This sampling of the Tribeca Film Festival includes three documentaries and one drama. Two of quartet won awards. Untouchable earned director David Feige the Albert Maysles Award for Best New Documentary Director. Children of the Mountain was a runner-up for the audience award and the winner of Best New Narrative Director for Priscilla Anany. All of the following films illustrate the range of Tribeca, and they are four different examples of how filmmakers handle difficult subject matter (whether it’s hard to comprehend or hard to stomach).
Directed by David Feige
Untouchable does what great documentaries do: it presents a complicated issue in all its complexity, with compelling interview subjects who humanize the stakes at hand. It is urgent without becoming alarmist, and it points to a possible changing of hearts and minds without propagandizing. It just so happens that the subject at hand is the punishment of sex offenders, including child molesters, but the pain around the issue makes this film more necessary, not less so.
Ron Book, a powerful Florida lobbyist, is the central figure, along with his daughter Lauren, who was abused for years by the family nanny before becoming a powerful crusader for child safety (and newly-minted politician running for the Florida Senate). Interwoven around them is a spectrum of convicted sex offenders who bravely share stories of trying to recover their lives and the ways in which they are thwarted by harsh policies and prejudice. Equally moving is the testimony of family members of victims, some of whom believe that well-intentioned measures, such as the sex offender registry, have been transformed past their usefulness. Once intended for use purely by law enforcement, the registry is now public, which so far has caused much grief and no appreciable positive result.
Lauren Book offers the most hope in her resilience and in the way that she has allowed education to turn her away from the more hard-line views of her father, a man, the film can’t help but reveal, who is unfortunately and understandably haunted by what those who have not experienced his circumstances can hardly imagine.
Children of the Mountain
Written and directed by Priscilla Anany
Set in contemporary Ghana, this is the story of Essuman (Rukiyat Masud), proudly pregnant by her lover, Edjah (Adjetey Anang). Awkwardly, she lives next door to the woman Edjah left her for, and she takes the opportunity to crow when she can, feeling superior even to her best friend, the childless Asantewaa (Akofa Edjeani). All this pride comes crashing down when her son, Nuku, is born with a cleft lip. The condition can be repaired with surgery, but Essuman hasn’t the money.
The deformity horrifies Edjah, who disowns his son, and the community, which by and large clings to various superstitious beliefs, holds Essuman responsible for this “curse.” Distraught, Essuman at first abandons her child, then bears her burden, and grows to love him dearly. Unfortunately, more trouble is to come: when Nuku doesn’t develop like his peers, Essuman learns he has cerebral palsy and Down syndrome. Essuman falls down a rabbit-hole of fraud, paying more than she has to a street doctor, a preacher, and a medicine man.
Her odyssey is an emotional story, which occasionally dips into sentimentality, but it is anchored by a strong performance from Masud, who convincingly portrays a woman slowly and painfully developing her own autonomy. With a moving score and beautiful photography, this wise tale is also a personal one for writer/director Priscilla Anany. She drew in part on the life of her aunt and on the writing of a friend whose child was born with Down syndrome.
Directed by Johan Grimonprez
Based on 2011 book The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade by Andrew Feinstein
Objectivity takes a backseat to outrage in this damning and artful documentary about the world of arms dealer payola. At its center is a recent scandal involving the money trails leading to and from Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan. Reporters learned that British arms firm BAE Systems allegedly controlled a slush fund to take care of foreign magnates while deals were being negotiated. (Prince Bandar received a private jet as one perk, as reported by the Guardian.) The dirt extends far into the political world, with Mark Thatcher, son of the British prime minister, allegedly receiving 12 million in cash for his work as a fixer, for instance.
In fact, many politicians (represented mostly in wince-inducing sound bites) are tarred by Shadow World’s brush, wielded by a motley band of intellectuals and activists (including decorated journalist Chris Hedges, formerly of the New York Times, and writer Jeremy Scahill of Dirty Wars acclaim). Their accusations are paired with the incendiary prose of Eduardo Galeano, a beloved Uruguayan champion of the people who died last year. The scope of it all widens to encompass the complexity of today’s ever-evolving, possibly endless war on terror. Director Johan Grimonprez has woven a nightmarish tapestry depicting the military-industrial complex. He has made a compelling argument that the world is spinning dangerously into science fiction territory. Shadow World is relentless, intelligent, and urgent.
14 Minutes from Earth
Directed by Jerry Kolber, Adam “Tex” Davis, Trey Nelson, and Erich Sturm
A documentary for science buffs and the people who love them, 14 Minutes from Earth starts with a drawing on a napkin and ends with a senior vice president of Google boldly going where none have gone before. Alan Eustace, the mild-mannered, middle-aged executive with a penchant for sky diving, dreams of jumping from the stratosphere, a slice of the atmosphere that is in some ways harder to explore than outer space or the bottom of the ocean. What follows is no run-of-the-mill midlife crisis but a massive undertaking breathed into life by a man who has the right temperament and passion for it.
A well-assembled team collaborates to create the suit and devices needed for Eustace to make a freefall from 135,000 feet. Mistakes are made, nails are bitten, and puzzles are solved. Some of the trial and error involved could be comforting to laymen (it turns out that even experts sometimes resort to the old “turn it off and turn it on again” trick), while some of it will whiz over many heads. More effort might have been made to convey the scientific significance of the mission; a lingering sense of “because it’s there” pervades the effort. Presented like a hip science class video, the material doesn’t quite stretch to feature length, but it amuses and educates enough for light entertainment.