The activists of Democrats (Tribeca Film Festival)

Douglas Mwonzora, left, and Paul Mangwana in Democrats (Henrik Bohn Ipsen)

The Tribeca Film Festival is one of country’s largest showcases for a broad range of American and international documentaries, covering politics to culture and nostalgia, along with family journeys that reveal larger social issues. Those in New York this April are in luck; you can’t always count on postfestival theatrical, cable, or public television distribution. As a bonus, Q & A’s with the directors and participants will follow many screenings.

The following reviews touch upon documentaries that offer windows into many worlds, beginning with a festival highlight. (The coverage will be updated throughout the festival.)


Zimbabwe’s transition from authoritarian one-party rule to a more enlightened democracy is anything but a dry lesson in political compromise. This inspiring verité documentary is a thrilling, suspenseful, scary, and astonishingly intimate view of the three-year process of difficult negotiations to write a new constitution. The violent ruthlessness of the founding ruling ZANU party over its 30 years in power was shown in the harrowing 2010 documentary Mugabe and the White African. After widely discredited 2008 elections raised international protests against Mugabe’s continuing thugocracy, uneasy multiparty power-sharing led to this grueling Constitution Parliamentary Select Committee process (funded by the United States and the European Union), co-chaired by two opposing lawyers, who charismatically command the close-up focus of Danish director Camilla Nielsson’s feature debut.

First they head out for the mandated hearings in the country’s 1,935 wards (like American town hall meetings) to gauge opinions on basic constitutional questions of the role of the presidential, legislative, and judicial branches of government. Starting in rural areas, Paul Mangwana, longtime ZANU central committee member and veteran of many government positions, is a genial campaign manager making calls to make sure those who benefit from the party show up in droves. Douglas Mwonzora, general secretary for Movement for Democratic Change, is clearly a neophyte at organizing his troops in the hinterland. But as an established human rights activist, he doggedly uncovers evidence of manipulation, especially as the hearings move into urban areas where the opposition is stronger and the press more daring. Mangwana denies claims, such as busing in claques from outside the districts, until a violent attack on party opponents—frighteningly captured here—leaves him desperately trying to convince his team that they are overplaying their hand. Meanwhile, the government jails Mwonzora.

Both political leaders have to bravely face down the consequences of compromise that can be dangerous—“Sell-out!” screams the headlines, in a country where such accusations are tantamount to a death sentence. Line-by-line debates over the draft constitution literally play out as tense life or death decisions, leading to an historic referendum. Mangwana and Mwonzora are ultimately optimistic, committed to putting aside past methods of protest and control for a new future together. (Keep in mind that our Founding Fathers wrestled with these issues in lockdown from the press and that they left intact a central principle that had to be resolved through a civil war.) Mandatory viewing would surely spice up civics classes and inspire anyone who cares about the future of Africa and emerging democracies.

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon

Entertaining stories of the rise (and fall) of rock ‘n’ roll bands are a popular feature at Tribeca (such as last year’s Super Duper Alice Cooper, and Douglas Tirola’s documentary similarly goes behind-the-bylines about the pop cultural impact of the outrageous comedy of National Lampoon.

The roots of the magazine are traced back to the century-old Harvard Lampoon, and the focus shifts to National Lampoon’s founding editors Doug Kenney (the more long-haired, free-wheeling one) and Henry Beard (the more serious one). Even original fans will be surprised at the behind-the-scenes importance of majority owner/credit card magnate Matty Simmons’ investments and the advertising sales staff to the magazine’s success—the first subscription drive appeared in Mademoiselle of all places. It wasn’t enough to be no-holds-barred funny and high on drugs.

While several of the interviewees have already written books about their experiences, a film allows for viewing the full extent of the Nat Lamp comedy empire, with a rapid-fire montage of magazine covers, story headlines, cartoons (some that are amusingly animated), The National Lampoon Radio Hour, live stage shows (that brought in the Chicago improv comics who were launched to stardom, including John Belushi), and movies that grew out of magazine pieces (the original 1983 National Lampoon’s Vacation that is about to be revived yet again), along with a lot of rare performance clips. Included is my (and probably everyone’s) favorite cover, “If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, We’ll Kill This Dog,” from January 1973.

Also included are memories of many well-known celebrities, such as Animal House director John Landis and actors Kevin Bacon and Tim Matheson. Chevy Chase details his long friendship with Kenney, whose trajectory is a sad coda about drug use amidst the barrage of jokes. Additionally, Tirola finds three women writer/editors to interview, who shrug at the cheerfully raunchy frat boy sexism, including the editors’ penchant for being photographed with big-breasted models. (Anne Beatts is sarcastic that she was first hired “on her back” because she was an editor’s girlfriend.)

The boundless energy to offend everyone and everything for almost 30 years, including religion and politicians, seems more significant now since the international attention to the more restrained Charlie Hebdo.

Autism in Love

Following up on Tribeca’s early championing of uncommon looks at the lives of people with autism and their families—the documentary Autism: The Musical and the barely-fictional feature Stand Clear of the Closing Doors—director Matt Fuller’s debut documentary intimately presents the lives and personal relationships of three sets of adults along the autistic spectrum.

Forty-something Stephen in St. Paul fits the conventional image of autism: unemotional, focused on one thing at a time, set in a routine of taking the bus to his assembly line job, then returning home each night to watch Jeopardy with his elderly parents. But the wedding photos around their home indicate Stephen’s surprising past of a 20-year marriage with learning-disabled Gita, who is frank about how they coped with her treatment for cancers.

