Tribeca 2011: Docs in Brief, Part One: Competition

With the 10th annual Tribeca Film Festival wrapping up this past weekend, I’ve had a chance to write up my reactions to a selection of the documentary lineup. Today’s post covers offerings from the World Documentary Competition, while the next one will look at Spotlight, Viewpoints, and Galas.

Though it didn’t score with the World Documentary Jury, David Gelb’s first feature (pictured above) did land a deal with Magnolia just ahead of its premiere, and was the most pleasurable all-around viewing experience of the festival for me. A portrait of three-Michelin star sushi master, Jiro Ono of the tiny Tokyo restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro, Gelb’s film not only provides a mouth-watering look into the behind-the-scenes of Jiro’s craft, but also offers a complex consideration of family, legacy, and responsibility in Japanese culture through the story of Jiro’s relationship with his father, and Jiro’s nuanced mentorship of his own sons and apprentices.

Alma Har’el’s debut feature did resonate with the jury, taking home the festival’s top documentary prize. The beautifully shot film, a portrait of a small community in California’s unusual Salton Sea – a once-promising development region that is a shadow of its former self, largely populated by eccentrics – succeeds more than the many other projects about the area in evoking a haunting sense of a place outside of town. Refreshingly, aside from a brief cameo, Har’el also resists the typical urge to spotlight the by now well-known Salvation Mountain, and instead focuses on a handful of more ordinary subjects who provide a more balanced glimpse into the lives of the people living in the unusual location. What is far less effective for me is the decision to incorporate a number of stylized dance sequences – a little of these go a long way, and their repetition serve as an unnecessary interruption to the much more interesting observational footage.

Over multiple years, Mona Nicoara and Miruna Coca-Cozma followed three rural Roma students as they were theoretically integrated from their Roma-only school to the better-equipped, previously Romanian segregated school. The Roma, commonly known as gypsies, have long suffered from discrimination in education, employment, and housing, but due to pressure from the European Union, their children seem finally to be afforded the opportunity to learn on par with their Romanian peers. But deep-set prejudices are not so easily overcome, especially when those in control of the institutions of learning and governance find it all too easy to make excuses and compromises that keep the Roma from advancing. The film stands as a powerful indictment of systemic racism in the name of tradition.

Institutional abuse is also the subject of director Michael Collins’ and producer Marty Syjuco’s exposé of the corruption in the Filipino criminal justice system. Affluent Paco Larrañage and a group of other young men are unjustly accused of the kidnap, rape, and murder of two sisters, despite having photographic evidence and scores of witnesses vouch for his whereabouts during the crime. The girls’ mother, seeking justice, and perhaps, more cynically, an extension of her fifteen minutes in the spotlight, fans the flames of media frenzy with a crusade against Paco and the other boys, leading to what many termed the Philippines’ trial of the century. Class, wealth, and ethnicity collide with politics, organized crime, and media distortion in this well-crafted film full of unexpected and often infuriating developments.

Making its world premiere, AMANDLA! director Lee Hirsch’s new film was acquired by the Weinstein Company, which will help get its powerful message about the devastating impact of childhood bullying out to broader audiences. It’s very hard to divorce oneself from the emotional response that the doc engenders to render a truly objective assessment – most of us have witnessed bullying of some form, whether or not we were its unfortunate victim or not. Hirsch smartly selects a broad range of subjects to profile who have been directly affected by bullying, underscoring that anyone can be at risk, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, age, or race. Their stories are affecting, especially those families who have had to deal with the consequences of children taking their own lives, and the support shown by parents is heartening, despite the often groan-inducing obliviousness or denial shown by some school officials featured in the film.

Speaking of denial, first-time feature director Joshua Neale, working with notable producer Sandra Whipham, turn their camera on an indelible character, whose two personae lend their film its title. Richard “Dick” Kuchera is in recovery and has spent most of his life being a “Dick.” His goal, as witnessed in this doc, is to right past wrongs in an effort to become a “Richard,” contacting abused ex-wives, estranged children, bilked business associates, and others to apologize and attempt to make restitution. The problem? Whatever name he goes by, Kuchera isn’t a particularly likeable figure, offering rationalizations for habitual abuses to loved ones and often being just plain obnoxious. Still, you don’t have to like his subject to find Neale’s portrait engaging – even if you’re not-so-secretly rooting against him and hoping for his new girlfriend to dump “the conman,” as her observant wise-ass teenage son refers to Kuchera.

One of the two central subjects in Gemma Atwal’s largely winning film is similarly viewed by some as a conman. Charismatic judo coach and orphanage headmaster Biranchi Das sees himself as offering a way out of poverty for the children he rescues from the slum, like young Budhia. But this benign view is challenged after Das recognizes and actively promotes Budhia’s preternatural stamina for long-distance running, raising questions of child exploitation and endangerment, and about Das’ overall motives. There are no easy answers, however, as new players, politics, and violence threaten the bond between the mentor and his disciple. Atwal covers five years in a complicated story, which is a feat in itself, but the film still feels a bit overlong and repetitive at times. That said, the topic is sure to lead to interesting post-screening discussions.

Children are also the focus in Greg Barker (SERGIO)’s new film, which follows three diverse youngsters who participate in one of the Muslim world’s most revered events, a Koran recitation competition held in Cairo. With shades of SPELLBOUND, subjects are coached through practice sessions as they try to memorize the 600-page holy text and perform it according to rigorous rules of pronunciation and intonation before reaching the championship amidst culture shock and language barriers. While it’s refreshing to see Islam foregrounded in a doc that’s not about war, there’s an unfortunate monotony that sets in after awhile. Koran passages are typically left untranslated, which can lead a viewer unfamiliar with Arabic to zone out after the first of many mellifluous recitations. The main subjects are appealing and the film is pleasant enough, but the structure of the film ultimately hews too close to standard competition conventions in my view.

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Filed under Documentary, Film, Film Festivals, In Brief

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