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Carol Channing in CAROL CHANNING: LARGER THAN LIFE (Photo: Tribeca Film festival)

Tribeca Film Festival 2011: Final Roundup

It’s not for nothing that the three films that won the Heineken Audience Awards at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival were documentaries. First place went to the galvanizing Give Up Tomorrow; second to Semper Fi: Always Faithful (see below); and the stalwartly upbeat Carol Channing: Larger than Life, like the rail-thin actress, upstaged the rest in third place. Once again, Tribeca’s nonfiction selection by and large outshone the features. Besides these three films, there was the so-strange-it-can’t-be-made-up Donor Unknown, which rightly won another audience-chosen prize in the Tribeca (Online) Film Festival, and the insightful Jiro Dreams of Sushi and The Bully Project, which came away with U.S. distribution.

However, the feature films, especially in the World Narrative Competition, were all over the place. The winner went to the terse and perceptive coming-of-ager She Monkeys from Norway, though I couldn’t help but remember many French films that were even more observant and penetrating. On the other hand, Grey Matter had a level of complexity in its depiction of a national nightmare, the Rwandan genocide, that instantly turned a few of its competitors into afterthoughts, particularly the Julia Roberts-executive produced Jesus Henry Christ. It lost me with three rapid-fire, gruesome deaths in its opening sequence. Writer/director Dennis Lee throws everything into the film including an automaton 10-year-old boy genius (and university student) Henry (Jason Spevack); the glib misanthropic teenager Audrey (the translucent Samantha Weinstein); and her scattered professor father, who may be Henry’s sperm-donor father. Toni Collette plays the boy’s politically-engaged, astute, put-upon mother. She’s about the only similarity this flippant comedy shares with the quirky and well-written Little Miss Sunshine. Lee says he was aiming for an “absurdist comedy with magic surrealism,” like in Amélie—but if so, he left out the charm. And after seeing The Bully Project, it’s doubtful the homophobic harassment of Audrey will be anything less than cringe-producing (along with the tired trope of a white man trying to act and talk “black.”)

One of the most assured American films anywhere in the festival was the directorial debut of actress Vera Farmiga, the thoughtful Higher Ground, based on Carolyn Briggs’s memoir This Dark World. Farmiga also stars as Corrine, a wife and mother longing for something genuine—a stronger connection to God. She belongs to a 1979s hippie-dippy, granola-crunching evangelical church that’s also rigidly patriarchal—an odd fashion mix of peasant blouses and prairie dresses. If her objective sounds vague, it is, but not the characterizations or her quest itself. Remarkably, Farmiga allows her top-notch cast, including Donna Murphy and new Broadway star Nina Arianda, moments to shine. She’s definitely an actor’s director. It will be released this summer.

Director Dori Berinstein throws the spotlight on the one-of-a-kind’s 60-odd year career and her late-in-life romance with her childhood beau in Carol Channing: Larger Than Life. If you’re looking an exposé on the 89-years-old actress, warts and all, you won’t find it here—or possibly anywhere. Barbara Walters says she’s never heard of any dirt or diva behavior connected to Channing, and she should know. After seeing this flattering and infectious profile, you can’t help but believe Walters’s assessment. Indefatigable, generous, confident, and self-deprecating, Channing’s a real-life personification of Poppy in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky.  

Is there room for another kids-in-a-competition documentary in Shakespeare High (Glee in iambic pentameter)? Teams from affluent schools to dropout factories perform scenes from three of the Bard’s plays for the 90th Drama Teachers Association of Southern California Shakespeare Festival.  All are underdogs to the perennial champion, working-class Hesperia High School, located in the middle of nowhere. Its winning spree is due to lack of options afterschool and one dedicated teacher. (The film’s executive producer Kevin Spacey, along with Mare Winningham and Val Kilmer, competed for Chatsworth High School back in the 1970s.)

The film raises pointed questions that will be familiar to anyone who has been to Shakespeare in the Park and sat through incessant mugging and frantic gesticulating, lest you should actually listen to the words. How do you bring 400-year-old texts to life, especially for students new to the work or to acting? Much of what makes it to the finals is smothered in contemporary styles (mostly from sitcoms). Only one featured team goes out on a limb in an emotionally vulnerable and honest excerpt from Othello—with a white Othello, no less. Most teams play for laughs; this scene goes for the gut. There’s a lot of grumbling from teachers and students about the final results, but, yup, Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, you wuz robbed. Kent Turner

Nelson Mandela & Miriam Makeba in Stockholm 1990 (Photo: Guner Erhan)

This year’s slate was strong on popular music, the sociology of sports, and social consciousness, besides including commemorations of the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Tribeca opened this year with Cameron Crowe’s Union about Elton John’s recording collaboration with Leon Russell. Though Mike Fleiss and Mike Piscitelli’s God Bless Ozzy Osbourne was a conventional Behind the Music rock biography, and Stephen C. Mitchell’s Talihina Sky: The Story of Kings of Leon confusingly tried to show how the sons of a Pentecostal preacher man ended up doomed to hell as rock stars, the world music entries were more enlightening explorations.

