Tribeca Festival Gets Back to the Big Screen

Tribeca Film Festival 2021 No Sudden
No Sudden Move: Claudette Barius/Warner Bros.; Queen of Glory: Cape Coast Media; Italian Studies: Animal Kingdom

Taking place across outdoor venues in all five boroughs of New York City, the Tribeca Festival will celebrate its 20th anniversary June 9-20, screening a bevy of features, shorts, TV series, podcasts and games in what is being billed as the first major in-person film festival to take place in North America since the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Managing all the logistics to mount a proper in-person festival despite such circumstances would be a tall enough order, but the task of assembling a credible festival lineup across multiple disciplines, despite a near-total shutdown of film production for months, could have been quite a challenge on its own. It was something that Tribeca’s festival director Cara Cusumano was apprehensive about as the festival prepared to open for submissions last summer, but it turned out she needn’t have worried.

“We didn’t know what to expect, submissions-wise,” she says. “I had heard from colleagues that festivals had been seeing fewer submissions this year, which makes sense, but our submissions actually did go up. We had over 10,000 in total, across all of our sections.”

There is indeed no shortage of content, with 56 world premieres scheduled in the film program alone. And there’s certainly no shortage of big names attached to them.

Biggest of all is the opening night bow of Jon M. Chu’s Lin-Manuel Miranda adaptation “In the Heights,” which Cusumano feels is a perfect film for this particular festival in this particular year: “It’s a film that’s about New York City, it’s about community, it’s about Broadway, and it’s a film that was supposed to come out in 2020.”

The Gotham connection is also present in Steven Soderbergh’s Manhattan-set crime drama “No Sudden Move,” which was added as the fest’s centerpiece gala, as well as Adam Leon’s Vanessa Kirby-starrer “Italian Studies,” Morgan Neville’s “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain,” and Eddie Martin’s documentary “The Kids,” which explores the legacy of Larry Clark’s New York youth-in-crisis film “Kids.”

Aside from the obvious focus on the fest’s home city, Cusumano says there was a sense of responsibility to program with the city’s gradual return to normalcy in mind.

“Normally I would say we don’t program to themes, we just pick the best possible films,” she says. “But we did think very seriously this year about what the festival is going to mean for New York and for our audience, and we felt like it was really important to bring a program that is very uplifting and joyful. There’s a lot of comedy, there’s a lot of music.

“It’s not denying the world we live in — there are still films about COVID, and films about Confederate monuments, films about serious issues. But it felt like every one of those films is still coming at it from a very unique angle. I mean, the Confederate monuments film [CJ Hunt’s ‘The Neutral Ground’] is actually pretty funny. So making sure that we’ve preserved the levity and are bringing a reprieve to the audience was something that we really thought a lot about and touched back on frequently throughout the process.”

Playing in competition, for example, is director Hannah Marks’ sophomore feature “Mark, Mary & Some Other People,” which takes a farcical, Paul Mazursky-esque premise centered around a young couple who attempt to open up their relationship, yet manages to tackle a number of very heavy issues without losing its light touch.

“To be honest, I just was excited by the prospect that Tribeca wasn’t virtual,” Marks says of the decision to take her film to the fest. “It was really important to me to have that experience with the movie. Even though this is a movie that will most likely live in the streaming-virtual space, it felt like a fun opportunity to experience it live. That was a huge part of the decision.”

Also in narrative competition, albeit on the much more serious side, is Josef Wladyka’s “Catch the Fair One,” a dark thriller starring women’s middleweight boxing champion Kali Reis, which aims to put a spotlight on the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women in the U.S.

Reis, a longtime advocate for the cause, developed the story with Wladyka over four years. Wladyka’s debut feature, “Manos Sucias,” premiered at Tribeca in 2014, winning a prize for first film, and he eyes his return with anticipation.

“I’m extremely grateful to be coming back,” he says. “They were such a big supporter of my first film, so it’s crazy now seven years later that we’re coming back with my second. It was such a fight, scratching and crawling to get there.”

Besides a wealth of music documentaries tackling everything from Rick James to a-Ha, A$AP Rocky, Harry Belafonte and Rolling Stone editor Ben Fong-Torres, Cusumano also calls attention to Ori Segev and Noah Dixon’s narrative competition entry “Poser,” which casts leading lights from Columbus, Ohio’s, indie music scene as themselves in a fictional thriller that she says has echoes of “Single White Female.” Other under-the-radar gems Cusumano highlights are Spotlight Narrative opener “The Last Film Show,” from Indian director Pan Nalin, and art-world-intrigue documentary “The Lost Leonardo,” by Andres Koefoed.

Normally held in April, Tribeca’s pandemic-prompted switch to June dates also brought with it an opportunity to celebrate Juneteenth with a special day of programming dedicated to Black storytelling, with spotlights for films including Nana Mensah’s Bronx-set “Queen of Glory” (also playing in narrative competition), Andre Gaines’ documentary “The One and Only Dick Gregory” and Mobolaji Olambiwonnu’s “Ferguson Rising,” as well as a Lena Waithe-curated short films program. June 19 will also see the festival present a special award to voting rights activist Stacey Abrams, and host a cast reunion of Robert Townsend’s 1991 cult fave “The Five Heartbeats.”

Also new this year are sections dedicated entirely to podcasts and video games. While podcasts have certainly had platforms at Tribeca and other festivals in years past — and Tribeca once made headlines by screening Rockstar Games’ “L.A. Noire” in its official selection back in 2011 — the dedicated sections are something quite new. As Cusumano sees it, the expansions are a natural outgrowth of the same sort of multidisciplinary approach that has seen Tribeca — as well as nearly every fest worth its salt — expand into episodic TV and VR over the past decade.

“Tribeca has always thought of ourselves as a storytelling festival,” she says. “So as long as we’re keeping film as the bedrock of what we do, we want to really try to be responsive to wherever we find the most exciting work is happening. And if we’re seeing that in games or in podcasts, I think there should be a place for that at the festival.”

In another sign of the times, Tribeca’s lineup is filled out by a huge number of films that were initially scheduled to play the 2020 edition.

“It was really important to us to not leave 2020 behind,” Cusumano says. “When we announced that festival wasn’t happening in April [of last year], we always thought of it as a postponement, so I always thought that we still owed these filmmakers the full festival experience.” Hence all filmmakers selected for 2020 were given a chance to play this year, even if they had already premiered elsewhere or gone into release in the interim – with 56 features taking up the offer.

If that all sounds like a bit much for an event still trying to figure out what a full-fledged in-person film festival might look like in the post-pandemic future, Cusumano points to the inspiration behind Tribeca’s founding 20 years ago.

“We can’t help but think back to how the festival started in that post-9/11 moment, where the founding was really about revitalizing the city and bringing people back together safely around movies. So it just felt really urgent to us that this was our calling; this was the purpose a festival needed to service again. It’s intimidating but also exciting, because we like to put on a show, and figuring out how to do that with these massive LED screens, with the city as the backdrop, with audiences who haven’t seen movies together in a year, it all seemed really exiting, and that’s always a good place to start.”