But lose the red carpet
In a recent interview, co-founder Robert De Niro characterized the Tribeca Film Festival as an event that “brings together people who are really interested in film-making in one place where they can meet and share ideas. It’s not just for the general public, although they do come too; it’s a place with a heavy concentration of film-makers.” It’s an ideal the TFF, which can sometimes feel like a photo-op for every celebrity passing through the city, has yet to meet. The organizers did make some canny moves this year, most crucially reducing the number of features to 120, nearly 40 fewer than in 2007. That these were culled from 2,300 films from 41 countries affirms the TFF’s growing stature and, more important, greater discretion. The chaos of other years was somewhat tamed by locating most of the screenings near Union Square, a good move toward making it more accessible. Though De Niro is right about gathering film-makers, the “general public” ultimately determines a film’s success. Timed shortly after Berlin, just before Cannes and in direct competition with Sundance and the New York Film Festival, the TFF still seems unsure of itself. With fewer venues for non-mainstream and foreign films, New York City needs a wide-ranging, rambling, surprising, provocative festival, a demand TFF could meet if it were just a little less in thrall to the red carpet.
As in previous years, the documentary selections showed not only selectivity but daring. Among the best was Rosa von Praunheim’s Two Mothers, in which this master of reinvention finds himself trumped by his own mother. Aware that he had been born in Riga, Latvia, von Praunheim only found out in his late fifties that he had been adopted. Despite nothing much to go on but his mother’s sketchy end-of-life memory of a “German children’s home,” von Praunheim set off to Riga to find his birth parents. Mercifully, von Praunheim’s curiosity matches his humor, trouncing the many opportunities for sheer self-indulgence with wry asides such as his realization, at a Riga garden party, that “everyone here could be related to me.” Aided by miracle-working researchers, von Praunheim ultimately traces his birth mother by way of one of his own diapers, duly noted in the orphanage’s records. A telling examination of the limits of reinvention, the tale of Two Mothers leaves von Praunheim with the distressing possibility that his father was a particularly virulent SS officer — or not. In a perfect antidote to the false comforts of looking to the past to explain the present, von Praunheim leaves the question open, concluding that he’s not really sure “how much I really want to know.”
Personal histories also played out against a larger backdrop in Algeria, Unspoken Stories. Director Jean-Pierre Lledo’s mammoth undertaking (the film runs 160 minutes) details four people’s stories in four cities (Skikda, Constantine, Oran and Algiers) to trace the country’s difficult history from the 133 years of French rule (which ended in 1962) and subsequent one-party regime, which culminated in civil war from 1992 through 2002, or the “decade of terror.” Each of the four narrators number relatives among the 160,000 people who died during the ten-year conflict. Keeping the pace slow and often using voice-over to convey the complications of a once quite diverse population now riven with externally imposed divisions of Arab and European, Muslim and non-Muslim, Lledo remains both sympathetic and reporterly, making a successful case for the film’s important elucidation of a country too long shrouded in secrecy.
Against massive odds, director Mohamed Al-Daradji managed to return to his native Baghdad to make his much-lauded feature Ahlaam in 2004. War, Love, God & Madness details the making of that film. Working under totally insecure conditions, with kidnapping or death very real threats, Al-Daradji set about trying to contribute toward “rebuilding cultural life in Iraq.” The comparatively limited scale of his project — he is not, after all, trying to bring democracy or freedom, just make a movie — reveals the side of Baghdad news reports can’t reach: the ways in which a warped form of everyday life persists no matter what the conditions. Whether dealing with bureaucracy so convoluted even the Catch-22s have catches, or trying to limit the antics of an over-zealous extra, Al-Daradji shows without telling the chaos that is daily life in his home city. There are also absurdist moments, such as when a mother shows up with her daughter for an audition, explaining that the girl is there “because she is bored,” even as the choppers drone overhead and gunfire is heard in the distance. Or the time during filming a scene in an empty lot when he scrawled in the dirt: Dear Mr. Pilot don’t make a stupid mistake. With the film nearly finished, several members of the crew were kidnapped, bouncing from insurgents to the Iraqi police to the American army, while Al-Daradji and the rest of the team waited in suspense. A third of those who worked on the film fled the country just after they wrapped. Even screening the film meant dazzling border guards with alleged Al-Jazeera affiliation to discourage them searching the van and confiscating Ahlaam. Al-Daradji’s wry observation that only one letter separates the Arabic word for God, love or war sets the tone for his heartbreaking documentary, which adds an important missing dimension to the several films about the tattered state of contemporary Iraq.
