Tribeca 2013: Docs in Brief, Part One: Competition & Viewpoints

large_let_the_fire_burn_pubsThe twelfth edition of NYC’s Tribeca Film Festival came to a close just over two weeks ago, but my back-to-back travel schedule has delayed my roundup until now – as it is, I’m writing this from my Reykjavik hotel room with spotty Internet. While readers have likely already noted Tribeca’s awards, for the sake of comprehensiveness, the doc winners included: Best Documentary to THE KILL TEAM, with a Special Mention to OXYANA, which also received the jury award for Best New Documentary Director; Best Editing to LET THE FIRE BURN (pictured); Tribeca (Online) Best Feature to LIL BUB & FRIENDZ; and Documentary Audience Award to BRIDEGROOM. I managed to miss the two bookending award winners, but cover OXYANA and LET THE FIRE BURN below, which covers docs from the Competition and Viewpoints categories, with LIL BUB in a follow up post that includes the Gala, Spotlight, and Special Screenings sections.

Before I jump into the films, I should note that, because I left town halfway through the festival, I ended up missing Competition titles BIG MEN, MICHAEL H. PROFESSION: DIRECTOR, and POWERLESS in addition to THE KILL TEAM. Also, I had already written about ALIAS RUBY BLADE out of IDFA – so none of these is included below.

First time feature doc director Jason Osder expertly crafts a complex, immersive, and gripping exhumation of little-remembered thirty-year-old history, bravely using only archival footage. The setting is Philadelphia in the 1980s, and the players are the radical African-American organization MOVE on one side, their disgruntled neighbors and the city authorities on the other. Espousing an anti-technology, anti-authority, and Afrocentric philosophy, under the stewardship of their leader John Africa, MOVE had a distrust of Philadelphia’s police chief that stemmed from brutality members suffered from his force, shown here in captured footage. When MOVE’s activities alienated their neighborhood and suggested potential plans to engage in armed violence, the situation escalated out of control, leading to the utter decimation of their entire city block in an inferno instigated by police deployment of an incendiary device and government officials’ refusal to control the fire until it was too late – lending the film its title. With lives lost in the blaze, including children, a multi-day fact-finding hearing was convened, broadcast on public television, to try to make sense of what exactly happened, and who, if anyone, could be held responsible. Osder weaves together footage from this hearing, the live news coverage of the police siege on the MOVE headquarters, affecting interviews with a young survivor, and earlier PBS specials about the group to expose a story with ever shifting ethical quandaries that perhaps most shockingly managed somehow to not become part of a larger national dialogue around race and politics in America in the 1980s.

Also skillfully employing archival material, but supplemented with artful period recreations, is Matt Wolf’s exploration of the birth of the teenager, adapted from Jon Savage’s original book. Focusing on three countries – the UK, Germany, and the US – Wolf brings to life four archetypal figures who represent the nascent identity that’s become so familiar to us all, but which is a relatively recent societal construct. Utilizing composite diaries narrated by actors like Jena Malone and Ben Whishaw, a kaleidoscopic portrait emerges of the experiences of these proto-teens – flappers, Swing Kids, Sub-Debs, even Nazi youth – as they come into their own, claiming a space distinct from the play of childhood and the drudgery of adulthood. Wolf sets his carefully considered history to a mesmerizing, anachronistic score, at once pointedly acknowledging the film’s rigorous construction even as it overlays a sense of brash freshness that conveys the elusive now-ness of youth culture.

An experiential portrait in a vastly different, but no less meticulous, style, Jessica Oreck’s ride along with Finnish Laplanders Aarne and Lasse Aatsinki as they herd reindeer approximates the rhythms of their lives over four seasons. Strictly observational, and often very quiet, the film follows the brothers as they tend to their wild animals, herding them in for counting, tagging, and slaughter, using traditional and somewhat arcane techniques – the ear notching and paper logging in particular seem inscrutable to the outsider. While not quite ethnographic, the patient viewer gains insight into a particular way of life, one so intimately tied to nature that it unfortunately seems strange to the rest of us who are disconnected from our environment and sources of food and clothing. This sense of the uncanny is strengthened by the film’s visuals – sweeping views of reindeer herds and otherworldly Arctic vistas. Still, for its beauty, the film’s approach will be a challenge for many viewers seeking a deeper sense of character and context.

