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Tribeca Film Festival Brings Out Fresh Batch of Doc Premieres

By Daniel James Scott

There was plenty to look forward to at the 11th Tribeca Film Festival. More than 30 documentaries played in competition and non-competition sections, many making their North American, International or World Premieres. Amidst the discoveries were films continuing their successful festival runs-including Malik Bendjelloul's Searching for Sugar Man from Sundance and Chris Kenneally's Side by Side from Berlinale. Anticipation on high, I was disappointed to find that I'd have to stream most of these films at home. Perhaps it was because of the festival's increasing popularity that access to screenings this year was such a problem. But the numbers indicate otherwise. Approximately 380,000 people attended, in contrast to last year's 430,000. Still respectable, as the mile-long rush lines demonstrated.

Grievance aside, High Tech, Low Life was one of the several films I was able to secure tickets for. The documentary explores the potential of technology (the Internet and cameras in particular) to challenge hierarchical systems of power. Directed by Stephen Maing, High Tech, Low Life follows two Chinese "citizen reporters" as they blog about injustices that would otherwise be suppressed by their government's regime. "Zola," in his early 20s, covers underreported issues that both highlight government corruption and feed his own persona. "Tiger Temple," 30 years older, is more humble and likens his work to activism. Both risk imprisonment or worse as they try to circumvent China's "Great Firewall," the primary mechanism through which the government censors information. Jumping between the bloggers' footage, propagandistic broadcasts and beautiful imagery of the Chinese countryside, Maing follows his subjects as they find their stories. Both reporters fall under the scrutiny of the government. "Zola" is prevented from leaving the country to attend a blogger's convention in Germany. "Tiger Temple" is forced to leave Beijing for the Chinese New Year. Presented as counterpoints, the two represent an internal division in the country where the relationship between the individual and the state is forever in flux. 


From Stephen Maing's High Tech, Low Life


Meanwhile on our nation's shores, The Revisionaries explores the tension between state and federal powers. Earning a Special Jury Mention for Best Documentary Feature, the film lands us in the tense, albeit dry, space of public hearing rooms, where the Texas State Board of Education embarks on its once-in-a-decade task of rewriting the textbook standards for its nearly five million schoolchildren. However, its decisions not only affect the schoolchildren of Texas, but schoolchildren across the entire nation. Because Texas is one of the largest buyers of textbooks, its purchases mean huge returns for textbook publishers. Since other publishers base their textbooks on the requirements of the largest buyers, the Texas Board of Education exercises a considerable influence over what is taught in the nation's classrooms. All of this would not be significant if the Board of Education didn't strive to incorporate creationism into school curriculums. First-time director Scott Thurman produces an engaging--and enraging--portrait of the science/religion debate. Casting the Board's former chairman, Don McLeroy, as his central character, he gives the man generous space to express his beliefs. (McLeroy, also a dentist, indoctrinates his patients while they're immobile under lights and sharp objects.) As a counterpoint, Thurman casts Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, whose mission is to challenge the efforts of the religious right to impinge on individual liberties. From what could be a very dry movie--comprised of public hearings, talking heads and armchair debates between middle-aged white men--Thurman makes electrifying. Deftly edited and scored, The Revisionaries presents a sober portrait of a conversation too often muddled by partisan rhetoric.

It's often said that documentaries are made in the editing room. However, there are ways of preparing yourself that take the pressure off post-production. The role of writing in documentary was discussed in the "Biography on Film" panel, which included filmmakers Petter Ringbom (The Russian Winter), Ramona S. Diaz (Don't Stop Believin': Everyman's Journey) and Andreas Koefoed (Ballroom Dancer). All filmmakers produced terrific works that centered on music or dance performers, and all differed in their approaches to writing. Koefoed, whose Ballroom Dancer tracks the comeback of former World Latin Dance Champion Slavik Kryklyvyy, emphasized the importance of writing to his process. "Of course, we had this natural structure: This guy tries to win back his title," he explained. "But we couldn't say if he was going to succeed or not." So Koefoed and co-director Christian Bonke worked with a script doctor to anticipate the outcomes of the story. "Sometimes when you shoot documentaries you can get lost in reality," Koefoed continued. "But if you try to write the best possible scenes [in advance], then you're ready when they actually appear." Receiving a Special Jury Mention in the Best New Documentary Director category, Ballroom Dancer unfolds just like a narrative, with scenes building upon each other with no need for added context. Those who doubt the value of writing in documentaries should look no further than here.


From Andreas Koefoed and Christian Bonke's Ballroom Dancer, which won a Special Jury Mention in the New Documentary Director category.


