In my previous Tribeca post, I offered brief thoughts about the recently-completed festival’s World Documentary Competition. Today, I’ll wrap up with a few highlights from the Spotlight, Viewpoints, and Galas sections.
THE LOVING STORY
Screening in the fest’s Spotlight section, Full Frame founder Nancy Buirski’s self-assured historical portrait of the interracial couple at the heart of the civil rights case Loving vs Virginia was one of my absolute favorites of Tribeca 2011 (pictured above). She impressively builds her film around the little-seen archival footage of the couple as they took their struggle to marry whomever they wanted regardless of skin color, and live wherever they pleased all the way to the US Supreme Court. Despite being more than 40 years old, the period footage is imbued with a warm contemporary immediacy, bringing the quiet but strong Mildred and Richard to life, and creating a tacit connection to the present day fight for marriage equality for all.
CAROL CHANNING: LARGER THAN LIFE
Dori Berinstein’s profile of the effervescent nonagenarian entertainer also screened in Spotlight, appropriate for a Tony-award winning producer and her larger than life Broadway star. The film is a loving portrait of one of the last living icons of entertainment, with Channing recounting her career on the musical stage and attempts to crossover in a larger way via Hollywood. At the same time, there’s a heartwarming personal reunion at the core of the film that will make any romantic melt. Still, as pleasant and definitely enjoyable as the doc is, unlike JOAN RIVERS: A PIECE OF WORK, there’s no deeper story here to allow it to transcend light biopic territory – but audiences loved it at Tribeca, and will love it along the festival circuit and beyond.
The final Spotlight film in this roundup, Alex Rotaru’s look at the 90th Drama Teachers Association of Southern California Shakespeare Festival, similarly stays pretty close to convention – in this case, competition doc territory, like its Tribeca compatriot, KORAN BY HEART (profiled in my last post). The doc is perfectly watchable, and will be eaten up by theatre fans, but there are too many schools and students profiled. While some have interesting backgrounds, not all of them do – even the stories of former gangbangers finding redemption and inspiration through acting tend toward the overdramatic. Gratuitous cameos by celebrity fest alums like executive producer Kevin Spacey, Val Kilmer, Mare Winningham, and Richard Dreyfuss don’t add much to the proceedings.
The Viewpoints section produced a few winners, including Gretchen & John Morning’s powerful examination of the disturbing and unexplained disappearance of Aeryn, a young gay man living in Austria. Aeryn’s strong-willed mother, Kathy, a retired NYC police officer, serves as the audience’s guide through the taut twists and turns of the still not fully resolved mystery. The film is utterly compelling as Kathy recounts learning that her son has vanished, traveling to Austria, and dealing with uncaring officials who seem as determined to close the case unresolved as Kathy is to getting to the truth. Not finding all the answers, however, can make the film at times frustrating, but it will also make it stick in the viewers’ heads.
First time filmmaker Adam Pesce also delivers a strong entry to Viewpoints. His film follows four surfers as they train to compete in a small Papua New Guinea village for the first ever championship in their country – which will lead the lucky winners to Australia to train for an international competition and the potential for prosperity hard to come by at home. Pesce does an excellent job balancing the four subjects’ stories – refreshingly split along gender lines – while exploring the brief history of the sport and the hope of its impact on the island’s economic development. While the film doesn’t completely overcome sports competition doc conventions, it comes close through a foregrounding of interpersonal conflicts and aspirations in its well-defined subjects.
THE SWELL SEASON
Nick August-Perna, Chris Dapkins, and Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ Viewpoints entry has a very simple story – the stars of the Academy Award-winning 2007 Sundance narrative ONCE try to balance their romantic relationship with the demands of a music tour. What has the potential to be a fluffy, self-indulgent musician-on-tour doc instead becomes so much more. Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, and the ups and downs of their relationship, are completely transparent in front of the camera, allowing the directors to capture them with sheer authenticity. The black-and-white photography somehow reinforces a sense of intimacy for both the subjects and the audience granted fly-on-the-wall access, especially poignant during a very difficult but brief argument at an outdoor cafe.
Wrapping up Viewpoints is Gaukur Úlfarsson’s debut documentary feature on the titular Icelandic comedian who began a political party and ran for mayor of Reykjavik after his country’s economic meltdown. The camera is with Jon Gnarr from the beginning, as his Best Party is initially viewed as a joke – by Gnarr himself and Iceland as a whole – but unexpectedly picks up steam from a poplace frustrated by the shortcomings of “professional politicians,” and looks on track to win the race. While the film is a bit on the lengthy side, it’s fascinating to get an inside look at the political process in a country hungry for change, and the subtle transformation of a joke campaign into something very serious, but without losing its irreverent humor.
The ever-prolific Alex Gibney returned to Tribeca with his newest doc as the Tribeca/ESPN Sports Film Festival Gala. Right off the bat (so to speak), I’ll be the first to admit that baseball movies aren’t really for me – I find the game to be incredibly boring. I’ve also been vocal about my distaste for directors including themselves in their films for no good reason. Which makes it all the more surprising to me that I was very much charmed by Gibney’s look at sports fandom and scapegoating, as embodied in 2003 with Steve Bartman and the Chicago Cubs and 1986 with Bill Buckner and the Boston Red Sox. I still think Gibney should not have included footage of himself in the film (while the radio interview functions for exposition at least, being on camera in the interview with Moises Alou in the Dominican Republic is absolutely unnecessary), but I’m willing to look the other way. Perhaps the countless slo-mo repeats of the central gaffes ended up attaining a sort of Oliver Stone’s JFK numbing Zapruder film quality after awhile, but I nevertheless found myself thoroughly engrossed in this consideration of how and why fans fixate (or don’t) on particular moments.