Leonard Retel Helmrich and Hetty Naaijkens-Helmrich’s Competition entry also offers a look at a man vs nature scenario – in this case fisherman seeking the first year’s catch of herring, a Dutch delicacy served raw with chopped onions – the ritual eating of which is represented in an almost disturbingly fetishistic way throughout the film. That aside, the Helmrichs’ signature filmmaking style is often breathtaking, providing the viewer with an up close sense of the men’s difficult work and often disarmingly intimate brotherhood in an all-male environment. While the film’s utilitarian title is nothing if not honest, it does it no favors to an audience that hasn’t acquired a taste for Hollandse Nieuwe, and, at least for me, was extremely offputting. Far more fitting, from both a metaphorical and literal standpoint, would be MEN AT SEA, reflecting what I, at least, see as the film’s quiet study of masculinity set against the elements, and their profession, challenged by environmental factors.

The high end wine makers at the center of Warwick Ross and David Roach’s have not only the unpredictable weather to contend with, but a highly tempestuous speculative market and the growing appetite of the Chinese, buoyed by their strong economy. Focusing on the storied wines from France’s Bordeaux region, Ross and Roach reveal the factors that come into play to produce the most prestigious wines in the world, and to explain the system that determines their value. After a near-perfect year, the vintners seem on track to produce another, unprecedented vintage. While this might be enough to whet the whistles of cinema-loving wine fans, the directors bring in a secondary focus, China, as signaled by the double entendre of the title. The growth of personal wealth among the Chinese has led to a taste for the finest things in life, including Bordeaux wines – for some a status symbol, for others a bona fide obsession that results in the purchasing of French chateaux or in attempts to recreate them on Chinese soil – and this has resulted in price inflation which has made the wines inaccessible to traditional (also rich) Western consumers, and, in a more of a doomsday scenario, threatens to deplete the historic reserves. While the film offers some fascinating information, and a glimpse at shifting Eastern/Western economic dynamics, the latter is extremely specific, and ultimately feels exaggerated, especially with the frankly unnecessary employment of a celebrity narrator in the form of Russell Crowe.

On the other end of the spectrum from Bordeaux’s typical clientele are the residents of Oceana WV, who sadly evince a wholly different kind of obsession. Within the past fifteen years, a black market in Oxycontin and other prescription medication has run rampant in the small, working class mountain community, leading to an epidemic of addiction and lending the town its titular nickname. Director Sean Dunne speaks to a range of individuals in the Appalachian community about their experience or perception of the impact of the drugs on Oceana. Undeniably, their testimony reveals that the town has been devastated – overdoses are frequent enough that one young man notes that half of his graduating class is dead. Beyond this kind of disturbing information, however, the film doesn’t dig very deeply, and feels like it could have used more time with the characters than the month Dunne spent shooting. Interviews, while respectful, tend toward the repetitive, as do the interstitial shots of the road, leading to a kind of viewer fatigue if not numbness after awhile – perhaps this can be seen to mimic the dead-end that is life in the town, as noted by several of the interviewees. Still, Dunne has created a sympathetic portrayal of the town and its people, and the accolades he has received have brought attention to a serious problem that reaches beyond one community.

Finally, rounding out the Competition is Banker White and Anna Fitch’s exploration of Alzheimer’s, as faced by White’s mother Pam, who herself witnessed the disease’s impact on her own beloved mother, Marian. Powerful in large part because of its understatement, White and Fitch’s film manages to remain extremely personal without succumbing to self-indulgence, an all-too-easy trap that befall many other such projects. The key is Pam’s self-possession – even as she struggles with her memory, she is determined to follow through with her own project about her mother, a gifted painter. Even if the viewer recognizes the futility of Pam’s tribute to Marian, given her compromised state, White, together with Fitch, by extension fill in the gaps for her. The result is an intimate and smart portrait of not one, but two once-vibrant women, and the legacy of a disease across generations.

