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The Future of History: Docs at Tribeca Fest Re-Cast the Past

By Michael Galinsky

The Tribeca Film Festival, which concluded April 28, features so many docs that it's almost as big and broad as many standalone documentary festivals. While I wasn't able to see all of the films at the festival, a number of interesting trends emerged as I made my way through them. New camera technologies help the vérité films sing visually, but some of the most powerful docs relied heavily, if not exclusively, on archival footage—a de facto reaction, it seems, to the powerful impact of today's "media of immediacy." Just as time heals wounds, it gives us the distance that we often need to make sense of situations that are seemingly too complex to understand at the time, or too sensitive to tell in the present. A handful of the nonfiction offerings at Tribeca take a "re-look" at stories that were heavily covered in the media, or that involve media figures. These films paint a much more complex and nuanced portrait of the time and place. Some of them follow tried-and-true storytelling techniques to great effect, while many others push viewers to engage in new ways.

The most powerful film I saw, Jason Osder's Let the Fire Burn, is an intensive immersion into the world of Move, the Philadelphia-based political activist group that ran afoul of the city government in the 1970s and again in the mid '80s. The film is constructed from several archival short student films about the group, news footage from the time period, a deposition tape and a public hearing on the government's decision to burn the group out of their home. There is an obvious connection to the 1997 documentary Waco: The Rules of Engagement, but Let the Fire Burn is even more rigorous in its exclusive use of source material to tell the story. Like Waco, it does so with a nuance and precision that is subtle, powerful and unflinching. The total immersion in the past, with no voiceover, narration or talking heads, allows the viewer to experience the events as if viewing a documentary from the time. However, the filmmakers are able to shape this past view with the critical distance of 25-plus years, enabling them to subtly bring the audience on a nuanced but well-guided journey.  Let the Fire Burn earned a Jury Prize for Best Editing in a Documentary Feature and a Special Jury Mention in the Best New Documentary Director Competition.


From Jason Osder's Let the Fire Burn. Photo: Sam Psoras


Teenage, by Matt Wolf, attempts to flip the script on the ways in which we engage with archival materials. Using a mix of found archival footage, re-created archival meant to flesh out the stories that the archival footage inspired, and scripted, character-driven voiceover based on historical evidence, the film re-imagines the historical doc. 

Alias Ruby Blade: A Story of Love and Revolution uses archival footage in a more personal way.  Combining voiceover with personal footage that was captured by an Australian journalist, filmmakers Alex and Tanya Meillier tell the story of a woman who was so moved by the story of the Indonesian occupation of East Timor that she transitioned from writer to activist to First Lady of a new government. The hidden history revealed in this driving documentary is especially effective because of the directly personal nature of the filmmaking. According to the filmmakers, "We learned of the story of the then First Lady, Kirsty Sword Gusmao, and we were surprised to find a Australian woman played such a pivotal role in the story of the country's independence. We also learned that she herself aspired to become a documentary filmmaker and that she still possessed the tapes from her journey going back to her first visit in 1990 all the way up to the Independence celebration in 2002. When we reached out to her and began to see what was on the tapes, we were utterly blown away with the intimate footage that she had, and we decided that her point of view would be the point of entry in to the story." The film is raw and intimate, and the skillfully executed storytelling breathes life into it.


From Alex and Tanya Meillier's Alias Ruby Blade: A Story of Love and Revolution. Courtesy of Kirsty Sword Gusmao


First-person connection to the story, the intimate use of powerful new cameras, and the cunning use of archival footage make The Genius of Marian a standout as well. Filmmakers Banker White and Anna Fitch  weave a complex narrative about the nature of family, memory, art and storytelling. The film begins with the filmmaker documenting his mother's attempt to write a book about her own mother's life as a brilliant artist. White's grandmother, Marian, succumbed to the ravages of Alzheimer's disease. In her prime she was a well-regarded painter, but it is also made clear that she was not the most present and attentive mother. Still, her daughter aims to honor her memory by telling her story. In a sad twist, Banker's mother falters in her writing, revealing her own bout of early onset Alzheimer's. The filmmakers strike a great balance between using family movies and photos, incredibly intimate current documentation, well-considered time-lapse images, and a few sit-down interviews to paint a complex portrait of the families' struggle with this difficult disease. This meditative and beautifully shot film captures the dance of generations that makes this film so illuminating.