The trial of Slobodan Milosevic, begun in 2002 and concluded with Milosevic’s death in 2006, was the largest war crimes trial since Nuremberg. It took Danish director Michael Christoffersen ten months to obtain permission to film the trial and to interview the key players (prosecutor Geoffrey Nice, Milosevic advisor Dragoslav Ogjnanovic, court-assigned counsel to Milosevic, Steven Kay and Gillian Higgins). Concisely presented and superbly edited, Milosevic on Trial assumes a level of interest and awareness on the part of its audience that mainstream American news has done its best to eradicate. The complexity of the case is perhaps best summed up by Geoffrey Nice: “The problem with these trials is pretty stark. If you have 80,000 people being deported or falsely transferred, how many witnesses do you need? If it’s 800,000, how many witnesses do you need to prove that? The judges, it may be, only want or need enough evidence to enable them to make a conclusion that they’re happy with. The victims want their story told.” Milosevic on Trial makes elegant use of screen divides and wipes to keep its mostly talking-head format from monotony. Succinct, essential and revelatory, Milosevic on Trial exemplifies the importance of documentaries to reveal the nuances of stories too easily lost in the need to make headlines.
Although the (much sunnier) story behind Man on Wire is also well known, the resulting documentary, directed by James Marsh, was the absolute delight of the festival. This account of Frenchman Philippe Petit’s tightrope dance between the World Trade Center towers on August 7, 1974 is equally a biography of this remarkable self-taught artist and an account of the “coup” itself. Despite the intervening years and the violent disappearance of the Towers, Man on Wire feels remarkably of the moment, as if what is being recalled were actually taking place during the filming. Petit’s obsession with the project began even before the Towers existed, his interest sparked by a magazine article on their proposed construction. Methodically, he honed his skills, making a living off street performances, with secret tightrope walking at Notre Dame and Sydney Harbour Bridge, themselves spectacular but ultimately dwarfed by the World Trade feat. Charismatic and vibrant, Petit commands on-screen attention even with both feet on the ground. “It’s impossible,” he says at a certain point to his team, “so let’s start working.” This rag-tag assembly of French friends and New York contacts, including Barry Greenhouse the “inside man,” who worked on the 82nd floor of one of the Towers, are as essential to Petit’s success (and a lot less reliable) as the wire itself. Of the eight people who helped Petit, two welshed out, one on the very eve of the walk, but such disappointments were overshadowed by the invaluable help of his best friend, Jean-Louis Blondeau, whose many contributions include solving the problem of stringing the wire with a bow and arrow. Man on Wire offers a rare and engaging view of the process of making a work of art, in this case hugely complicated by the need for utter secrecy. The result was transformative for Petit, who virtually shed his entire life and began anew in New York City (where he still lives most of the time), but also for the city itself. The shots of incredulous New Yorkers taking in what they can hardly believe are a powerful contrast to now all too familiar images of the Towers’ collapse. Kurt Vonnegut said, “a plausible mission of artists is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit. [When] asked if I know of any artists who pulled that off, I reply, ‘The Beatles did.'” In the faces of those fortunate enough to be downtown that day, it’s evident that Philippe Petit did as well.
Pray the Devil Back to Hell also managed to feel more immediate than historical. Director Gini Reticker traced the transformation of Leymah Gbowee from an ordinary Liberian woman to an unstoppable force as she gathered Christian and Muslim women to oust dictator Charles Taylor. Since he came to power in 1997, more than 250,000 people lost their lives, while more than a million were displaced. Having witnessed two civil wars in which Taylor’s minions “could do anything because they had guns,” Gbowee drew inspiration from Martin Luther King and peacefully brought legions of women together. When asked if working with Muslims wouldn’t “dilute” her message, Gbowee replied that a bullet doesn’t know Christians from Muslims. By the time Taylor and his adversaries held peace talks in Ghana, over 2,500 white turbaned and T-shirted women formed a human barricade, refusing to move until peace was brokered. Masterfully edited by Kate Taverna, Pray the Devil Back to Hell incorporated archival footage with interviews with the principals of the movement, the result bracing testimony to the strength of numbers even in the face of apparently limitless power.
Pickings were a lot slimmer among the fiction features, though Andrzej Wajda’s Katyn proved an exception. Chronicling the mass execution ordered by the Soviets in 1940 in which 22,000 officers and civilians are estimated to have died in the Katyn forest, the film deals with an aspect of Polish history only relatively recently set to rights. During the Communist era, Katyn was routinely ascribed to the Nazis. Not until files were made available in 1989 was the Polish public set straight, and not until 1992 did Boris Yeltsin affirm that Stalin had ordered the massacre, which effectively wiped out the intellectual elite that might have successfully defeated Soviet rule. The film, which traces four different families, opens on a bridge where two groups of refugees meet, each fleeing in a different direction and from a different oppressor, perfectly encapsulating Poland’s no-win situation. In its inexorable march to the already-known end, Katyn pays as much attention to the women left behind as to their doomed men; as they try to hold on to scraps of their old life — the illusion that a husband will be furloughed, or that arrest might not mean death — they show the ways in which invasion and the war stripped life down to mere survival. The film ends in what feels almost like a slow-motion version of the massacre (the actual slaughter took several weeks and many people to finish), culminating in a black screen. Wajda has a direct connection — his father was among those murdered — but it’s clear that this is a communal rather than a personal odyssey. Challenged by an interviewer about why he bothered to make Katyn now, Wajda said he wanted to reach “those moviegoers for whom it matters that we are a society, and not just an accidental crowd.”