Shifting over to Viewpoints, in addition to BRIDEGROOM, I also missed FLEX IS KINGS, but previously wrote about both CUTIE AND THE BOXER and BIG JOY out of their world premieres at Sundance and SXSW, respectively.

Eric Steel’s subject is an elusive one – a reclusive Scottish woman who lived in virtual anonymity, and without even a telephone nor electricity, but who counted among her most ardent fans Charles, the Prince of Wales. What linked these unlikely figures: fly fishing. At the age of fifteen, Megan Boyd was given a book on tying flies, and soon mastered the craft, becoming a legend amongst the salmon fishermen in her area. Steel learned of her life only through her obituary, and largely in broad strokes, but pays homage to her artisanal skill through the recollections of admirers, on-screen recitations of her elaborate fly-making notes, and inventive, painterly, underwater-set animation that provides a rich, visual texture to this surprisingly engaging and compelling portrait.

If Steel’s film focuses on an unlikely subject, Hilla Medalia’s aims to present a different take on perhaps one of the most documented of topics – the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Her entry point is no war or territory dispute, but instead the classroom, and her guide is ballroom dancer Pierre Dulaine, who has returned to his native Jaffa after decades living and dancing abroad. Sensitive to racism and stereotypes developed early in life by both Jews and Palestinians, often despite having no real contact with one another, Dulaine begins a pilot program to teach dance to different elementary schools, both segregated and mixed, uniting them in a competition that forces crosscultural cooperation and, hopefully, understanding that might just possibly follow the children later in life. While there are occasional overly saccharine moments, the film as a whole works, featuring well-chosen youth characters, and the charming Dulaine to make for an audience-pleasing, and hopeful, look at the potential for change in an ever-troubled country.

large_bending_steel_3BENDING STEEL
Another audience-pleaser in Viewpoints is Dave Carroll’s portrait of a would-be old-time sideshow strongman, Chris Shoeck. Despite virtually zero sense of stage presence and a general (perhaps even clinical) aversion to social contact, personal trainer Shoeck has become enamored, if not possessed, by the idea of being part of the revitalization of a Coney Island tradition. Training in his apartment building’s basement – where producer Ryan Scafuro discovered him – Shoeck, using no special equipment, just his raw strength, practices bending nails, horseshoes, and solid steel bars. Meeting other strongmen and learning of the legacy of legends from the vaudeville circuit, the reserved loner Shoeck slowly finds a place – and the stage nickname “Wonder” – within this fraternity. It’s clearly a welcome change from the reception he’s long received from his frustrated parents – their lack of support at a late-in-the-film public exhibition is sad if not unexpected. Still, at the risk of sounding heartless, it’s somewhat understandable that they wouldn’t be thrilled with what their son is aiming to do with his life. While many viewers have found something profound in Shoeck’s trajectory – and I’ll admit that there’s even a moment of documentary magic – it’s difficult to get past the feeling that the film is much ado about a frankly extremely limited endeavor by a hard-to-connect with subject, and might very well have been stronger in a shorter form.

In 2001-2002, Brooklyn based Lenny Cooke was expected to be the next Kobe Bryant and make it into the NBA straight out of high school. That didn’t happen, and filmmakers Joshua and Benny Safdie explore how a surefire star became a neverwas. Their film combines extensive, if rough, footage a decade old, as Cooke seems destined for greatness and a first draft pick, with present-day footage showing the out of shape, thirty-year-old generally wallowing in the way his life turned out. Unsurprisingly, the earlier footage is more compelling, though it never sufficiently explains some of Cooke’s decisions adequately – such as his decision to part ways with his wealthy guardian, or his seeming reluctance to put in the hard work at basketball camp. He engages in some self-reflection in the later footage, but, in total, messy scenes just drag and there are few genuine revelations, though the final scene offers a sense of poignancy with some clever editing.

1 Comment

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

One response to “Tribeca 2013: Docs in Brief, Part One: Competition & Viewpoints

  1. Thanks for the heads-up on the DVD release of Let the Fire Burn. I am one that remembers that terrible incident and how it seemed to be quickly forgotten. The films sounds fascinating, will check it out very soon. Cheers, Rick

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