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Eclecticism on Display at Tribeca Film Festival

By Patricia Aufderheide

At the Tribeca Film Festival, good luck trying to get a bead on the kind of longform documentary you'll find. It could be a hard-hitting, alarming doc like James Spione's superb Silenced, which describes the Obama-era prosecution of whistleblowers as leakers and even potentially terrorists. Or maybe it's a poetic meditation, like Andrew Renzi's deliberately slow-film-style Fishtail, in which you trudge along with cattlemen birthing calves in what seems like real time as both poetry and music cast the experience as art. Possibly it's a sturdy, no-surprises HBO doc like All about Ann: Governor Richards of the Lone Star State, by Keith Patterson and Phillip Schopper, entertaining largely by virtue of archival footage of Richards' own awesome speeches. Or it could be a warm, nostalgic portrait of a legendary musician, Alan Hicks' Keep On Keepin' On, which won the Best New Documentary Director Award, as well as the Audience Award.

The eclectic nature of Tribeca is baked in; it was started as a fest intended to revitalize lower Manhattan, post-9/11, and has been evolving slowly toward a stylistic and thematic identity. This year, the festival boldly made a claim (for which it will have to fight other fests, including SXSW and Sheffield) to be the center of storytelling innovation, in heralding its second half as "Innovation Week." Nonetheless, the longform docs were a mix of tried-and-true and innovative.

Some films picked up on hot topics. Among the remarkable documentaries showcased at Tribeca this year were films about surveillance and dissent. On this all-too-relevant theme, the films picked up different facets of a problem so pervasive it threatens to sink citizens' optimism in the core features of democracy. "It's easy to despair," says Silenced's Spione. "They're listening to everything we say. But I didn't want to make that movie. I wanted to feature several people who were idealistic enough to actually believe in the democratic promise—real patriots—to do what hundreds of their colleagues would not: blow the whistle." His character portraits are also journeys into hell for his characters, charged with spying and threatened with loss of fundamental freedom. "I want us to ask, ‘What country are we living in? Do we recognize this as a democracy?'" Spione maintains.


From James Spione's Silenced. Courtesy of Morninglight Films, Inc.


Johanna Hamilton's 1971, with Laura Poitras on board as co-executive producer, showcases a protest group's burglary of a regional FBI office, where documents pointing to the infamous COINTELPRO program first surfaced. The film has bold echoes with today, as Hamilton notes: "Perhaps we're poised to contribute to the national conversation started by Snowden. Forty-three years ago, these people did the same thing. The government was functioning in secret. If they had been caught, they would have been called traitors. With the hindsight of 43 years, it's much easier to see them as patriots. If they are the safe space to embark on that conversation, then I'll be incredibly happy." In the curiously cool HBO doc The Newburgh Sting, David Heilbroner and Kate Davis tell a story that is getting disturbingly familiar: of FBI entrapment, targeting the poor and hapless among US Muslim religious communities. 

Tribeca programmers found some impressive examples of cinema vérité worldwide. Despite its default status, cinema vérité stylistically remains difficult to do compellingly. How compellingly? Well, Belgian filmmakers Sabine Lubbe Bakker and Neils van Koevorden managed to get me to watch 85 minutes of two middle-aged, lonely Belgian drunks in an on-again/off-again relationship, and not even complain. Oh, and the filmmakers also won the Best Documentary Editing award. French director Frédéric  Tcheng is on a roll with his third high-fashion documentary, Dior and I, charting the eight-week-long creation of the debut collection of the unlikely new Dior house head, Raf Simons. Even if you're a fashion Luddite, you will care about the people and the process. In fact, Dior and I might be one of the better workplace stories I've seen, in terms of celebrating the labor process from cutters to models. 


From Sabine Lubbe Bakker and Neils vanKoevorden's Ne Me Quitte Pas.


Jesse Moss' The Overnighters, familiar from other fests, continued to trouble and provoke with its almost too intimate portrait of a wrenching conflict in a boomtown. Should a Lutheran congregation open its doors to the wretched of the earth looking for a second chance in the new oilfields? The pastor says yes, his wife says I guess so, the congregation mostly says no. The tensions erupt into revelations that destroy lives. The camera is there for everything, including scenes that made me wonder if even I should be present. Tomorrow We Disappear, by first-timers Jimmy Goldblum and Adam Weber, creates instant nostalgia for a community of exuberant and astonishingly talented street artists whose neighborhood is facing inevitable extinction in Delhi. Kevin Gordon's True Son, about a political contender in blighted Stockton, California, features a powerful character whose optimism and savvy give hope to local politics.

