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2009 Tribeca Film Festival: The Kids Are Alright

The Tribeca Film Festival each year includes excellent documentaries in its busy Youth Screening Program, bringing together young filmmakers and school groups. Since featuring Mad Hot Ballroom, documentaries that follow kids in competitions have been a regular component. In Team Qatar, director Liz Mermin (The Beauty Academy of Kabul) followed the emirate’s first ever national team in the World Schools Debating Championships. These best and the brightest 15–17 year olds include two hijab-wearing young women, one of whom debates while fasting through Ramadan. (Though the finals were held in Washington, D.C., this parliamentary debate style is rarely practiced in U.S. secondary schools, which use other formats.) Guided through debate boot camp by a phalanx of personable U.K. college champions, the neophytes seem like the Jamaican bobsled team in the Winter Olympics as they start tentatively reading international newspapers and learning the detailed rules of effective argumentation. Through an impossible quest, they visibly mature into critical thinkers who could become future democratic leaders.

Those who have made NASCAR one of the biggest spectator sports in the U.S. probably already know that go-karting is auto racing’s Little League-like training ground and are familiar with its ambitious participants. But Racing Dreams is for the rest of us. Marshall Curry (Street Fight) follows two boys and a girl, ages 11 to 13, from very different, determined families, on the go-karting national championship circuit for a year. He steers around the rules, strategies, and equipment of a sport where very focused kids drive round and round at 70 mph, and reveals what it takes to be a champion—more grit than most adults have. It won the festival’s best documentary award and was the runner-up for the audience favorite award.

P-Star Rising is an intimate close-up of a talented Harlem girl teaming up with her father to make it in the competitive music business. Director Gabriel Noble began following Priscilla (P-Star) as a precocious rapper at nine years old, then through four years of struggles with housing, financial, and mother issues, until she became the most responsible in her household. A festival highlight was her accompanying an outdoor screening of the film with a live performance.

WHICH WAY HOME (Photo: Tribeca Film Festival)
While it is a great relief when any of these young people manage to succeed, kids in danger are a recurring and upsetting theme in other films. Which Way Home, which will be shown on HBO, is the vivid nonfiction counterpart to Sin Nombre. But scarily, director Rebecca Cammisa (Sister Helen) followed even younger South American and Mexican children on their own during the highly dangerous, long trek riding the rails to the Rio Grande and crossing into the U.S. Their extreme risk taking would seem irrational if the festival didn’t also include Garapa, directed by José Padilha (Bus 174), that exposes insidious, abject poverty, in this case in Brazil, that is totally hopeless, and, therefore, difficult to watch. The “inspired by a true story” feature Entre nos unsentimentally follows how further difficult it is for South Americans who do make it into the States, when children are forced into taking on adult roles. Paola Mendoza not only co-directed and co-wrote the spare story, but movingly plays a character based on her own mother.

Though the documentary Cropsey is being shown in the festival’s “Midnight” section of genre films, directors Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio carefully investigate the unsettling intersection where fears fed by urban legends cross with real threats to a tight knit community’s children—the stirred up paranoia may have tipped over into hysteria (or may have been justified). In contrast, the notorious and fertile family documented in Julien Nitzberg’s The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia should promote debates about when a community should step in to abrogate parental rights because of the extended family’s extreme, beyond reality TV drug- and alcohol-fueled antics. Nora Lee Mandel
May 4, 2009



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