In early 2002, when the Lower Manhattan playpen of limos, canapés, and rent-priced grappa was still dusted with toxic ash, Robert De Niro’s fledgling Tribeca Film Festival was handed a plum role: supporting altruist. This year, the 200-plus-film, second annual multi-venue event is understandably preoccupied with issues of inclusion, wondering how to continue nudging competitive programs into the cred-zone, congratulating neighbors who didn’t decamp to Rye, generating Hollywood frisson for Bob-spotters who fancy themselves the popcorn set, and, through an extensive documentary program, show solidarity with the world’s most shat-upon.
While several flicks—from Detroit band-opic MC5: A True Testimonial to the tag-tastic Style Wars/Style Wars Revisited to Michael Almereyda’s Nolte-Shepard backstage procedural, This So-Called Disaster—explore the creative process, most festival docs are tours of despair. Skewing toward the cable-ready, films about the plight of sex slaves in India (Andrew Levine’s The Day My God Died, narrated by Tim Robbins with poetry cloyingly read by Winona Ryder) and Kurds in northern Iraq (the meandering Baghdad On/Off) might help contextualize downtown’s more tenuous pity-parties, though they can also seem a little like nose-pokes into disenfranchised lives, playing paparazzi to the poor.
None more so than tabloid-souled Nick Broomfield’s Aileen, revisiting Jeb-executed Florida inmate Aileen Wuornos—the subject of his 1992 The Selling of a Serial Killer. Thankfully, his fumbling inquiries barrel into a powerful S.C.U.M. manifesto. (Wuornos’s gothic tales of early abuse are emblematized by the story of a neighborhood pedophile who would peel open chicken eggs just before they hatched, killing the embryonic chicks.)
Vulnerability into violence also defines Liz Garbus’s Girlhood, the story of two Baltimore girls in detention, one of whom, raped and pregnant by 11, killed a friend in a knife fight at 12. Girlhood producer Rory Kennedy’s own entry, A Boy’s Life, follows a snap-spaz kid in Mississippi who requires separation from his sadistic grandmother. This damaged “Mamaw” is as riveting as Wuornos, another wrecked beauty who finds release in scattershot brutality.
Women suffer a still worse fate in And Along Came a Spider, Maziar Bahari’s investigation of an Iranian family man who, after murdering 16 women in Tehran, called himself an “anti-street-woman activist.” Bahari talks to both victims’ children and the killer’s family, who consider him a martyr. Iran is also the setting for Moslem Mansouri’s sometimes playful but still distressing Trial, a lo-fi art-under-repression account of a group of villagers shooting films without a license.
Stateside hustle is captured in Maxie Collier’s Paper Chasers, a trip to hip-hop hubs in search of once poor entrepreneurs now living large. Not your standard celebrity crib-crawl, Collier’s film documents his crew’s process while tracking subjects ranging from New Orleans cassette hawkers to Fat Joe and Damon Dash—laying bare machinations from grant to finish. The obvious lack of shot-calling women in hip-hop is underscored by the power-flip that results when Collier’s girlfriend (who handles the “making of” shooting) ends up a single mom by film’s end. —Laura Sinagra
For its out-of-competition Showcase, Tribeca presents newer titles straight from Berlin (Distant Lights, Madame Brouette) and sneaks of the soon-to-be-released (Ken Loach’s Sweet Sixteen, the ubiquitously popular Whale Rider); the bulk of the program is a globe-trotting selection of 2002’s festival faves.
One standout is A Tale of a Naughty Girl, Indian director Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s look at a Bengali caught between tradition and a new life, as her aging-prostitute mother seeks to sell her to a lecherous movie-theater owner, who will serve as patron to both. Using often jaw-dropping deep focus, Dasgupta’s examination of the quest for personal freedom proves him to be a lyrical humanist without peer.
Showing more skin, albeit of a wrinkled kind, Too Young to Die transposes the Iranian conceit of real-life reconstruction to randy South Korea: Two 70-year-olds fall in love, then go at it like bunnies. Initially banned at home, Park Jin-Pyo’s film is both tender and absurd, a tension best expressed by the virile husband’s habit of keeping track of their sexual exploits on a calendar. Also on the once banned list: Flying With One Wing is a weird, deadpan Sri Lankan twist on Boys Don’t Cry.
More intentionally ridiculous, Jeff Lau’s Chinese Odyssey 2002 is a mirror image of a Wong Kar-wai film, produced by the man himself, and reuniting Chungking Express paramours Tony Leung and little-seen-since Faye Wong, still pixie sweet. With jokey voice-overs and a plot that progresses toward a realization of intoxicating love, this Ming Dynasty story of a princess on the run in drag shows that WKW occasionally does more than keep actors in the lurch between productions.
Making its first local appearance, Lucas Belvaux’s La Trilogie is an ambitious project comprising three films (thriller, comedy, melodrama), designed to be seen together and resonate as an imagined fourth film—if you make it that far. Belvaux should first concentrate on making one film with some level of depth.
