I always a get a bit anxious as the Tribeca Film Festival approaches. With the sheer number of features and shorts, it’s hard to know where to begin. To get the most out of a large festival, it requires a combination of due diligence and risk-taking as well. I read through all the synopses over a number of days, and start notetaking. Once the festival begins, word of mouth begins to spread as well.
To help you out I’ve decided to break it down into digestible categories.
Rock the Doc
Don’t Stop Believin': Everyman’s Journey directed by Ramona Diaz (The Learning, POV 2011), follows the unbelievable trajectory of Arnel Pineda. Whisked out of an ordinary cover band in his hometown of Manila after being discovered on YouTube by Journey guitarist Neal Schon (the email to Arnel’s friend who uploaded those videos is priceless). The film gave me a whole new respect for a band that was long written off in my mind as a nostalgia act. While it’s true the band required the new frontman to copy Steve Perry’s sound to the note, Pineda’s spirit and passion refueled the band’s own sense of identity. The final concert in the Philippines is a lump in the throat that will dissipate as you inevitably sing those classic rock anthems over the next week or two.
In Malik Bendjelloul’s film Searching for Sugar Man, Mexican-American folk rock singer Rodriguez has been long forgotten in the United States but an icon in South Africa. Rumored to have committed suicide decades ago — on stage, no less — Bendjelloul’s film will leave you stunned by its turns of events. At once, it’s a portrait of the artist and a critique of a racist music business. This is one you don’t want to miss.
Safinez Bousbia, an architect by trade, was talked into a visit back to her native Algeria by an Irish friend who wanted to tag along. By fate, a walk through the Casbah led to a visit at a small shop where a shopkeeper wove a story about his glory days in pre-revolutionary Algiers, when chaabi music (Mediterranean big band music), was all the rage. Set on reuniting the estranged still-living musicians, many of whom had fled to Europe, Bousbia decided to film this story herself. The result, El Gusto, is positively joyous.
Painful Histories / New Beginnings
Ballroom Dancer is Christian Bonke and Andreas Koefoed’s moving film about former international Latin dance champion Slavik Kryklyvyy who, back from a decade-long retirement, encounters challenges both on the dance floor and in his relationship with his current dance partner and lover, Anna Melnikova.
Downeast, directed by Girl Model filmmaking team A. Sabin and David Redmon, follows Italian ex-pat and Boston resident Antonio Bussone, who re-opens a recently shuttered sardine canning factory in Gouldsboro, Maine, where time seems to have stood still. With a plan to remake the factory as a lobster processing plant and hire the majority of its previously laid-off workers, Bussone encounters both support from the community (despite some initial xenophobia) and resistance from the town’s government and harbormaster.
The Flat is likely to be a hit at this year’s festival. In a recent interview, festival Executive Director Nancy Schafer expressed her admiration in particular for the film. Israeli filmmaker Arnon Goldfinger (The Komediant) lost his 98-year-old grandmother and filmed this documentary while packing up her Tel Aviv apartment (hence the title). In going through her belongings, documents reveal shocking truths from his family’s history.
Sexy Baby has a great deal of relevance in this age where porn is so easily accessible online. Ronna Gradus and Jill Bauer’s film follows a trio of remarkable subjects: A precocious 12-year-old who is growing up fast and terrifying her parents in the process, a 22-year-old having a series of vaginal reconstructive surgeries to please her porn-obsessed boyfriend, and a 32-year-old adult-film retiree who now makes her living giving pole dancing lessons to housewives and college students. The film is more disturbing than titillating.
Let Fury Have the Hour is an often thoughtful and mostly philosophical discussion of what author-filmmaker Antonino D’Ambrosio calls “creative response.” Spawned from his book of the same title, the film makes the case that the best way to fight the right-wing ideologies is through activism in the arts and sciences. Among his talking heads are Rage Against the Machine front man Tom Morello, filmmaker John Sayles, playwright Eve Ensler, Hip Hop legend Chuck D and myriad others.
It’s remarkable that a documentary about this subject had not already come out years ago. Then again, with the rise of reality television over the past decade, Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie makes one miss the crude cigarette-smoking showman that Downey was. More bluster than anything else, the show was designed to attract attention and ratings. The film, directed by Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller and Jeremy Newberger (The Linguists), even-handedly profiles the man behind the personality with entertaining archival footage.
The 2012 Tribeca Film Festival runs from April 18 to 29 in New York City. You can find out more about the documentary slate and how to buy tickets for individual films at tribecafilm.com.