Tribeca 2012: Docs in Brief, Part One: Competition & Special Screenings

NYC’s Tribeca wrapped up its eleventh edition this weekend, announcing a number of jury and audience awards over the past few days, including: Best New Documentary Director to WAVUMBA (pictured), Best Documentary Editing to THE FLAT, Best Documentary Feature to THE WORLD BEFORE HER, Tribeca (Online) Best Feature to ON THE MAT, and Documentary Audience Award to BURN. I offer my thoughts below on the first two, and will hold off on writing about WORLD until after Hot Docs, since it is part of the competition there for which I am a juror. Unfortunately, I missed BURN, but will address MAT in the second part of my Tribeca coverage in the next day or so – this post covers the World Documentary Competition and Special Screenings, while the next will look at documentaries in the Spotlight, Viewpoints, and Tribeca Talks sections.

One of the highlights of the Competition lineup is Scott Thurman’s indepth look at the religious-based political maneuverings behind the Texas State Board of Education revisions to science and history textbooks. Because of its size, Texas ends up having a great deal of influence on the national level as to the content of publishers’ textbooks, which are only revised every ten years. Recognizing this, the small board, split along political lines, has become the frontline of the culture wars. The clear divide is due to religion, with the Conservative Christians in the majority doing everything they can to weaken the separation of church and state, push “intelligent design,” and cast doubt upon evolution. Science is not their only focus, however, with insidious changes proposed for history standards as well – once again with the aim to weaken the church/state separation, though other biases come into play, as when the head of the board Don McLeroy argues that a reference to “hip hop” should be changed to “country western” or that the middle name “Hussein” be included in all references to “Barack Obama.” The at-times bumbling McLeroy, a Young Earth creationist, makes for a good villain, but it’s law professor Cynthia Dunbar who is truly scary, worming her beliefs into the revision process in a much more savvy manner. This is a must-see documentary.

There are some thematic similarities between Thurman’s film and that of this fellow competition highlight by David Redmon and Ashley Sabin (on which I consulted, I should note) – both feature a small group of individuals whose decisions have far-reaching consequences. When Antonio Bussone, an Italian businessman, tries to retrofit a defunct sardine cannery into a lobster processing plant, the Gouldsboro, Maine Board of Selectmen (essentially the city council), led by Dana Rice, are disinclined to follow the wishes of their constituents, eager for the new jobs promised by the plant, and instead put up roadblocks to prevent Antonio’s success. Their resistance stems from a number of political and personal factors – some don’t see it as fair to help subsidize Bussone’s enterprise, especially when some of the Selectmen are in the lobster business themselves – but there’s also a sense of provincial stubbornness and perhaps even a bit of xenophobia at play. The townspeople, an aging community which depended on the recently closed cannery and can’t afford to retire, are strong, proud people who want nothing more than to put in a day’s honest work. They serve as an equally compelling part of the story – exemplars of the human face of the recession, and a potent reminder of the millions of jobs lost as factories have closed around the country over the past decade.

The Chinese bloggers of Stephen Maing’s film also explicitly stand in for millions – they see themselves as serving their fellow countrymen who are blocked from knowing the truth by increasing governmental censorship – the so-called “Great Firewall of China.” The film follows the twentysomething Zhou Shuguang (AKA Zola) and the middle-aged Zhang Shihe (AKA Tiger Temple) as they put themselves at personal risk to function as citizen reporters, sharing stories their government doesn’t want its populace to know or trying to help disenfranchised citizens claim their rights. Comparisons to Alison Klayman’s recent AI WEIWEI: NEVER SORRY will be inevitable – in some ways, the two men can be seen to reflect different aspects of the more famous Ai’s own concerns. Some viewers may take issue with Zola’s sometime self-serving, borderline obnoxious personality – some of his readership does – but he does show other aspiring journalists that they too can have a voice. The selfless Tiger Temple is more sympathetic, tirelessly helping rural villagers, but makes for a less-flashy screen presence, which at times causes the film to drag.

Citizen activism is one of the central themes of Beth Murphy’s film, which explores the efforts of a young American, Kirk Johnson, to help Iraqis whose lives are now threatened due to their collaboration with US forces. After serving as an aid worker in Iraq, Johnson began compiling a list of endangered Iraqis and advocating for refugee policy changes when former co-workers revealed that the US government was unwilling to ensure their safety. Murphy presents an involving portrait of Johnson and of three Iraqis on the voluminous list, and the infuriating bureaucratic hoops they must jump through to find haven in a country that would prefer to ignore them. The principled Johnson is certainly an admirable figure, and while the film stops short of being a hagiography, one sequence detailing a PTSD episode that left him in the hospital feels like it just doesn’t belong.

