May 5, 2009

Tribeca Film Festival: New York City's Showcase of Note

It's obligatory (and necessary) to accompany any event one launches in New York with lots of bells and whistles. And fabulous parties, as well, needless to say. One needs to do something extraordinary to get people's attention--and keep it. Then, once the event is over, one needs to spend pretty much the entire year leading up to the next one figuring out how it's going to be even more dazzling, more relevant, better attended with even more generosity from major sponsors.

Tribeca Film Enterprises, established in 2002 by Robert DeNiro, Jane Rosenthal and Craig Hatkoff, is the multi-platform media company in which the film festival, a cinema complex, a nonprofit film institute and a film center reside. (There is a Web presence for a sister film festival in Doha, Qatar, that will debut this fall but, mysteriously, no information seems to be forthcoming about that right now.) Despite the ever-shifting sands that occur with a good deal of regularity at any large media company (and this year, they saw plenty of that), TFE did put on a pretty good festival this year. 

As everyone who cares about these things knows by now, the Tribeca Film Festival got off to a shaky start in 2002--inflated ticket prices, badly-planned logistics, poor communication, shoddy liaising with attending press, etc.--after a heartfelt and hopeful welcome from the city for which it was created. But at eight years old, this two-week event (April 22 - May 3) is starting to come into its own, growing into its role as a major cultural presence, truly beginning to serve the community beyond the festival itself by nurturing a little bit of the talent that comes here to make art in an art-loving city. They're accomplishing this by providing more and more channels of funding and other in-kind support, including taking advantage of the enormous resource of talented filmmakers and producers that call New York home to mentor up-and-comers.

With a scaled-back program of international films and a, thankfully, very conservative output of printed information (TFF's website is one of the best, most efficient and helpful sites out there), the festival poured its money into the public meeting spots and the special events and parties that were staged throughout the latter part of April in downtown Manhattan, bringing a celeb-heavy presence to the proceedings. (Which is great; I just wish the festival would stop feeling compelled to put them on film juries.) 

TFF is about getting people in seats for screenings, obviously, but it's also very much about getting them out into the city, eating, shopping, touring, partaking of the Manhattan experience. The theaters are sufficient, nothing special, but every "extra-curricular" event I attended was done exceedingly well, creating a truly celebratory atmosphere. I especially enjoyed the Drive-In at the World Financial Center; on a hot night by the river,  I saw rapper P-Star give the crowd of thousands a fantastic performance both before and after Gabriel Noble's excellent film about her called P-Star Rising screened to an enthusiastic audience of about 5,000 people..

From Gabriel Noble's P-Star Rising.

To debut work in New York City is a big deal for any artist. Each filmmaker I spoke with--from Beadie Finzi, director of the crowd-pleasing, Heineken Audience Award-nominated Only When I Dance, to effusive Argentine-Canadian Laura Bari, there with her exquisite piece called Antoine, to Marshall Curry, winner of the TFF Documentary Feature Competition this year for his superb and elegantly edited Racing Dreams-were thrilled and elated to be able to show off their latest works here.

The Tribeca Film Festival is not really a doc-centric festival; however, this year's selection of 32 nonfiction feature docs and 14 shorts showed off a fairly strong representation, albeit with some puzzling choices. For there are still some kinks in the programming department with a stable of programmers vying for spots for their favorites, all overseen by director of programming David Kwok. It's apparent that this festival needs to answer to a broader constituency that goes beyond the film world and apparently considers an array of other factors besides the most vital imperative of championing great work, something which programmers have the luxury to concentrate on at more traditional film festivals (one hopes).

So, despite a lack of a true center--there's still no "there" there and it still doesn't take place in Tribeca--the festival means to stay the course and will continue to treat the local community and international visitors to a great film event in the spring in the greatest city on earth.

From Ian Olds' Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi.

Here are the documentary prize-winners announced at a ceremony hosted by DeNiro and Rosenthal on Friday, May 1:

Marshall Curry's Racing Dreams took Tribeca's Best Documentary Feature prize. Other nonfiction standouts were Yoav Shamir's Defamation (Hashmatsa), receiving a Special Jury Mention, and Danae Elon's Partly Private, which received a Best New York Documentary nod. Ian Olds won the Best New Documentary Filmmaker prize for his film Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi, while the Best Documentary Short prize went to Matthew Faust's home, with Special Mention going to Liz Chae'sThe Last Mermaids.

Pamela Cohn is a New York-based independent media producer, documentary film consultant and freelance writer. She writes a well-regarded blog on nonfiction filmmaking called Still in Motion.

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