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Tribeca Turns Ten: Cinema for the Post-9/11 Decade

By Daniel James Scott

Ten years since it was founded to revitalize the Lower Manhattan area after 9/11, the Tribeca Film Festival expanded into Midtown-and broadened its programming accordingly. This year's lineup, with films from 32 countries, featured 45 world premieres, 91 features and more than 40 documentaries works. The project of seeing half of the documentaries was an exhausting feat unto itself.

My trial began in earnest on the second day of the festival, while I was subsisting on Cliff Bars waiting for a documentary about the greatest sushi on earth.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a strong debut from director/cinematographer David Gelb, portrays the life and work of 85-year-old sushi master Jiro Ono. The film examines Jiro's work ethic, its results and the challenges it would present for future generations. Lusciously shot on DSLRs and the Red One, the film beholds sushi with the same respect as its creator. In the end, Jiro Dreams of Sushi is about "larger life themes," as Gelb put it in the Q & A--the quest for meaning, the importance of family, the decline of natural resources. "It's not culture-specific," said Gelb. "The humanism of the film is universal. And in that way we're happy when people tell us, 'I don't like sushi, but I still like the movie.'"

The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye, by Marie Losier, grapples with themes of identity through an atypical love story. The film explores the relationship between performance artist Genesis P-Orridge and his lover, Lady Jaye. In a definitive case of life imitating art, the two underwent a series of plastic surgeries to more closely resemble one another. The idea sprang from a shared notion of the body as a "prison." For a film about the mutability of the self, Ballad is an appropriately mutable film. A mash-up of disparate audio and music recordings, handheld 16mm footage and performative montages, the film exhibits a spontaneity that channels the energy of its subjects.


From Marie Losier's The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye. Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival



Social issue documentaries prevailed at this year's festival, examining everything from class to race, gender to religion. Because most of the films took a microcosmic approach to their subject matter, their status as "issue" films wasn't always so obvious.

Greg Barker's Koran by Heart covers an annual Koran reciting competition held in Cairo, Egypt, Following three children between the ages of 7 and 14-- all able to recite the Koran without speaking Arabic--the film explores the pressures of the next generation of Muslims to determine the future of their religion. Barker, whose experience in journalism informed his experience making the film, explained in an interview, "I have been intrigued for a number of years with the internal discussion within Islam over the direction the religion should take, between more fundamentalist-conservative viewpoint and a viewpoint that is more accepting of modernity. I really wanted to get beneath the surface of the competition and the kids' stories to try to somehow get into that."

The festival was also heavy with ESPN films, with most of the buzz surrounding Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney's Catching Hell. Part of ESPN's Thirty for Thirty series, his film explores the terrifying phenomenon of fan scapegoating as it manifested itself in the 2003 National League Championship Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Florida Marlins. After diehard Cubs fan Steve Bartman diverted a foul ball from outfielder Moisés Alou's grasp, he became the object of hatred for a stadium of Cubs fans and, eventually, the greater Chicago area. The reaction was so severe that Bartman eventually had to go off the map.


From Alex Gibney's Catching Hell. Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival



"I think that ESPN is always looking for these stories that are about something deeply human," Gibney remarked, about working with the sports cable channel. "It's not about the pure sports freak. And I think at their essence, that's what great sports stories are all about."

The presence of the filmmakers before and after the screenings added considerable heft to each film. This was especially the case for Rachel Libert and Tony Hardmon Semper Fi: Always Faithful (whose editor, Purcell Carson, won the award for Best Editing--Documentary), a film that exposed a military cover-up responsible for the deaths and disease of thousands of American citizens. After the death of his daughter to a rare case of leukemia, Master Sergeant Jerry Ensminger investigated deeper into the cause of her death. What he stumbled upon is one of the worst water contamination sites in US history, suppressed from the American public for decades. Semper Fi followed Ensminger's perseverance to hold the government accountable for its actions. 

Ensminger's presence after the screening, as well as that of his fellow activists, elicited raucous applause from the audience. Rather than questions, he was met with a parade of endorsements. "You're a great American," said one audience member. 

To further contextualize the program, the festival hosted a collection of panels, one of which was called, "Are Documentaries Changing the World?" Dan Cogan, executive director and co-founder of Impact Partners, broke down social issue documentaries into three components: (1) great works of cinema; (2) opportunities for community engagement; and (3) source material for political campaigns. The majority of the social issue docs featured in the festival struck a perfect balance among all three. For the ones that didn't, Cogan had this to say: "If you're not a storyteller, you're not an activist."

The festival also included films that challenged the very premises of documentary. Bombay Beach, winner of the World Documentary Competition, paralleled the lives of three subjects--a bipolar child, an aspiring football player and an 80-year old poet/prophet--all living around the Salton Sea in southern California. Director Alma Har'el, who previously worked in music videos, applied her sensibilities to a tone poem containing aspects of nonfiction and performance. Using songs by Bob Dylan and Beirut, she lends an anachronistic quality to the Salton Sea. Once a breeding ground for tourists and now a toxic lake surrounded by relics of another time, it becomes a otherworldy space for imagination.


From Alma Har'el's Bombay Beach, which won Best Documentary Feature honors. Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival


Nancy Schafer, the executive director of the Tribeca Film Festival, spoke on its evolution: "For these first few years after 9/11, our guiding principle [is] that cinema can heal our community. This focus on the power of cinema to foster change is still what Tribeca is at its roots."

Whatever concerns some might have about the direction the festival has taken over the years, Tribeca hosted a collection of films that demonstrated that documentary is alive and well. 


Daniel James Scott is a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker based in Brooklyn. He is originally from Los Angeles, and also contributes essays and criticism to Filmmaker Magazine and Cinespect (