Sundance is a memory, we’ve long since sobered up from True/False, and Full Frame just ended. Now, with the Tribeca Film Festival starting this week, and Toronto’s Hot Docs kicking off before it’s over, we’re as deep as it gets in film festival season. In less than a month, we’ll know what most of the must-see feature documentaries of 2013 are. I’m going to take a stab here at presenting what I think looks most promising at Tribeca.
The sheer depth and breadth of subject matter covered by the Tribeca documentaries this year is, well, breath taking. It’s easy to forget that Tribeca also happens to be a narrative fiction festival (you know, with actors and such) — the docs are that varied and strong. But it’s not too diffuse, it’s just a testament to the reach of the nonfiction form. Looking ahead, Hot Docs is even more comprehensive, so I expect to have a full mental catalog of all of humanity (and inhumanity) within the next couple of weeks.
Although the subjects of the Tribeca documentaries beckon, it’s usually best to follow the filmmakers. So, I’m going to start with Marina Zenovich, who did a great job profiling the infamous Polish director in Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired. I’m equally interested in the Tribeca showing of her follow-up examination of a flawed icon in Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic. Zenovich speaks with Mel Brooks, Robin Williams, Lily Tomlin and Dave Chappelle, and we’re expecting to see great access to early footage.
Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg cut their teeth with The Trials of Darryl Hunt and The Devil Came On Horseback, and have since entered less gritty arenas (like Joan Rivers’ apartment). They come to Tribeca with Let Them Wear Towels, about women sports reporters in the locker room. As much as I appreciate their work, I have my doubts that this subject can really warrant such feature focus, especially on the big screen, so there’s a strong curiosity factor: Can they knock this one out of the park?
And then there’s Rachel Boynton, who directed the great Our Brand is Crisis, along with a star-studded cast of executive producers, including director Steven Shainberg (an old pal — Steve directed Secretary and has a solid head on his shoulders) and Brad Pitt, who’s not going to waste his name on a clunker. Boynton’s film, Big Men, is an on-the-ground expose of the African oil industry in Ghana and Nigeria.
And so, after entering the locker room, deepest Africa and the comedic limelight, I look forward to wading neck deep into the wealth of diversity, to see McConkey, a thrill ride about extreme skier-adventurer Shane McConkey, Powerless, about a man in India who tackles the power-supply lines (literally and figuratively) in Kanpur, Red Obsession, about the Chinese obsession with Bordeaux and how it’s impacting the finite supply of the vintage, Kiss the Water, about a Scottish fishing-fly maker that’s supposed to be lyrical in its imagery, and Flex is Kings, about a competitive dance and its practitioners from the streets of Brooklyn.
There are many more that sound interesting, such as Lenny Cooke, Out of Print and Aatsinki: The Story of Arctic Cowboys, and there are even a bevy of short docs that sound fascinating, such as Lapse: Confessions of a Slot Machine Junkie, and, check this out: Wilt Chamberlain: Borscht Belt Bellhop, about the basketball star’s summer working in the Catskills.
(It’s appropriate that New York magazine film critic David Edelstein uses this Tribeca festival as the moment to blow a clarion call for docs. “The cool kids are making docs,” he writes. “It’s incredibly sexy.” He attributes the phenomenon to the rise of cheap digital filmmaking tools, and he’s right.)
Is there a blade of grass left unexamined by a documentarian under a rock somewhere? It seems unlikely, and yet, there are always more. Thankfully.