In Los Angeles, twentysomething Lenny, in between shifts stacking supermarket carts, muses on and on about dealing with his sexuality and the possibility of dating. His young mother, Kathy, is optimistic, but rues that he has no male role models to help guide him—a familiar problem as the stresses of raising an autistic child have resulted in higher rates of divorce, according to studies.

Weather-obsessed Dave and be-jeweled Lindsey, a thirtysomething couple in Washington, D.C., have been together for eight years and keep discussing the nature of their relationship, which grows deeper on camera. Lindsay is much more articulate than the other participants (she works for an autism advocacy organization).

Just seeing how they successfully cope with daily life is fittingly consciousness-raising—April is Autism Awareness Month. However, the constant questions from the interviewer about love seem forced and badgering. They would annoy almost any interviewee, who would have difficulty discussing gradations of the human need for companionship, mutual assistance, and affection, let alone whatever the heck love is. These participants are more patient with the endless and persistent questions than I would be.

Indian Point

Entergy’s application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for the renewal of its 20-year operating license for the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant, 35 miles north of New York City along the picturesque Hudson River, is an opportunity to reexamine safety issues in nuclear energy. This is especially timely considering that the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan is still hot after the earthquake and tsunami disaster in 2011. (As discussed at length here, all U.S. plants are worryingly running on more than 40-year-old technology, subject to constant repair and replacement parts, but the documentary doesn’t point out that Indian Point’s design isn’t like the damaged Japanese facility’s.) However, the noisy debate has been going on so long that almost everyone’s position is fixed, rhetorical, and bombastic.

Between a lot of TV and radio news clips, director Ivy Meeropol tries to make these fixed points of view visually interesting: environmentalists (Hudson Riverkeepers who keep looking for a hook to close the plant until finally latching onto the large Atlantic sturgeon, endangered by hot water discharges); grassroots activists (ranting to stoic NRC inspectors at public hearing microphones along the lines of “Last night I read an article on the Internet…”); and bland nice guy engineers who lead the camera through control rooms and the growing backlog of spent fuel storage tanks that look like the ones Homer Simpson goofs off with in the cartoon Springfield Nuclear Power Plant.

It takes time for Meeropol to find the most compelling character, NRC Chairman physicist Gregory Jaczko, and follow his difficult and frustrating trajectory. Besieged on all sides as he tries, unsuccessfully, to do the right thing for the public safety and energy needs, Jaczko is mercilessly pummeled by industry, Congress, and other commission members when he recommends regulatory changes informed by his tours of the Fukushima plant and the abandoned, contaminated area around that plant. Here, nothing is resolved. (Posted April 19, 2015)

Song of Lahore

Efforts to save and restore fading popular cultures is an anticipated feature of the festival’s World Documentary Competition, including El Gusto from Algeria in 2012 and last year’s Tomorrow We Disappear from India. This year’s program features the improbable story of how master musicians from Pakistan’s second largest city reached out beyond their borders to save their skills. It’s also a timely commentary on the clash between increasingly conservative Islamic forces vs. traditional culture.

As Abderrahmane Sissako’s recent Timbuktu sadly demonstrates, Muslim musicians are being silenced by political and religious suppression. Just when the players of tabla drums, flutes, and sitars profiled here had put down their instruments in despair of supporting their families and teaching a new generation, Izzat Majeed founded Sachal Studios to record classic and folk albums. (Co-director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy wanted to emphasize the positives in her native culture after her Oscar-winning short film Saving Face laid bare the impact of violence against women.)

It wasn’t until Majeed released online tributes to the American jazz musicians who passed through Pakistan from the 1950s through the 1970s that their new cover versions of the likes of Dave Brubeck brought global attention, even while the musicians couldn’t perform at home. Surprisingly, with too little preparation, but a lot of promotional fanfare, they are whisked to perform with (and having to fit in with) Wynton Marsalis’s Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. This is more than a feel-good success story of the joys of music as a universal language. The fraught week of rehearsals and experiences in New York City intimately depicts the limits in respecting separate traditions. (Posted April 19, 2015)

CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap

Barbie complaining about math, ex-Harvard president Lawrence Summers declaiming against women’s science abilities, and crudely sexist apps are familiar targets of criticism. But director Robin Hauser Reynolds goes beyond these well-known examples to explore how white male nerd stereotypes continue to negatively impact the lack of racial and gender diversity in the tech industry—let alone limiting the marketing potential to diverse consumers. Amidst the graphs of academic studies, most telling on screen are the pointed personal stories of girls and (young and older) women challenging attitudes in schools and the work place to triumph as software developers for start-ups and growing companies, such as Airbnb, Etsy, Pinterest, and Yelp. (Like the experiences recounted here, my niece, too, has been intimidated in high school and college comp sci classes by boys who have been coding since childhood—and she’s persisting into a career in cyber-security.)

Enthusiastic Danielle Feinberg, like a contemporary Rosie the Riveter, stands out from the reams of statistics and the more pedantic nonprofit activists as particularly charismatic when she proudly explains how she computer-generated Princess Merida for Pixar’s Bravo, and as she encourages groups of girls to learn and enjoy coding. In addition to the accompanying outreach website, a “Tribeca Talks After the Movie” panel from technology companies joined director Reynolds to further discuss issues raised in the film. (Posted on April 24, 2015)