A PTSD sufferer is among the many subjects of Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher wide-ranging exploration of America’s complicated dependence on prescription drugs. Interweaving more than a half-dozen stories, the duo largely focus on the titular unintended usage of drugs – from the stories of human guinea pigs who eke out a living by taking part in experimental drug trials, to individuals with a variety of conditions who are misdiagnosed or over-prescribed, leading to dangerous consequences. Not surprisingly for the makers of OCTOBER COUNTRY, the doc is beautifully lensed, and reflects an intimacy with its subjects that allows their stories to carry a personal weight. That said, one exception is the young, pierced Texan couple who finance their wedding through clinical trials. They add very little of substance to the film that is not already reflected by others and instead serve to dilute the impact of other more compelling characters – like the African-American man who was experimented upon in prison, or the mother of a young man who committed suicide.

After the death of Arnon Goldfinger’s German-born grandmother, the Israeli director helps clear out an apartment full of decades worth of belongings. While his mother is content to forget the past and junk anything she doesn’t want or can’t sell, Goldfinger takes interest in certain newspaper articles and letters that reveal a previously unknown family history: His Jewish grandparents developed a deep friendship with a Nazi couple, traveling through Palestine together before the war, and, even more shocking, rekindling their relationship afterwards. Making contact with the couple’s daughter, Goldfinger attempts to come to terms with family legacy and denial on the part of both families, crafting an engaging, if somewhat rough-looking, personal documentary along the way.

Namir Abdel Messeeh’s feature documentary debut is also a personal film, detailing the filmmaker’s investigation into sightings of the Virgin Mary among Egypt’s Christian Coptic community. Securing funding, the French born director travels to Egypt to interview eye-witnesses and to gain the cooperation of religious leaders, but when his efforts stall, he decides to visit his rural relatives and film them, against his scene-stealing mother’s wishes. Unfortunately, at this point, Messeeh’s film goes off the rails and never recovers – the potentially fruitful starting premise is all but abandoned in favor of a messy and overlong self-referential episode that ungenerously but essentially boils down to “let’s have these hicks act in my film.”

Academy Award-nominee Scott Hamilton Kennedy follows two freshmen and two seniors at the prestigious Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, one of the country’s premiere performing arts training grounds for young talents in a variety of disciplines. Frosh Zak is an aspiring jazz pianist pushed very hard by his overbearing stage dad, while classmate Ruby pursues the family business of acting. Upperclassman Grace has a talent for ballet, but faces pressure from her Korean parents to either make it into Juilliard or find a more practical career. Joined by her mother in LA while dad holds down the fort in Wisconson, senior Brittany plays the harp at school while pursuing rock star singer dreams. Add some supporting characters in the form of teachers, love interests, and rivals, and Kennedy has a lot to balance, and, frankly, it kind of shows. While you’d have to be heartless not to root for the kids, I’d have preferred to see the focus rest on fewer – the too-self-aware Ruby in particular wouldn’t be missed. Despite a fairly conventional approach, the film should please audiences, with the end credits providing satisfying updates for the protagonists.

Dutch director Jeroen van Velzen attempts to return to the islands of Kenya of his youth, and to the folklore of its fisherman in this gorgeously lensed film. Never seen on camera, van Velzen instead intermittently narrates, while otherwise elders relate personal stories of coming into contact with magical creatures. But these tales serve as the backdrop against which plays the film’s central story – that of Masoud, a grumbly shark hunter past his prime, and his increasingly unwilling assistant, Juma, who tries to help the old man on one last great catch. It’s undeniable that the film is beautiful, and that it’s unlike any other doc at the festival this year. It’s also best when van Velzen is silent; he may not mean it, but his narration dangerously hovers toward a mixture of Herzogian parody and ethnography, strongly detracting from the elements of the film that do work.

Shifting to Tribeca’s Special Screenings section, which focused on music and theatre, Azad Jafarian offers a portrait of Judith Malina, the co-founder of NY’s influential experimental theatre group, The Living Theatre. While providing the expected background details on Malina, including her relationships with deceased husband Julian Beck and their mutual lover Hanon, Jafarian structures the film around her present-day development of a new play about the first anarchist. Malina, although struggling with finances and health, makes for an interesting subject, but always seems to be performing when on camera – comments made about her by others are more telling, and a lot more interesting than the rehearsal sequences that are shown at length.

Tracie Holder and Karen Thorsen also tell the story of a legendary NYC theatre figure – The Public Theater’s Joseph Papp, famous for democratizing theatre for the general public through initiatives like Shakespeare in the Park. This comprehensive yet concise film functions as a history and appreciation of Papp and his influence on the arts in the city. Most impressive is the wealth of little-seen archival material featured, including rare film from the earliest outdoor Shakespeare productions in the mid-1950s.

Finally, Matt O’Casey’s two-part BBC production sketches out the story of one of the most popular music groups in the world, from their beginnings as Smile, to their breakout as Queen with frontman Freddie Mercury. Featuring present-day interviews with band members, their manager, and influential critics, together with archival and never-before-seen behind-the-scenes footage, the doc feels comprehensive. At the same time, it also seems like it would be best appreciated by hardcore fans. Aside from the rare footage, and some playful FLASH GORDON-inspired graphics at the start of the second half, it looks very much like the TV production that it is.


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Filed under Documentary, Film, Film Festivals, In Brief, Recommendations

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