With its top-heavy programme of 250 films from 40 countries, the Tribeca Film Festival offers New Yorkers a chance to mix and match. After Sundance and New Film/New Directors, there are not many high quality titles left. But Tribeca has always managed to get its hands on some big Hollywood premieres, countless sidebars, panels, community programmes and hundreds of lesser known works from all over the world. Director Peter Scarlet has always had an extra eye out for films from Muslim countries, showing New Yorkers what daily life is like in that part of the world. This year was no different, reports Kamera’s New York correspondent Thessa Mooij.

Knowing that they’re not going to get it from the mainstream media, smart Americans look at comedians, playwrights and filmmakers to tell them the truth. The festival’s obvious examples were the opening film United 93 about the flight that went down in Pennsylvania during 9/11 and Michael Winterbottom’s Road to Guantanamo was screened in the absence of one of its actors, who was refused a US visa.

When the former head of the Israeli Mossad, Efraim Halevy, visited New York a couple of weeks ago, he told New York magazine (see links): "I’m not paranoid when I get to the US. No way. Unfortunately, though, there is not a sense on the street that the country is at war: You don’t have conscriptions, you don’t have shortages, you don’t have events that crowd the news. I think we are now in the midst of World War III."

Well, if we are, it certainly wasn’t obvious on the streets of Tribeca, where attendees proudly paraded their high-end designer footwear (industry representatives), goodie bags (filmmakers) and festival badges (the press). They were eagerly dropping names on their mobiles, which New Yorkers in general use more often and louder than Europeans. After all, this is the city where the fine art of broadcasting calls for robust posturing.

Inside the theatres though, there was plenty of evidence to be found that the world is indeed on fire. Literally, in the chilling case of the documentary Roads by Abbas Kiarostami. It was made last year, but its ending comes as a shock now that Iran is doing a bit of posturing, of the nuclear kind, of its own. A short meditation on the beauty of Iranian landscapes, it shows Abbas Kiarostami’s hobby of photographing roads and path in moody black and white. Add to that some soothing classical music and a sprinkling of exquisite Sufi poetry and the viewer is obviously seduced. Except for the last shot, which shows a nuclear explosion in colour and the last black and white photograph reduced to ashes. I can’t remember ever being so frightened by a foot of celluloid. I looked around me to see if this was a signal to mark the end of time, but thankfully all I saw were three other visitors slumped in their seats and a bored ticket taker.

This cheap shot felt less like an artistic statement and more like a threat. On a blog dedicated to a workshop he gave to American and Moroccan filmmakers in Marrakech, Kiarostami is confronted by one of the participants, who must have felt the same: "Me, I saw the poetry, it was a poem. Why did you burn the poem at the end?" Kiarostami: "My interest was to create worries and anxiety about the future of the world. After Hiroshima no one talked about the wing of a butterfly." Apparently, Mr. Kiarostami wants us not to talk about butterflies.

Thankfully director Guy Maddin does. And Isabella Rossellini too, who wrote and played in the Maddin-directed My Dad Is 100 Years Old, a 16-minute tribute to her father Roberto from a personal perspective. Dressed up as her mother, she talks about her parent’s stormy marriage and their personal demons. As Charlie Chaplin, David O. Selznick and Alfred Hitchock, she attacks Rossellini’s penchant for realism, which she defends as Federico Fellini and as herself. The director is played by a huge naked stomach, which to a young Isabella stood for paternal safety and comfort. "In Guy’s films there is a ‘cinema nostalgia’," explains Isabella in the press kit. "The black-and-white, fading, dilapidated look of his films fills me with sadness – the same sadness I experience trying to hold on to my parents’ memory." Despite the nostalgia and thanks to the fierce debates between the cinematic icons, the film proves how valid the medium continues to be as a major form of storytelling.

The Egyptian film The Yacoubian Building taps into the rich vein of Arab storytelling with its preference for narrative frameworks and multi-layered baroque. Based on a ten-year old novel written by Alaa Al-Aswany, the film tells the story of the inhabitants of a stately 19th century apartment building. There is the aging son of a Pasha who dreams of the days when his family’s prestige amounted to something, the city was elegant and the people were courteous.

