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A scene from THE BALLAD OF GENESIS AND LADY JAYE (Photo: Tribeca Film Festival)

April 20 – May 1, 2011

There’s something for almost any movie fan at the Tribeca Film Festival—genre films and documentaries from around the world, in and out of competition, showing in New York City and nationally via On Demand. Here’s a sampling from different sections of the festival.

Available nationwide in the Festival Screening Room after the festival’s opening on April 20 are an entertaining documentary and a slasher film satire. Donor Unknown is the real-life counterpart to last year’s indie hit The Kids Are All Right, which was inspired by the same 2005 front-page story in The New York Times. “Donor-conceived children,” as they are technically called, track down Donor No. 150 from one of the largest international sperm banks. Director Jerry Rothwell spends a lot of time with the genial hippie bachelor who was able to support himself for several years through his sperm donations. He didn’t give much thought to the results, and his genetic offspring don’t seem to be curious about his medical history, but the young adults are thrilled to find more and more half-siblings, in some cases the first extended family some of them have ever had (not all have two mothers). Over a dozen have been identified from all over the U.S., and the five who participated look enough alike to be quintuplets. Subtitled “Adventures in the Sperm Trade,” the documentary just begins to explore larger ethical issues, from sperm bank irresponsibility to the power of genetics.

Rabies, promoted as “Israel’s first-ever slasher horror film,” is more of a clever homage in the vein of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse. Hapless couples—devoted siblings, forest rangers, weekend tennis players, and distracted cops—and one psycho wander and intersect in the woods. Israeli stars, including Lior Ashkenazi (of Walk on Water) and Ran Danker (Eyes Wide Open), will all get drenched in blood (like many in the genre Cinemania section of the festival). The writing/directing debut of Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado is more about the sly editing that just avoids explicit gore and the funny dialogue than thrills and chills, but Rabies will keep you guessing as to who will get out of the woods alive.

Two of the entries in the World Narrative Competition expose the uneven range in the festival. In Artificial Paradises, director/co-writer Yulene Olaizola’s first feature tries to de-romanticize the bohemian fantasy of doing drugs by a beautiful, isolated beach. Her documentary experience in Mexico shows through more strongly as she follows the local workers at a rundown Veracruz resort, who take pity on a beautiful, helpless addict, who doesn’t seem deserving of their or our sympathy, based on what little we learn about her. In the very colorful The Kite, Indian-American writer/director Prashant Bhargava, in another debut, returns to his family’s roots in western India during the Uttarayan, the country’s largest kite festival. From the kite makers and errand boys in the crowded markets to the family parties and friends’ reunions up on the roofs, he fashions an erratically paced but naturalistic story around six men, women, and children whose lives intertwine in touching ways over one day.

Two feature documentaries in the new Viewpoints section add perspective to political and economic upheaval in very different ways. The quixotic run for Reykjavik mayor by Icelandic comic Jon Gnarr seemed like fun to one of his longtime admirers, director Gaukur Úlfarsson, when he picked up a camera and followed the campaign to make the documentary Gnarr. Some in the opposition thought the comedian was just running in order to make the film. But with the collapse of Iceland’s economy and the rise of volcanic ash, a very funny guy started looking better to the city’s voters than the boring professional politicians who had made a mess of everything. Úlfarsson is, unfortunately, too much of an observational purist to provide an American audience with much onscreen background on Gnarr’s Best Party slate or the Icelandic election system. But any U.S. devotee of The Wire will root for a candidate who is proud that his favorite actor from the series friended him on Facebook. Gnarr also promises that only fans of the series will serve in his government.

Bill Morrison pays elegiac tribute to a century of coal mining and miners in Durham, England in less than an hour in The Miners’ Hymns. While employing a similar technique of blending archival silent images as Terence Davies in Of Time and the City (2008), the (unidentified) years and the people of the past go by quickly in uniform black and white. Interspersed are color helicopter images of what has happened to the many abandoned mines near the sea—less employment. The moving score by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson not only captures the increasing mechanization and the labor strife seen on the screen but also evokes the proud tradition of colliery brass bands. (The project was commissioned for last year’s BRASS - Durham International Festival music competition.) The climactic parade into the majestic second-century Norman-style Durham Cathedral will make you wish you had been there at the live performance last July, but the film’s premiere here is the next best thing.

The festival is showing several documentaries outside of competition that border on reality TV by providing an extended platform for eccentrics and competitors. The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye fetishizes avant-garde body art. Director Marie Losier hangs on every self-absorbed word of British industrial music pioneer Genesis Breyer P-Orridge (from the 1970s band Throbbing Gristle) as he recalls in detail his all-consuming love affair and partnership with the young New York performance artist Lady Jaye Breyer. Over several years they physically transformed through plastic surgery to look like each other, or as identical “Pandrogyne” as they called it. The fawning art world comes across as plastic surgery addiction enablers in a long episode of Extreme Makeover.

