They’ve got issues

Politics and entertainment collide in fifth annual Tribeca lineup

If the Tribeca Film Festival must address Sept. 11 and the wars that followed, executive director Peter Scarlet says it’s not because the event was founded just months after 9/11 or is based just blocks from Ground Zero. It’s because, as he says, “We’re living on planet Earth, and we address it by addressing everything that’s happening in the world.”

Indeed, Tribeca’s global smorgasbord of cinema spans several continents and hot-button political issues. If the fifth TFF continues to grapple with its identity as either marketplace or people’s fest, corporate-sponsored behemoth or New York indie showcase, one thing’s for sure: This year’s program is marked by political, religious and environmental conflict and tragedy, or what Scarlet defines as, “Things are terrible and what are we going to do about it?”

Opening with Universal’s “United 93,” the first dramatic big-screen retelling of 9/11, the festival, as in previous years, features a handful of American narratives wrapped up in post-9/11 themes. But rather than dealing with post-traumatic grief (i.e. 2005’s “The Great New Wonderful”), there are high-tension dramas, from Jeff Renfroe’s paranoid thriller “Civic Duty” and Lionsgate’s Moroccan torture pic “Five Fingers” to Bauer Martinez’s political satire “Land of the Blind.”

In addition to hosting the North American bow of Michael Winterbottom’s controversial “The Road to Guantanamo” and the world preem of HBO’s doc “The Journalist and the Jihadi: The Murder of Daniel Pearl,” the festival will debut four documentaries on the Iraq War.

“It shouldn’t come as a surprise because we’re sitting in a country that’s been at war for five years,” says Scarlet, who says the docus reflect “something that we haven’t seen before.” In the case of Deborah Scranton’s “The War Tapes,” specifically, he says, “you actually have cameras in the hands of people who are fighting war. You really are there. And it’s both scary and a real eye-opener.”

Also potentially eye-opening is a collection of films from current headline-maker Iran. Entries include documentaries about transsexuals, underground music, satiric political theater, a “Mr. Deeds”-like presidential run and Mani Haghighi’s Fajr screenplay prizewinner “Men at Work,” as well as Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami’s “Roads of Kiarostami.”

While Scarlet says the movies reflect “an Iran that Americans haven’t seen on screen, which looks not unlike America,” he denies any political statement in the Iranian fare. Again, he says, the festival is just reflecting “what’s going on in the world.”

If it all sounds serious, the fest is balanced by a preponderance of comedies, from the romantic and star-studded (Jake Kasdan’s “The TV Set,” the John Malkovich vehicle “Colour Me Kubrick,” Jeff Goldblum docu “Pittsburgh”) to the political (“A Flock of Dodos: The Evolution Intelligent Design Circus,” “Al Franken: God Spoke,” “The Communist Joke Book”).

Together with the more buzzed-about political movies, these titles are stirring some interest among U.S. buyers. And festival organizers have made a point this year of catering to the biz “in a more comprehensive way,” says TFF co-founder Jane Rosenthal. “If the festival is ever to become a serious market, then we have to address the needs of the industry.”

For example, for the first time, potential acquisition pics have been scheduled to screen over the first weekend, so buyers can get in and out quickly.

And in the wake of last year’s fest, after the Weinstein Co. picked up “Transamerica” and Picturehouse closed deals on “Ushpizin” and “The Thing About My Folks,” execs are looking closely at the lineup of 90 world premieres (up from 61 last year).

“I don’t think they’ve had this many high-profile films with name casts,” says one buyer. Acquisition execs are also paying close attention to a spate of potential theatrical docu pickups.

Still, some frequent Tribeca attendees complain about the fest’s uneven slate of more than 170 features, the lesser of which, they say, threatens to damage the standing of the overall program.

But Weinstein Co. director of acquisitions Genna Terranova says they take the festival very seriously. “Tribeca is gaining strength and ‘Transamerica’ is a perfect example of a ‘smaller’ movie that ended up being very big,” she says. “And that is why we will go to every movie at the festival.”

Sony Pictures Classics VP Dylan Leiner feels this year’s Tribeca is a pivotal one — “well financed enough to give it a huge public profile” and “established enough in both the domestic and international filmmaking communities to draw films,” he says. “And with last year’s move up in the calendar, Tribeca is also separate enough from the start of Cannes to allow buyers and sellers to attend. The big unknown is the caliber of the films no one has seen.”

Sales rep Andrew Hurwitz agrees that the festival is at a turning point. “Tribeca has become, after Sundance and Toronto, the principle forum to sell and launch American independent films,” he says. “All the New York buyers are there and all the L.A. buyers are sending people, which wasn’t the case two years ago. They view this as an important stop on the circuit, because Cannes tends not to be a festival for American independents.”

Hurwitz also notes that even financing banks are attending. “When you have the entertainment lenders coming,” he says, “you know it’s not a local southern Manhattan film festival any more.”