Winning the Best Feature Documentary Award, The World Before Her beholds a country on the brink of change. The film divides its attention between the Miss India beauty pageant and an annual fundamentalist camp for young girls. Director Nisha Pahuja parallels the stories of Ruhi, a Miss India hopeful set on fleeing a crushingly patriarchal society, and Prachi, a dogmatic follower of the Durgha Vahini, the women's wing of the so-called "Hindu Taliban." Just as there's little cohesion between the two sets in real life, there is no cohesion between the two sections of the film. Indeed, The World Before Her plays like a mashup of two different stories connected only by location. However, that disconnect works as much for the film as against it. Director Nisha Pahuja mines both halves with equal fascination, contrasting two very different kinds of discipline without placing a value judgment on either one. All of the films' subjects articulate their views with passion and clarity of thought, especially the beauty pageant contestants. The resulting film reveals as much about Western culture as it does about Indian culture. 


From Nisha Pahuja's The World Before Her, which won the Best Documentary Feature Award.


 On the opposite end of seriousness--though not entirely-is Journey to Planet X. Directed by Myles Kane and Josh Koury, the film follows amateur sci-fi filmmakers Eric Swain and Troy Bernier as they set out to make their most ambitious film yet: Planet X. Eric and Troy are both full-time scientists--an engineer and a geologist, respectively. But on the weekends they make no-budget green-screen epics that strive for some combination of Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. Fueled by nothing but sheer passion, the two are gearing up for a more concerted entry into the film industry. Kane and Koury, co-founders of the Brooklyn Underground Film Festival, first stumbled upon Eric and Troy's work in the form of a neon orange VHS tape that they received as a submission. The two were initially struck by the film's absurdity. But on deeper reflection, they recognized the integrity at its center. Journey to Planet X works in a similar way. We first see the merits of Eric and Troy's past collaborations--being whisked away to a world of cosmic villains, interstellar warfare and medieval monsters. Then we delve into the production process of their next movie--a grueling process, like any. What ensues is hilarious, to be sure (unwieldy camerawork, production disasters, phony French accents, et al). But Koury and Kane resist the temptation to satirize their subjects, instead elevating them to the status they desire--and perhaps deserve. In the end, Journey to Planet X explores the ideas of art, professionalism and the filmmaker-subject relationship.

That relationship provided the basis for "The Pen Versus The Sword" panel, which included filmmakers Stephen Maing (High Tech, Low Life) and Raymond De Felitta (Booker's Place: A Mississippi Story). In Booker's Place: A Mississippi Story, ethical considerations constitute both the story and the meta-story. The film centers on a rare piece of footage shot by the director's father at the dawn of the civil rights movement. The footage is of Booker Wright, an African-American waiter who worked at a segregated restaurant, delivering an incendiary speech about the realities of being black in the South. De Felitta's father, an NBC newsman, had to decide whether to include the footage in his film, knowing that doing so would endanger Booker's life. With Booker's insistence, he did--and his fears became a reality. "Each time you do a documentary," Frank De Felitta said, "you come up against the same thing: There's a moment where you go, 'This is good for my film. But is this necessary to do to this person?'" That question occurred to the director when he enlisted the help of Booker's granddaughters. "There was definitely a moment when I asked myself, 'What's my responsibility to this family? And what's my responsibility to this story?'" In the end, everyone concluded on the importance of doing justice to history. "History is a great story," De Felitta said, "and it's simply not taught as a great story...If you create history as a story, it will live on and it will explain itself."

Without a doubt, the most mesmerizing documentary of the festival was Wavumba. Literally translated as "They who smell of fish," Wavumba won director Jeroen van Velzen the Best New Documentary Director Award. The film tells a real life, old-man-and-the-sea tale set in Kenya. The old man is Masoud, a self-described legend of shark fishing. Crotchety yet youthful, Masoud speaks at length about his epic contests with ocean beasts. Director van Velzen, who spent his childhood in Kenya before leaving for English boarding school, heightens the grandeur of these stories with admiring voiceover. His respect for the man borders on worship, which would be irritating if it didn't come off so genuine. One gets the sense that he is vicariously experiencing the wide-eyed fascination of his youth through his subject. And so are we. The director accompanies Masoud and his reluctant assistant, Juma, on their outings to sea. The patience essential to fishing seeps into the film's pace. Lengthy silences are abbreviated by the mystical tales of Kenyan shamans. Not wholly related to the subject matter, these stories serve as forays into the otherworldly space that the film so eloquently establishes.  


From Jeroen van Velzen's Wavumbu, which won the Best New Documentary Director Award. 



Daniel James Scott is a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker. Based in Brooklyn, he writes for Filmmaker magazine, Cinespect and other publications.