Mama Africa was begun by director Mika Kaurismäki just before iconic South African singer Miriam Makeba died in 2008 at age 76. Family, friends, and colleagues are guides through her homes from childhood, exile, and triumphant return to reveal the woman—wife/mother/grandmother and anti-apartheid activist—behind the superstar’s performances. Her singing in Lionel Rogosin’s political exposé Come Back, Africa (1959) led to her banishment from South Africa and to a mentorship under Harry Belafonte, whose own bio-doc, Sing Your Song, premiered at the festival. Off the concert stage, her public anti-apartheid persona collided with the personal when her 1968 marriage to Black Power leader Stokely Carmichael caused her commercial exile from the U.S. market. The intimate story of her subsequent family and musical life in Guinea is as poignant as her homecoming visit to her mother’s grave after 31 years away from home.

When the Drum Is Beating captures the musical joy of the big band Septentrional and its 60 years of off-stage struggles within Haiti’s political, economic, and natural disasters. Director Whitney Dow began filming, and had planned on finishing, before the 2010 earthquake to document the band’s transition from the leadership of octogenarian founder “Maestro” Ulrick Pierre Louis to a returning expatriate. The conflicts within the 20-piece band are glimpsed as a longtime vocalist is seen so resenting the younger musicians’ intricate jazz noodling that he walks off the stage. However, there’s more screen time on Haitian political history lessons than on the country’s cultural history, which might have explained the band’s infectious blend of Cuban and Dominican 1940’s-style horns and traditional Haitian Vodou rhythms. The film is scheduled for PBS broadcast next year.

Who funds documentaries these days, including many shown here, determines how you get to see them, whether at festivals, in theaters, or on TV—an insightful point made in the discussion during Tribeca Talks Industry: Meet the Documentary Broadcasters, which is streaming as part of the Tribeca (Online) Film Festival, with panelists from A&E, ESPN, HBO, PBS’s WNET, and the U.K.’s Channel 4.

ESPN is building on its 30 for 30 anniversary documentary series by commissioning prominent filmmakers to use sports as a window into larger issues. In Catching Hell, director Alex Gibney finds both a personal and wider angle to deconstruct in fiction-like flashbacks the notorious tale of the lifelong Chicago Cubs fan, Steve Bartman, who was accused of preventing the left field catch in Game 6 at Wrigley Field and causing the team to lose the 2003 National League championship. Through detailed interviews with several others who were around him, even supplemented by their home videos, Gibney explores step-by-step how reality instantly morphed into vicious myth for fanatics seeking a scapegoat for the Cubs’ 58 years of World Series’ drought. It is more puzzling to have a Unitarian minister explain the Jewish Yom Kippur ritual of the scapegoat than Gibney’s attempt to garner sympathy for an earlier target of ire, Bill Buckner. This Mets fan well remembers screaming at 1 a.m. in surprised gratitude during Game 6 of the 1986 World Series when the ground ball went through Buckner’s legs. Gibney describes how the scapegoat theme fits into his oeuvre in the Tribeca Talks: Tribeca/ESPN Sports Film Festival After the Movie interview with Chris Connelly that is streaming online.

Not all the sports films at Tribeca originated with ESPN. Splinters is one of the best surfing documentaries in years, even though it spends more time on land than in the ocean around the small villages of Papua New Guinea. Although the islanders had centuries of body surfing experience, a passing Australian pilot left a surfboard 20 years ago and changed their obsessions forever. In 2006, the Papua New Guinea Surfing Association started organizing the inaugural national championship to qualify a team for international competition. The film focuses up close and personal on four surfers with very different personalities, two guy friends and two sisters, as preparation for the big event snowballs into rivalries that are so raw, intimate, and even violent, that one wonders if they really understood what debut American director Adam Pesce was up to, even as he lived and surfed with them and learned their language. The international requirements are seen challenging traditional patriarchal—and abusive—traditions, but it’s disheartening to see some of the striving and stressed amateurs, who have pretty much learned how to surf from well-thumbed magazines, not meet the standards of the professional judges, even as others ride the crest to triumph.