“Accidental crowd” could be applied to Delphine Kreuter’s debut feature 57,000 Kilometers Between Us. The whirling narrative centers on a family who mediates its malfunctioning through camcorders, blogs, the Internet, anything but facing each other. Nat (Marie Burgun) lives with her newly remarried mother, Margot (Florence Thomassin), and stepfather, Michel (Pascal Bongard), who is determined to record every moment of everyone in the household. Hidden away in her room, Nat tries to maintain a connection to her transsexual father, now Nicole (Stephanie Michelini) and husband Khaled (Mohamed Rouabhi). She has a budding online romance with fellow teenager Adrien (Hadrien Bouvier), isolated in a cancer ward, and a more troubled link with a man (Mathieu Amalric) happiest in diapers. The description brings to mind the contrived kinkiness of generically edgy movies, but photographer and video artist Kreuter never falls back on the merely quirky. Relying on hand-held cameras and alternating between digital video and film, she makes the viewer feel just as disoriented as the characters do. Often difficult to watch, 57,000 Kilometers Between Us is a bleak dispatch on where unchecked access to technology leads. Although Kreuter has concentrated several pathologies into one family, none of the situations particularly strains credulity: they’re on offer to anyone who cares to trawl the Internet. Perhaps most chilling is Adrien’s well-to-do mother who chooses to turn off her screen for her nightly camcorder dinners with her chemo-bald teenage son. Dressed up at formal place setting, she talks to the blank screen in an image worthy of Bunuel.
Equally though differently difficult was Elite Squad, Jose Padilha’s second feature. Set in among Rio de Janeiro’s BOPE (Special Police Operations Battalion), a special operations group known for excessive force, the story revolves around Captain Roberto Nascimento (Wagner Moura), in his thirties and a father-to-be who needs to replace himself on the squad. The choice narrows to two candidates, Neto (Caio Junqueira) and Matias (André Ramiro), and the film is an account of how Nascimento trains them and which one succeeds him. The BOPE keeps brutal order in the chaos of drug dealing favelas that cover the hills above the seemingly tranquil and carefree Ipanema and Copacabana beaches, frequently torturing their suspects, extracting information using nothing more than a plastic bag and a broomstick. Padilha uses the conventions of action pictures to show a world so violent it’s no longer about good and bad guys, but about people marooned in an undeclared war. Physically exhausting, even nauseating to watch, the film details the harsh struggle between the police and the criminals, the latter greatly enabled by their upper-class clientele who obliviously perpetrate a cycle that seems impossible to break. Not that Padilha lionizes the police; no one comes off especially well, especially the fatuous wealthy unwilling to connect their recreational drugs with the mayhem of the favela. The film is based on Elite da Tropa by sociologist Luiz Eduardo Soares and two former BOPE captains, André Batista and Rodrigo Pimentel, with nothing exaggerated. In a country where the chasm between wealth and poverty gapes wide, the complicated reasons for the seemingly unchecked violence have their roots in every level of the society, even though, as the film makes clear, it’s the poor who pay the highest price. Rio happens to be a more violent city than most for the moment, but like many dire movies in the past few years (Tzameti 13, Paradise Now, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu), Stateside parallels are not so hard to find.
Violence of a different sort underlies Boy A, directed by John Crowley. The child criminal known only as Boy A (Andrew Garfield), now 24, is released after a 14-year prison stint to begin life anew as Jack Burridge, with only his parole officer Terry (Peter Mullan) aware of his real identity. The film opens at their first meeting. Garfield is discombobulated, with the wide-eyed eagerness of a newborn. It’s a deft performance, conveying absolutely the extreme bewilderment of a schoolboy abruptly shunted into the body of a young man. With his body, his gestures and especially his mouth, he shows the constant fear of exposure with which the creation Jack Burridge lives. Peter Mullan registers both Terry’s encouragement of and resistance to Jack’s inevitable filial attachment, which is made all the more difficult when Terry’s similarly aged son lands on his doorstep. As the girlfriend Jack slowly courts and to whom he longs to reveal his secret, Katie Lyons gives a first-rate performance. Disclosure comes from the most unlikely source: witness to a car accident, Jack heroically saves the life of a young girl. The glare of celebrity brings his past to light, his earlier crime too heinous for society to ignore.
Though admittedly melodramatic, Boy A manages to touch on many questions about punishment and rehabilitation; about the weight of bad deeds versus good; and, discomfiting to the viewer, about the unwillingness of ordinary people to see beyond the headlines, to question what they themselves might be capable of in the heat of the moment.