Fest Notebook: Tribeca Comes Into Its Own With Diverse Slate

Stories of addiction, heated politics and a strong Internet presence were discernible among this year's standout entries

Ever since the Tribeca Film Festival physically departed Tribeca and more or less abandoned its uniquely over-specific 9/11 and “made in NYC” slants, it has become more reflective of national and/or global developments, tackled via a smorgasbord of genres, approaches and media.
Hence the arrival of a new subgenre, among others: the festival-friendly, narrator-free phenomenological documentary, as practiced by director Lucien Castaing-Taylor in the sheep-packed “Sweetgrass” (2009) and fish-crammed “Leviathan” (2012). Upholding the form at Tribeca was the similar but less ambitious turf-and-surf duo of “Aatsinki: The Story of Arctic Cowboys” and “Raw Herring.”

Jessica Dreck’s “Aatsinki” spotlights a family of reindeer wranglers against spectacular icebound landscapes. Herding, butchering and notching the ears of reindeer, these “arctic cowboys” also serve as tour guides for reindeer sledders with commendable equanimity and a great deal of noise. “Raw Herring,” directed by Hetty Naaijkens-Retel Helmrich and Leonard Retel Helmrich, follows the shrinking Dutch herring fleet, schools of which have become increasingly hard to locate in the North Sea’s overfished waters. Suspense builds as the crew shifts from attenuated idleness to fast-paced swirls of sound and color, as the nets are cast and filled with small silver fish, to be processed and packaged aboard ship.

The economic doldrums explored by numerous narrative and documentary features nowadays surfaced at Tribeca in tales of small-town poverty and prescription drug abuse. An extreme case in point could be found in Sean Dunne’s docu “Oxyana,” a look at the West Virginia coal-mining town of Oceana, where many residents are addicted to the prescription drug Oxycontin. Dunne conducts intimate interviews with users and dealers whose daily lives revolve around procuring and consuming these pills; nobody here escapes direct or indirect impact from addiction, and villains are impossible to isolate among the many victims.

On the fiction side, Enid Zentelis’ “Citizen Ruth”-like addiction dramedy “Bottled Up” features a knockout performance by Melissa Leo as a woman living in denial of her daughter’s painkiller dependency. An idealistic environmentalist moves in, setting the stage for an awkwardly broad three-way romantic farce that combines condescension with pat sentimentality.

Economic malaise and a general air of depression pervade Daniel Patrick Carbone’s “Hide Your Smiling Faces,” in which two kid brothers, passing their summer days in the woods, try to come to terms with a young friend’s death. Although evocative of youthful uncertainty and desultory angst, and infused with the joys of unfettered curiosity, “Smiling” never quite achieves the quiet epiphany it strains for.

The political documentaries proved a mixed bag at the festival, notwithstanding Jason Osder’s “Let the Fire Burn,” a look back at the still-shocking 1985 police destruction of an entire black neighborhood while persecuting the extremist Move organization, and “Dancing in Jaffa” (pictured above), Hilla Medalia’s uplifting account of initially hostile Arab and Jewish children in Israel who become friendly through ballroom dancing.

The romance between a Timor-Leste rebel leader and an Australian activist plays itself out in prison-made video love letters in Alex Meillier’s “Alias Ruby Blade,” seen from the activist’s rather self-promotional vantage point. And in Nicholas Wrathall’s “Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia,” numerous pithy sardonic quotes from the acerbic, America-dissecting author and meaty excerpts from his immortal televised debates with William Buckley enliven an account of Vidal’s marginalization because he openly advocated homosexuality.

The Internet provided the inspiration, footage or funding for several Tribeca entries this year. Cat-video stars are profiled in the cutesy “Lil Bub & Friendz,” where YouTube videos provide more entertainment, if less drama, than behind-the-scenes glimpses of the loveable cyber-pussies. Documentary audience award winner “The Bridegroom,” recounting the tragic death of a young man and how his male partner was subsequently ostracized by the deceased’s homophobic family, had its roots in a story first circulated online, where it garnered Kickstarter contributions for director Linda Bloodworth-Thomason. Kickstarter also largely funded Whoopi Goldberg’s docu “Moms Mabley: I Got Somethin’ to Tell You,” paying license fees for clips of the intrepid, groundbreaking comedienne, which frankly blow away all the docu’s pious celebrity commentary.

But the piece de resistance of Web-tweaked treats was Paul Verhoeven’s “Tricked,” a 50-minute fiction entry collectively scripted by thousands of Dutch online contributors.  An opening 30-minute documentary made clear that there are easier methods of writing a movie than attempting (successfully, as it happens) to impose a coherent throughline on various scattershot scenarios, with months-long intervals between shoots. The resulting work, however, displays a freewheeling spontaneity within the sexual and familial machinations of corporate power brokers — testifying to the fact that, difficult though it might have been, this new way of working indeed stirred creative juices.

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