Nancy Buirski’s The Loving Story is noteworthy for the socially significant subject matter and the use of never-seen-before visual evidence. Mildred and Richard Loving were the quiet Virginia couple at the center of the landmark 1967 Supreme Court case that threw out laws against interracial marriage like theirs. In the Tribeca Talks: After the Movie panel discussion (shortly to be available online), the director, the attorney who represented the Lovings just a couple of years out of law school, and the ACLU executive director discuss the importance of the case for the civil rights movement and as a precedent for gay marriage rights. But visually striking is the 16 mm, black-and-white cinema vérité footage filmed by Hope Ryden, a colleague of D.A. Pennebaker, as she followed the couple with their three children and their lawyers, who promised bail if the legal strategy landed the two back in jail. Previously unpublished photographs by Grey Villet for Life Magazine also warmly reveal a taciturn white construction worker and a prim African-American/Native American housewife, high school sweethearts in a rural corner of Virginia who just wanted to live peacefully at home with their family. The film will air on HBO.

Other documentaries on social issues were among the most moving and galvanizing in the festival. Our School was filmed in color in Romania, but finds racism as shocking as the Lovings faced in the Jim Crowe South. Like watching the European equivalent of the aftermath of Brown vs. Board of Education, endemic prejudice against the Roma (or Gypsy) people plays out bald-faced in front of the cameras of Mona Nicoara and Miruna Coca-Cozma in one small town, where the European Court of Human Rights ordered school integration of Roma children to begin. The mayor circumvents the directive by misusing E.U. funding to construct a lame separate but unequal building, with no desks but showers because, he insists, the Roma children are so dirty. The enthusiasm of the Roma kids is heartbreakingly dimmed by the blatant prejudice. Anti-mainstreaming teachers ignore them, sit them in the back, place them with special education students, and discourage their Romanian classmates from even playing with them. This quietly observed, yet explosive documentary could be exhibit A in another law suit.

The ostensible focus of The Carrier is the Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission Program as the best hope to produce an HIV-free generation in Africa and to generate optimism against the scourge that is devouring the continent’s population. But the real (nosy) reason to see this is the “Big Love with AIDS” story. The complicated life of 28-year-old pregnant, HIV-positive mother Mutinta in rural Zambia is a very intimate portrait of traditional polygamy. Though debut director Maggie Betts over-stages narrations and conversations between the wives and with the husband at sunsets and in beautiful fields, the medical issues of testing, medications, and contraception are enmeshed within daily human issues of honesty, sex, jealousy, gossip, and friendship, let alone patriarchal sexism. The suspense of the fate of their children really builds.

Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger, USMC (retired) (Photo: Hope Hall)
Semper Fi:
Always Faithful is the lifelong slogan of U.S. Marines that turns into a bitter ironic epithet for a retired career drill sergeant who feels deeply betrayed by the Corps. When Sergeant Jerry Ensminger learned in 1997 that the Marines closed down the wells at North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune in 1985 due to benzene contamination, he researches that such exposure was linked to the rare leukemia that killed his young daughter in 1985 when they lived there. He dedicates his life to the relentless pursuit of the truth, and he gradually tracks down other ex-Lejeune residents with rare cancers to find answers: when did the Marines know about the risks, and are they sitting on data that would demonstrate the significant impact of toxins? While directors Tony Hardmon and Rachel Libert wallow a bit too much on grief-stricken parents and dying young adults desperately looking to finger blame, Ensminger’s determined campaign to raise consciousness that living on a military base can be a risk factor for such frequently overlooked diseases as male breast cancer could save lives. The Veterans Administration is also an administrative and legislative target here, as well as health and environmental agencies’ classifications of carcinogens. In addition to being voted the second place audience award, the festival jury awarded it “Best Editing in a Documentary Feature” with the commendation that The film skillfully weaves journalistic investigation with emotional personal narrative.”

Just as this year’s Tribeca was concluding, the death of Osama Bin Laden was announced—a dramatic reminder that the festival was founded in reaction to the attacks on the World Trade Center. Two documentaries focused on how the death and destruction there have led some to take admirable actions. Dana Nachman and Don Hardy’s Love Hate Love includes a New York victim’s family among those left bereft by terrorist attacks around the world who have channeled their unending grief into funding international memorial philanthropies. An Australian amputee victim from the Bali blast is particularly inspiring in how he personally mentors new amputees. Scott Rettberg’s New York Says Thank You avoids being a version of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition through the rugged charm of four guys affected by 9/11. Each year they help American communities hit by disasters in appreciation of how New York City was helped by the rest of the country. When the two New York firefighters, a construction superintendent of the Ground Zero cleanup, and a financial advisor who worked in the Towers join with other volunteers in modern versions of barn raisings, their optimism is irresistible. Nora Lee Mandel Tribeca Film Festival, Part 1, Tribeca Film Festival, Part 2, Tribeca Film Festival, Part 3, Tribeca Film Festival 2011, Part 4
May 13, 2011



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