As stated above, the idea of re-examination of history ran through many of the other docs at this year's Tribeca Film Festival. The Trials of Muhammad Ali (Dir.: Bill Siegel), Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic (Dir.: Marina Zenovich) and Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia (Dir.: Nicholas Wrathall) all use a wealth of archival material of their famous and vocal subjects that connect us not only to their history but to our present. We all feel that we know the story of these famous people, but as in Let the Fire Burn, the way the archival footage is framed reveals new truths about not only the subjects, but their times. Trials zeroes in on Ali's transition from brash boxer to radical activist. While many people know Ali as a famous boxer, this history is less visible or discussed, and the film's focus calls to mind our increasingly politicized current situation. The Vidal film works in similar ways. While he and Ali sound like radicals in the past, they feel like prophets in our present. Richard Pryor's work certainly lives on powerfully, but time has softened the rough edges. Omit the Logic applies a little sandpaper to connect us to his somewhat radical past, as well as our increasingly radical present.

The four vérité films that I was able to catch—Bending Steel (Dir.: Dave Carroll), Aatsinki: The Story of Arctic Cowboys (Dir.: Jessica Oreck), Oxyana (Dir.: Sean Dunne) and Flex Is Kings (Dirs.: Deidre Schoo and Michael Beach Nichols)—all use the lyrical qualities of HD to great effect. They illuminate their stories in ways that today's quick-fix media cannot. I live within miles of the "stars" of Flex Is Kings, and one of the main battles in the film took place a few blocks from my home, but I knew nothing of this vibrant world of competitive street dancing. Such is the power of immersive filmmaking to reveal the truths that live around the corner, and around the world. Spending time with painkiller addicts, reindeer herders and a wannabe strongman made me want to pick up my camera and start shooting.


From Deidre Schoo and Michael Beach Nichols' Flex Is Kings. Courtesy of Visit Films


Sandy Storyline, part of Tribeca's Storyscapes program, inspired people to contribute stories about Hurricane Sandy. Michael Premo, one of the organizers of Sandy Storyline, says it was a natural progression from activism to collective storytelling: "I come from the ensemble theater world. Collaborative theater-making is as old as theater. There is a distinct model which is very different from the world of doc filmmaking." 

This kind of collaboration is difficult, however. Premo points out that many of the more successful media collectives have been born out of a shared experience.  In many ways, the Occupy Movement helped to create that shared sense of purpose. "As a very active participant in Occupy Wall Street, with a background in theater, I had already been working with mobile technology when Sandy hit," Premo notes. As he and his friends were doing rescue work with Occupy Sandy, they also began to use this technology to create a place to gather the immediate, on-the-ground stories. They also began to inspire others to create their own media and share it. "The reason we called this Storyline is that there are eight million stories in the city about the storm," Premo explains. "All these storylines together create a broader storyline. We have a guiding hand, and as open and democratic as it is, there's a critical mass that has certain stories rising to the top." 


From Sandy Storyline (Project Creators: Michael Premo, Laura Gottesdiener, Rachel Falcone). Photo: Matt Richter 


Storyscapes is about looking beyond the standalone documentary and embracing new technologies and ways of communicating. Premo just goes with the flow. "I didn't know that the work I was creating was transmedia until I was on a panel about transmedia," he admits. Sandy Storyline earned the Bombay Sapphire Award for Transmedia at the festival.

Michael Galinsky is partners with Suki Hawley and David Bellinson in the award-winningproduction studio Rumur. They are currently working on a film about the conneciton between stress and pain.