While social justice and eco-themed documentaries are once again prevalent at Tribeca, portrait docs focusing on politically controversial subjects dominate the nonfiction lineup.
Ronald Reagan, Elián González, Frank Serpico, Roger Stone, Rodney King and WeCopwatch member Ramsey Orta, who filmed Eric Garner’s fatal Staten Island arrest, are among the many famous and infamous figures being explored by 11 directors including Sierra Pettengill, Camilla Hall and Academy Award winners Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin. The six films explore subject matter that still makes headlines today including fake news, race relations and immigration.
Cara Cusumano, TFF director of programming, says including politically driven docs into this year’s lineup was a “priority.”
“We were very much in the thick of the election season when we started to program the festival and politics was on a lot of people’s minds,” Cusumano says. “We felt that it was essential to look back in time at stories and figures and what they have to say about our world today. Each film is looking back in order to look forward.”
In assembling “The Reagan Show,” co-directors Pettengill and Pacho Velez relied entirely on 1,000 hours of archival news footage of former President Reagan and videotapes created by his administration.
“Rather than applying the tapes to a pre-determined story or cherry-picking it for illustrative purposes, we sat with the tapes and reckoned with it as a body of footage,” Pettengill says. “It was crucial to me that we remain within the archival record, and resist the lure of outside voices from the present day.”
By doing so the film reveals that the country’s 40th president not only coined the term, “Make America Great Again,” but also that Reagan, like Trump, attempted to manipulate the media by replacing the truth with self-authored statements during his rivalry with charismatic Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.“I guarantee that Trump’s people studied Reagan’s playbook from 1980 and 1984 in order to figure out how you get white working-class Democrats to vote Republican,” Velez says .
Like “The Reagan Show,” Netflix’s “Get Me Roger Stone” is a window into the past 40 years of politics. President Trump is interviewed in the film about Stone — a political consultant and longtime Trump confidante and adviser. Directed by Dylan Bank, Daniel DiMauro and Morgan Pehme, the docu traces the monumental shifts that the self-described “dirty trickster” has made on modern GOP history — connecting Nixon, Roy Cohn and Reagan with Super PACs, lobbying, the 2000 election, as well as the election of the country’s first reality star president.
“Frank Serpico” is one of three films that explores police corruption. Lindsay and Martin’s “LA 92” for National Geographic draws on archival news images and unseen footage to paint an in-depth portrait of the 1992 Los Angeles riots and the tempestuous relationship between the city’s African-American community and those charged with protecting it, while Hall’s “Copwatch” explores a group of citizens who have documented police interactions and brutality since 1990.
“Serpico” director Antonino D’Ambrosio wanted to let audiences discover rather than passively receive ideas about the former NYPD officer, who in the 1970s outed corruption and payoffs running rampant in the department.
“It’s sometimes that simple that one person can make a difference, but that idea has been turned into something that is looked down upon as a joke,” says D’Ambrosio. “Serpico’s story is a reminder that it can happen and that we aren’t living for ourselves. We are living for history and we have a role to play in shaping that history.”
Like Serpico, 5 year-old Elián González also had a role in shaping history. In CNN Films’ “Elián,” Tim Golden and Ross McDonnell retrace the 1999 custody battle between González’s Cuban father and his Miami-located relatives, who brought the conflict between Cuba and the U.S. to the forefront. It marked the first time Washington D.C. and Havana have agreed since the early ’60s. It also marked the first time the Cuban-American community found themselves on the wrong side of the argument.
“They realized simply denouncing Fidel [Castro] and denouncing Cuba wasn’t going to work anymore,” says pic’s producer Trevor Birney. “It was a long road from there to where we, the United States, found themselves at the end of the Obama administration with regards to Cuba.”
The film gives the now grown-up González the chance to tell his own side of the story 18 years after becoming a political football. But because Trump has not made it clear if he will further Obama’s advances on Cuban-American relations, González will not attend the Tribeca premiere of the film.
“His first visit back to America will be very significant moment for both America and Cuba,” says Birney. “But it’s an uncertain time for Cubans and they are not willing to send Elián here at the moment.”
Despite political fatigue, Cusumano feels that audiences want to see films in an attempt to better understand.
“How we got here and how we can all figure this out together is on people’s minds,” she says. “The empathy that film brings to a character or situation that maybe you don’t agree with, is the way that we can come together around these issues.”