No such luck in contemporary Cairo, where greed, fear, anger and corruption seem to be running rampant. The ambitious tailor who rents roof space on top of the building and the old man’s newly hired maid conspire to steal the title to his office space from underneath him, while his sister has already kicked him out of his own house. A wealthy businessman goes into politics. The level of corruption is too high even for him, but he can’t extricate himself from his new alliances anymore. The son of the concierge is turned down by the police force due to his father’s humble origin and at university he is scorned by his rich classmates. The only one appreciating him is a hard-core imam, driving him into the arms of a terrorist organisation.

The stories are told with a great eye for detail and emotional truth by the first-time filmmaker Marwan Hamed, who takes a Bollywood-worthy 165 minutes to tell his tale of modern Egypt and its many woes, which must be a brave thing to do in a country that is ruled by iron-fisted state control. But Hamed gives us superb actors and believable characters, and not a political treatise. The only disappointment was his treatment of an upper-class gay newspaper editor, whose sexual preference seems to stem from a childhood trauma and naturally, such a depraved man must meet his death at the hands of a rent boy. But such criticism is easy coming from a Westerner. The man’s portrayal is in general sympathetic, so for cultural reasons, the character probably needed to be treated with such clichés to justify his otherwise quite subtle presence in the first place. Hamed was rewarded for his efforts with the Tribeca Award for Best New Narrative Filmmaker and veteran actor Adel Imam (the nostalgic playboy) won a special mention from the jury.

The Italian film Crime Novel (Romanzo Criminale) by Michele Placido is a reminder that Italy was ruled by terrorism throughout the 1970s and 1980s. The film charts the history of a Roman gang, which started out as wild street kids and ended up ruling the city and beyond with fear. There is more than a hint that they were hired guns for terrorist connections. Adapted from the novel by Giancarlo De Cataldo, the film is a tribute to what Placido calls ‘Romanness’, having cast three Roman actors for the roles of the three ringleaders: Lebanese, Freddo and Dandy. Their coarseness, clothes and accents are of the kind that attracted Pier Paolo Pasolini to the beaches of Ostia, where the key scene of the film was shot in his honour. The film subtly analyses the three thugs and their different personalities and presents a portrait of that time that feels very genuine in terms of costumes, art direction and even its purposely ‘ugly’ TV-ish camera style. But Crime Novel, which refuses to sensationalise the gangsters, stumbles over several melodramatic moments, which feel alien to the script. Watch out for Kim Rossi Stuart, the actor who brings pensive introspection to the role of Freddo (‘cold’). Born in Rome, with British, German, Dutch and Italian blood, he seems on the verge of an international breakthrough. His debut as a director, Anche libero ca bene, will be shown in Cannes’ Quinzaine de la Réalisateurs.

Relatively speaking, things may have calmed down in Italy after those violent decades, but judging from Sabina Guzzanti’s documentary Viva Zapatero, former PM Silvio Berlusconi has crippled the country with his deadly cocktail of media domination and political power. As a comedian she calls herself a ‘buffone’, a clown. Google the word and Berlusconi-bashing sites are the first to appear. Unfortunately, Berlusconi is not a clown, but a power-hungry tycoon who has crippled the country. Guzzanti’s satirical imitation of him was yanked off the air by his appointees at the state-run RAI TV. In her documentary, she asks tough questions about Italy’s weak democracy that nobody in her country dares to answer. She looks abroad, to the UK, France and Holland, where satirical programmes are a staple of national TV. Berlusconi may have lost the elections, but anyone who has seen Viva Zapatero (named after the obscure lawmaker who made it possible for Berlusconi to control both the government and the media) knows that he will not go quietly.

TV comedians in the USA don’t even get as far as being yanked off the air, except for HBO on cable. Good Night, And Good Luck was made with mostly foreign financing. Self-censorship is deeply entrenched in the American media, which makes the rantings of comedians, playwrights, filmmakers and artists even sadder. On one hand it’s good to hear them rail, but it’s deeply troubling that a country that calls itself the Land of the Free should have to revert to these underground channels that don’t even reach the majority of the population. This fifth edition of the Tribeca Film Festival was the first to demonstrate a semblance of curatorial coherence. Let’s hope that next year it will have more good stuff to offer.