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Tribeca Film Festival: Docs Dominate Downtown

By Kathy Brew

The annual Tribeca Film Festival, launched in 2002 to help stimulate downtown recovery after 9/11, hardly occurs in Tribeca anymore. This year, most of the screenings took place a bit further uptown, in either the East Village or Chelsea. The festival is often critiqued as not really having a solid identity, of being all over the map with its wide range of films and populist programming that offers something for everyone. Despite the critique, the fact is, documentaries are one of the strengths at Tribeca, and this year's festival, which ran from April 21 to May 2, offered a diverse selection.

As with any film festival, even within a given genre, there was quite a range of themes and topics explored. Somehow my filter tended more towards the portraits and arts-related docs, although I did see a few of the social issue ones, as well.

April 22, the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, was an appropriate date for the North American premiere of Climate of Change, an eco-doc that puts a somewhat different spin on the state of the global environmental crisis. Director Brian Hill presents a sampling of ordinary people from around the world--from India to Papua New Guinea to London to West Virginia to Africa--who are all making a difference, taking steps towards ending global warming in their respective communities.

At the panel that followed the screening, Hill (who almost didn't make it due to the international flight snafus resulting from the Icelandic volcano eruption) spoke about wanting to avoid "the apocalyptic tendency" in some environmental documentaries, and show real people taking steps in their own lives to make a difference and affect positive change. The filmmaker was joined on stage by Christopher Gebhardt of TakePart (whose parent company, Participant Media, helped fund Climate of Change), actress Jessica Alba and filmmaker Sebastian Copeland, whose doc Into the Cold also played at Tribeca, for a discussion about global climate change and community activism.


Hunting on Lake Murray, Papua New Guinea. From Brian Hill's Climate of Change. Courtesy of Participant Media



Climate of Change is also part of Tribeca's new distribution initiative--Tribeca Film-that was launched with this year's festival, offering 12 films to viewers via VOD as well as to theatergoers for a weeklong run at Tribeca Cinemas. Climate of Change opens May 12. The festival also initiated Tribeca Virtual this year, which enabled film lovers from around the world to screen films and watch panels on the Web.

Several of the docs I saw won awards at the festival. Monica & David, the Best Documentary Feature winner, chronicles the love between two people with Down syndrome and the impact of this relationship on their families, exploring the tricky fine line between support and over-protection that confronts adults living with disabilities. The film, directed by Monica's cousin, Alexandra Codina, in her directorial and producing debut, garnered some initial support in 2007 through Tribeca's All Access program and will have its broadcast premiere on HBO in October during National Disability Employment Awareness Month. The fact that Codina is part of the family clearly allowed for access and intimacy that would be hard to achieve from an outsider.

Bobby Sheehan's Arias with a Twist, which won Third Place in the Audience Awards category, focuses on the collaboration between cabaret and drag artist Joey Arias and master puppeteer Basil Twist, whose groundbreaking 2008 show of the same title brought them the biggest success of their careers. But beyond this collaboration, the film is a celebration of the creative process and the inventive, outrageous downtown art scene of New York from the 1970s onward, and includes wonderful archival material featuring never-before-seen footage of many downtown luminaries, including Andy Warhol, Jim Henson, Keith Haring, Grace Jones and Divine.


From Bobby Sheehan's Arias with a Twist. Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival



The Woodmans, directed by C. Scott Willis, took the award for Best New York Documentary, and brings viewers into the lives of the artistic Woodman family, whose best known family member, Francesca, committed suicide at age 22 in New York City in 1981. Through the creative use of her journal entries, experimental videos,  dynamic photographs and interviews with her parents and her brother--all artists -- and others who actually knew her (as opposed to art world authorities), Willis brings us into the life of this young artist in a very intimate, visceral and tragic way. Thirty years later, Francesca is acknowledged as one of the late 20th century's most recognized photographers.


Francesca Woodman: Self-Portrait Talking to Vince (1975-1978).  From C. Scott Willis' The Woodmans. Courtesy of Betty and George Woodman


I also attended a few of the panels and industry talks. One dealt with the future of film distribution, featuring filmmakers, sales agents and distributors in a discussion about how to enable independent film and filmmakers to reach audiences and make money in the digital landscape. Distribution is the key issue these days, and is in such a state of flux and evolution. The idea of festivals being used as the launch for a film is no longer the way things really work. The fact is, the audience is going to tell us how they want to see films. And so it's of the utmost importance to know your audience--who they are, where and how they're watching, and how you're going to reach that community. Clearly social networks and viral marketing are important elements in the current landscape--a kind of transmedia approach. The sky has fallen, and the audience has changed, with an expectation of a participatory kind of engagement. 

Another panel featured a conversation between Geoff Gilmore, Tribeca Institute's chief creative officer, and Sheila Nevins, head of HBO Documentaries-and described by Gilmore as "the de Medici of TV" and the "Dominatrix of Docs," since she's been at the forefront of exposing innovative new documentary films to a wider audience for over 25 years. Nevins discussed her passion for the genre and shared some insights on the future of documentary filmmaking. For her, television is theater, and real people are actors in their own life. She discussed the importance of documentaries in portraying the basic truth of the human condition and how changing societal norms and new technology are both contributing to increased opportunities for filmmakers to tell stories differently or with a new emphasis. Nevins also talked about the fear that she's programming for herself, but that she tries very hard to "feel the pulse." At the same time, she doesn't want to sell out for that fast acceptance of "what's now." The main thing is, the story is what comes first.

My final Tribeca event was the anthology film Freakonomics, the closing night gala film. I attended a second screening the following day, the last in the Tribeca Talks: After the Movie series that included a post-screening discussion with many of the filmmakers and Stephen Dubner, one of the writers of the best-selling book on which the film is based. Like the book, the film examines human behavior and popular culture as it relates to economics through some provocative and (in some cases) humorous case studies.

Accomplished documentary filmmakers Alex Gibney(Taxi to the Dark Side), Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp), Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight) and Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) bring their unique styles to the short documentary form, with stories ranging from corruption in the sumo wrestling world, to whether financial incentives can inspire high school students to study more, to an exploration of the sociological significance of baby names, to a theory that links the drop in crime rate to Roe v. Wade. Seth Gordon (The King of Kong) created the interstitial segments, helping to weave together the disparate short docs, offering comments and context from authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. Having the authors comment and banter among themselves between the different pieces makes the film feel more like four short films strung together with commentary, like something made for public affairs television. It feels more journalistic, rather than cinematic, despite the strong individual short docs.  After all, the whole conceit stems from a book, and yet the film doesn't really allow for getting into any of the stories in depth. This may be one case where the book will be more successful than the film adaptation. The film will be released by Magnolia Pictures sometime this fall, so audiences will soon be able to weigh in for themselves. 


Kathy Brew is an independent filmmaker, media arts curator and writer, who also teaches at The New School, The School of Visual Arts and Rutgers University.