Orlando von Einsiedel's Virunga is a majestic and tragic portrayal of the cost of political crisis in Congo, by following quietly heroic national park rangers (the head of whom recently survived an assassination attempt). They defend the park and its precious residents, the endangered mountain gorillas that exhibit enormous affection, wit and dexterity, against poachers and the innocent-bystander effects of brutal civil war. They sometimes pay with their lives. The film features, among other things, extraordinarily painterly portrayals of the park in landscape.


From Orlando von Einsiedel's Virunga. Photo: Orlando von Einsiedel


And what to do with Tonislav Hristov's Love & Engineering, which is already a hit in Scandinavia—and in fact part two in a trilogy? It's a step-by-step story of how one engineer tries to train his colleagues in social skills for wooing and winning women, awkwardly marrying engineering concepts to dating techniques. It's both embarrassing and fresh, labored and endearing. Of course it is: It's engineer-made cinema vérité.

Several films in the festival explored the aesthetics of the form in different ways. Both 1971 and Silenced interwove re-enactment, interview and vérité. Spione says of his choice of a bold black-and-white, stylized look for Silenced's re-enactments, "I wanted you to know this was a re-enactment. I pushed the style in a black-and-white, noirish way, so you would know this is about memory, but more than that, to see that this is a very threatening place. They were going into the shadow world, the heart of darkness. As an artist, it was important to me to take people where they hadn't been, and also where they didn't want to look." Johanna Hamilton, who worked with a team of fiction film people headed by Maureen Ryan, wanted a different experience: "I want people to live in the story, for it to be seamless. We used color and lighting as the trigger to bring you back into memory. It's not overt but it has its own look."


From Johanna Hamilton's 1971. Photo: Andreas Burgess


Regarding Susan Sontag, an HBO film by Nancy Kates, stood out for the complexity of its portrayal of a difficult character. John Haptas' editing was striking for its nuance, its communication of overlapping meanings, and its return to the theme of Sontag's technique of hiding in plain sight. It won a Special Jury Mention. Marshall Curry's Point and Shoot, which won the Best Documentary Feature prize, thoughtfully and wittily re-uses footage shot by Matthew VanDyke, a middle-class young man from Baltimore who tries to come into manhood by joining the rebellion in Libya, to tell a reflexive story about representation and reality.

The journey doc had a respectable showing at Tribeca. The Search for General Tso, by Ian Cheney, follows the director on a quest to discover the origins of this favorite dish in Chinese-American restaurants. In the process, Cheney discovers (partly through research done by Jennifer 8. Lee in her book The Fortune Cookie Chronicles) not only that General Tso's Chicken is not popular outside the US, but also that racism against Chinese-Americans is remarkably persistent and endemic. The evolution of Chinese-American restaurant practice maps nicely onto waves of persecution. Sounds tough, but instead the film remains wryly winsome. How did Cheney achieve a comic tone on a hand-wringing topic? "I think it's my sensibility," he maintains. "The premise is inherently quirky. We tried to set that tone in our interviews too."


From Ian Cheney's The Search for General Tso. Photo: Ian Cheney


Another even sunnier journey was Brent Hodge's A Brony Tale, following voice-actor Ashleigh Ball, who plays two of the My Little Pony animated cartoon characters, on a journey into fandom. For reasons the film actually cannot adequately explain (although it tries), My Little Pony attracts thousands of mostly hetero, mostly adult men, who form a passionate fan base. A Brony Tale was picked up on the eve of screening by the new Morgan Spurlock Presents series, a joint venture of Spurlock's Warrior Poets, Abramarama and Virgil Films that will showcase niche docs in a targeted theatrical rollout before releasing them on cable VOD. The other fandom film was Daniel Junge and Kief Davidson's Beyond the Brick: A LEGO Brickumentary, a relentlessly upbeat, corporate-approved view of crowdsourced creativity in toy innovation.

Other films would have to reach to find a place under the innovation umbrella, although they found their friends easily. Mala Mala, by Dan Sickles and Antonio Santini, could lay a claim to innovation largely on the basis of the subject matter: transvestites in Puerto Rico organizing to defend their rights. Jessica Yu's Misconception, comprised of three mini-docs, defies the conventional wisdom that population growth is a problem. Sam Cullman and Jennifer Grausman's Art and Craft is a well-told crime tale about a forger with a true passion for copying.

As usual, there was furious media speculation throughout the festival about sales, as the informal marketplace heated up. One thing seemed certain: The highest sales figure would go to Beyond the Brick.

Patricia Aufderheide is University Professor of Communication Studies in the School of Communication at American University, director of the Center for Media and Social Impact there, and author of Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press).