Guy Maddin’s sensational Cowards Bend the Knee, available at Tribeca as an installation, also gets a new life as a big-screen projection. The mythomaniacal Maddin’s alter ego (played by Darcy Fehr) is a hockey sniper made lily-livered by mother and daughter femmes fatales. Lurid moments of impulsive violence and carnivorous sexuality lend Maddin’s bewitchingly onanistic work the sublime naughtiness of an antique, hand-cranked skin flick. —Mark Peranson
Many critics have pondered what makes a good film good, but what about the less glamorous conundrum of what makes a bad film bad? Tribeca’s feature film competition offers an excellent case study. Some notes-toward,then (avoiding merely unremarkable entries like the Tunisian-French drama The Bookstore or Chinese pop-vid experiment Chicken Poets in favor of the exceptionally unfit):
1. The American Indie, Buy the Numbers. No surer testament to Sundance’s poisonous trickle-down could be found than levelland, Clark Walker’s Dogtown-does-Disney Channel coming-of-ager. Twentysomething actors portraying bleach-blond high school skateboarders “bro” their way through a dim echo of Larry Clark’s Ken Park tadpoling plot. The Midwestern look is all strip malls and gas stations—copped Mike Mills, minus talent.
2. The Log Cabin Republican Syndrome, Writ Large. Apparently cast from the Abercrombie & Fitch catalog’s Hebrew edition, the Israeli gay military romance Yossi & Jagger provides bitter proof that liberal and conservative politics are caving in on one another. The über-cute, coed platoon joshes through shenanigans as if their mountain outpost were a dorm room. The “enemy” is unseen—a pure, nonhuman force. The idea that the viewer is freethinking enough to swallow the pandering closet-case romance but unable to face political reality bespeaks the bad-faith hallmarks of the age of liberal empire.
3. Old Clichés Never Die, They Just Go Digital. No noir trick is too shopworn for Ramin Niami’s Paris, a pathetic American-set DV policier featuring affectless former child star Chad Allen and Chinese pinup Bai Ling: cheap motels, gold-hearted whores, bitter ex-cops, a cash-stuffed duffel bag, and a smoky poker game that erupts in slo-mo gunfire.
4. Neofakeism: The New Neorealism. Italy birthed documentary-inflected neorealism as a form of of post-war arte povera. The Afghan-French Nilofar in the Rain attempts same with DV, to confusing, unsteady effect. So terrible it’s fascinating, Fire Dancer is an Afghan-American identity pic completed after director Jawed Wassel’s brutal killing in October 2001 (his producer has been charged with the murder). Fire Dancer struggles to articulate an ultra-low-budget 21st-century aesthetic, slapping together a hodgepodge of home-movie acting(-out), sub-Bollywood fantasy, soap-opera romance, and film-schooly Scorsese/Spike Lee nods. Yet, somehow, this global-pop ripoff conveys true heart and tough reality through the cheesiest means. It succeeds because, unlike much of this lineup, it knows it has a reason to exist. —Ed Halter
Among the half-dozen restorations of great interest at Tribeca, UCLA historian Janet Bergstrom has assembled an invaluable program with “Murnau’s 4 Devils—Traces of a Lost Film.” All prints have vanished of F.W. Murnau’s 1928 circus drama, the German director’s second American film, made just after his masterpiece, Sunrise—it’s perhaps the most important lost film of all time. Bergstrom evokes this ghost movie through materials documenting its production and reception, stills, and stunning art-director sketches.
Victor Schertzinger’s Redskin (1929), one of Paramount’s last silents, is one of the rare movies of its period to offer a sympathetic portrait of Native Americans. This meticulous Library of Congress restoration brings out its prettiness, but can’t avoid the somewhat artificial look of two-color Technicolor. The UCLA Archive’s restoration of Joseph Mankiewicz’s acerbic film à clef The Barefoot Contessa (1954) was not available for preview; nor was legendary UCLA archivist Robert Gitt’s program, “Charles Laughton Directs The Night of the Hunter,” composed of rushes and outtakes from the actor’s sole directorial effort, a flop in 1955 but now regarded as an American classic. (Gitt’s program is followed by the original film; Film Forum repeats the bill on May 8.)
Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), the spaghetti western that catapulted Clint Eastwood to stardom, was cut by 20 minutes for its release here. The restoration of an English-language version required some redubbing, and posed a problem for MGM’s John Kirk, since Lee Van Cleef (the Bad) had died in 1989—his lines were handled by a voice-over artist. (This version will also play Film Forum starting May 30.) Leone’s most ambitious film, Once Upon a Time in America (1984), was an epic poem at its original 227-minute European release, and a bewildering shambles when cut by 90 minutes for U.S. release—the shorter version seemed endless because the internal structure had been removed. This somber, hallucinatory reinvention of the American gangster movie will be shown as intended, uncut and on the big screen at Tribeca. —Elliott Stein