known practice that affects us all.

So, enough bummers; take heart. Two especially uplifting films, A Powerful Noise and Kassim The Dream, offer up refreshingly “good news.” Tom Capello’s Noise follows three extraordinary women—in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Mali and Vietnam—as they lead day-to-day battles against ignorance, poverty, oppression and ethnic strife. And Kief Davidson’s Kassim traces the trajectory of one young Ugandan from child soldier to world champion boxer. With grit and staggering willpower, Kassim “The Dream” proves that, against all odds, an individual can achieve his wildest dreams and turn tragedy into inspiration.

Finally, the little doc that could…in the quirky, upbeat This Is Not a Robbery, first-time directors Lucas Jansen and Adam Kurland entertainingly stage the strange story of “Red” Rountree (no relation to the author!), a once-wealthy, lifelong law-abiding Texan citizen, who, at the age of 87, became a media sensation after a series of unarmed bank robberies. Using news footage, clever animated re-enactments and taped interviews with Rountree, his friends and members of the legal system, this infectious exploration of an ersatz American outlaw begs the question, What will you do when you retire?

Cathleen Rountree, Ph.D., is a film journalist and critic, and an author of nine books including The Movie Lovers’ Club, which explores the process of creating community through film discussion groups. She covers film festivals and writes extensively about films and directors for print and online publications. Her blog at www.WomeninWorldCinema./org closely follows the works of female directors and global women’s issues as addressed in films.