Continuing my belated roundup of last month’s Tribeca Film Festival, this post covers the fest’s high profile Gala slots and the catch-all Special Screenings, which includes several of the ESPN Sports Film Festival sidebar. One additional post will follow later this week covering the Spotlight section.
MISTAKEN FOR STRANGERS
Tom Berninger’s semi-mockumentary about his time on tour with his brother’s popular indie rock band was one of two Gala docs, taking the fest’s Closing Night slot (pictured above). The National consists of two sets of brothers, plus one singleton – frontman Matt Berninger. Wouldn’t it be a great idea to even things up a bit siblingwise, and have amateur filmmaker Tom join the band as a roadie as he creates a behind-the-scenes film about the band? The problem, of course, is that Tom, in contrast to his driven and successful older brother, has some trouble with responsibility, and he proceeds to muck things up enough that he’s asked to leave before the tour is through. If his performance as a roadie left much to be desired, his work on the film wasn’t faring much better – most interviews awkwardly end up becoming about his relationship with Matt. Let go and adrift, Matt and his wife invite Tom to live with them so he can focus on the edit, but even that proves challenging. Originally conceived as a mockumentary, and still feeling a bit too forced and self-indulgent at times, the project went through some changes along the way to become somewhere between a comical sendup and a truthful look at sibling rivalry. With Matt ever on the edge of exasperation or bemusement, and Tom affectionately and awkwardly bumbling, it works more often than it doesn’t, ending up an amusing, if light, look at brotherhood.
Actor turned director Kevin Connolly, a lifelong New York Islanders fan, opened Tribeca’s annual sports fest, a collaboration with ESPN, with this look at the fascinating story of John Spano, a man who briefly swindled his way into owning the team. With the team decidedly on the outs, and its then-owner looking to unload it, Spano’s emergence in the mid-1990s was a godsend to fans. The unknown Texas millionaire promised to keep the team on Long Island, quelling fears of relocation, and planned major improvements, including a new, modern stadium. The only problem? Spano had nowhere near the money needed to purchase a hockey team, and only so many unlikely excuses and stalling tactics he could rely on before he was caught. The story is infamous in the hockey world, but offers firsthand access to the major players involved, including Spano, making this of decided interest to the core audience. For the uninitiated like myself, the story’s unlikely twists and turns lend it a welcome, almost heist-like appeal, making up for Connolly’s overly fannish approach, both personally narrating the doc and appearing in it as an absolutely superfluous on-camera interviewer.
This year’s Special Screenings section played host to previews of four docs that are part of ESPN’s new NINE FOR IX series, a spinoff of sorts of the network’s popular 30 FOR 30 of which Connolly’s film is a part. The initiative, referencing the historic 1972 gender inclusive Title IX education amendment, is made up of nine women-focused sports docs commissioned from women directors, including Lisa Lax and Nancy Stern’s portrait of the NCAA’s winningest basketball coach, Pat Summitt. Shepherding the Tennessee Lady Vols from 1974 to 2012, Summitt’s icy stare became a signature, and her impact on her charges is considerable, as revealed by former players Tamika Catchings and Chamique Holdsclaw, among others. But while the film successfully recounts her achievements courtside, its true heart rests with Summitt’s son, Tyler, who essentially grew up with the team, and who serves as a narrator and necessary personal link to Pat here as the powerful and likeable woman faces retirement due to early onset Alzheimer’s.
LET THEM WEAR TOWELS
Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg’s NINE FOR IX contribution revisits the once hot-button issue of female journalists in male locker rooms. Focused on the intrepid sports reporters who stood up for their right to compete with their male colleagues on equal footing, the film reveals the old school, he-man woman haters club environment of the late 1970s, which literally barred entrance, blocking women like Sports Illustrated‘s Melissa Ludtke and the Boston Globe‘s Lesley Visser from gaining essential post-game access to players – unless management deigned to send someone outside to answer their questions after everyone else finished up. Even when the rules were changed, these pioneers faced catcalls, innuendo, and even physical threat – just for trying to do their jobs. Through a combination of interviews and restrained atmospheric re-enactments, Stern and Sundberg’s well-constructed look back reminds viewers just how far we’ve come from when such behavior was not only commonplace, but expected and acceptable.
The final NINE FOR IX viewed, Alison Ellwood’s investigation into the death of deep free-diver Audrey Mestre, is likely to offer the most surprises, given its niche sports focus. No limits free-diving is an extreme sport in which competitors test their abilities to reach the greatest depth in the shortest amount of time on one breath, without the use of scuba gear. Understandably, it’s dangerous, with divers subject to passing out, and outside help constrained by pressurization concerns. These dangers are borne out by gripping diving footage showing Ellwood’s two main subjects, Mestre and rival Tanya Streeter, who nearly lost her own life due to a careless, oxygen-deprived error. If this footage isn’t fascinating in itself, the film delves deeper, exploring theories behind the series of unlikely missteps that claimed Mestre’s life, and suggesting a nefarious, and controversial, counter-theory to the official cause of death by accident. The one criticism that can be leveled at the doc, however, is the incredibly annoying narration – it’s swimming in it.
THE TRIALS OF MUHAMMAD ALI
One of Tribeca’s strongest docs, Bill Siegel’s film brings an insight to a little understood part of the legendary boxer’s life, using a staggeringly rich collection of rare archival footage. Charting the rise of Cassius Clay’s career and the impact of his conversion to Islam and adoption of the name Muhammad Ali on his fall from public grace after his refusal of the draft, Siegel clearly frames his story not only in the familiar context of Civil Rights and race in 1960s America, but through the champion’s religious and political beliefs, paradigmatic shifts that challenged the general public’s safe assumptions of the role a black athlete should and could play within the country. The result is a thoroughly engaging, expertly crafted addition to the nonfiction body of work about Ali and his legacy in sports and beyond.
OUT OF PRINT
Moving outside of the realm of sports and into that of books, Vivienne Roumani’s far-reaching doc explores the rise of the digital book, and what this has meant for traditional printed books, and for literacy as a whole. But that’s not all – Roumani also addresses Google, copyright, Amazon’s business practices, libraries, and our changing attention spans. While interrelated, these topics are a lot to tackle, and the film struggles to contain them all and do them justice in its hour length. That’s not to suggest that the doc is a failure, however – on the contrary, it’s often provocative and insightful, and sometimes even disturbing – such as the interviews with the witless teenagers who are overwhelmed by the library. The film’s ambition speaks to the need for greater attention and follow up discussions on the radical transformations wrought by the digital age, and a call for a renewed intellectual engagement with ideas, regardless of the form of their delivery, rather than a surface gloss while multi-tasking.
The Special Screenings section also included already-covered Sundance title RUNNING FROM CRAZY, and three docs I missed: HERBLOCK – THE BLACK & THE WHITE, HAWAIIAN: THE LEGEND OF EDDIE AIKAU, and THE DIPLOMAT.