The Good Life is a bemused portrait of a formerly rich mother and daughter with zero coping skills who have plunged into The Simple Life. This pair is even more annoying than those incompetent American socialites from that Fox reality series. Danish director Eva Mulvad followed the elderly, browbeaten Mette Beckmann and her bitter, spoiled middle-aged daughter Anne over three years as they bickered about how their just-deceased patriarch left them penniless in Portugal after their pampered life in Copenhagen and Paris. Their blame game and continuing procrastination to face reality amidst the languid beauty of the Portuguese Riviera is a prima facie justification for the 1975 Communist revolution that nationalized their family business.

Director Mahmoud Kaabour turns Grandma, A Thousand Times into a creative episode of Who Do You Think You Are? In under an hour, he uses interviews and magic realism to enliven a tribute to his 83-year-old grandmother Teta Fatima. Puffing on a hookah and drinking coffee on her balcony, she’s an inimitable tour guide to her family, her traditional neighborhood, and the habitués of old Beirut. Indoors, the filmmaker, named for her beloved husband, dresses up as his grandfather, whose seven violin improvisations play on tape while instruments and photographs float behind Teta, like windows into the memories in her mind. (That’s a sweetly amusing effect, but an anticipatory enactment of her funeral is a bit over the top.) The director is at least forthcoming to include her negative comments about his marriage to his blonde American producer, and the only time Teta leaves her empty nest is to politely dance at their wedding. Winner of the Best Documentary Award at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival, the film will be the centerpiece of an April 23rd panel discussion on Arab films.

Some say the three sweetest words in the English language are “You were right.” Revenge of the Electric Car is director Chris Paine’s “I told you so” follow-up to his insightful, revelatory investigation Who Killed the Electric Car? (2006). Like a long-form episode of Shark Tank, he provides an intimate look over three years at the ups and downs of four driven entrepreneurs pursuing different business models to capture the newly environmentally conscious market. They include Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn’s production of the mass market and affordable all-electric Leaf; Robert Lutz of GM, whose electric Volt adds on to Detroit’s iconic internal combustion engine; Silicon Valley’s Elon Musk, aiming to capture the luxury high end with the Tesla; and a struggling L.A. hobbyist-turned-custom retro-fitter. Some of the strong, articulate personalities profiled will be participating in an April 23rd panel discussion with Paine: Ghosn, Musk, and Dan Neil, the Pulitzer Prize-winning automobile reviewer. But only on screen will you see legendary car exec Lutz preach his conversion and the several women engineers and analysts, who are so rarely featured in anything about cars.

The World Documentary Competition includes two thought-provoking and emotional documentaries that demonstrate the filmmakers’ long-term commitment to their subjects’ very different plights. Producer Marty Syjuco brought in director Michael Collins to bring attention to his brother-in-law’s years of imprisonment for two notorious murders. Give Up Tomorrow presents reams of detailed evidence and interviews about Paco Larrañaga’s innocence as he faced the death penalty. It constitutes a broadly devastating indictment of the corrupt, nepotistic, incompetent, politicized justice system in the Philippines. (Syjuco’s mother is just one of dozens of witnesses who declare Larrañaga was not even on the island where the victims went missing). That there have been a spate of similarly wrenching exposés of determined, roller-coaster battles to get steamrollered people out of jail doesn’t make this exhausting examination any less searing.

It seems like almost every fictional film about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict includes a Romeo and Juliet story. Gabriella Bier’s Love During Wartime shows clearly the tough reality. That Jasmin and Osama, with their families, even agreed to be followed by her camera for several years is a bravely poignant plea for love and peace. Several other couples were too reluctant to keep participating in the project. It takes awhile to get to know the two affectionate young people as individuals, aside from his being a Palestinian Muslim from Ramallah and she, an unreligious Israeli Jew from Tel Aviv. They can’t legally live together in either place—in Israel, Jasmin is increasingly stymied by the courts, while in Palestine, Osama is threatened as a collaborator and ridiculed for being a sculptor. Jasmin’s German-born mother reclaims her Nazi-era birth certificate to help her daughter obtain German citizenship and her son-in-law a precious, albeit frustratingly restricted, visa. Berlin becomes an ironic refuge, where Jasmin has joined a dance troupe. Just when the stresses of global politics seem to add fatal pressures to those faced by any struggling newlyweds, Bier follows this couple long enough to find surprising optimism.

The fifth annual Tribeca/ESPN Sports Film Festival features Renée, an updated look at the private and public lives of the most well-known transgender tennis player in the 1970s, Renée Richards. It’s distinguished from Oprah’s many interviews with transgenders and their troubled offspring by how director Eric Drath augments Richards’ memoirs, which were the basis for Vanessa Redgrave’s notable portrayal in Second Serve (1986). Friends and family who well knew Dr. Richard Raskind in his Yale and Navy tennis champion days are frank about how much of the alpha male aggressor remained in the 6’4” frame and power serve of the 40-plus-year-old woman Renée Richards, who controversially insisted on competing with younger professional women. She won the right to play them in the U.S. Open. This occurred just a couple of years after the media circus of “The Battle of the Sexes” match between an older Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King in her prime (here King defends Renée’s participation in women’s tennis), but the differences between how male and female athletes trained and played in the pre-Title IX sports world are only fleetingly mentioned. Nora Lee Mandel Tribeca Film Festival, Part 1, Tribeca Film Festival, Part 3
April 22, 2011



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