The Tribeca Film Festival (May 3 – 11 2003)

Dot Com and Bling-bling at Ground Zero

With a new director at the helm of its second year, the Tribeca Film Festival has truly opened its doors to global cinema. Peter Scarlet (formerly of the San Francisco Film Festival and the French Cinematèque) has injected the programme with a healthy dose of curiosity and adventure, giving the staid New York Film Festival and New Directors/New Films series a real run for their money.

Originally co-founded by the owner of the Tribeca Film Centre – Robert de Niro – to boost the neighbourhood (TRIangle BElow CAnal street) in its post-9/11 slump, it looks like it’s going to be a fixture on the New York films scene. De Niro brings in the star-studded premieres, while Scarlet secures the street cred. An outdoor MTV show brought Robbie Williams to the ailing waterfront, while the hospitality lounge was crawling with filmmakers from places like Tunisia, Thailand and Holland – who were rightfully admiring the permanent buffet and free neck massage. Corporate sponsorship allows this festival to pull out all the stops, but it also prevents audience members who don’t have a certain credit card to book tickets when they want to.

The first festival was five days long and strictly a star-magnet event. This year, the programme was extended to nine days and screened a whopping 200 films. Faced with so much choice, I decided to follow my own roadmap, which led to me to some unofficial film programmes from Arab nations and strong documentaries on hip hop and black culture. In the context of the mainstream media’s reporting on Iraq and the Middle East, it was a great relief to see Peter Scarlet’s programming shine some light on the diverse countries and cultures of the Arab world. Not all the work was accomplished – some of it was decidedly weak – but the films examined cultures, people and ways of life which rarely receive coverage anywhere else in the US.

Screened in the ‘Afghan in Queens’ sidebar, El-Film El-Mafkoud (The Lost Film) tells the story of two Lebanese filmmakers (Joana Hadjithomas, Khalil Joreige) who travel to Yemen in search of the only print of their debut feature film. They didn’t find their film, but they found a hardened desert people with tough-as-nails tribal traditions, in which cinema has no place. El Kotbia (The Bookstore), by the young, Montreal film school alumni Nawfel Saheb-Ettaba, confirms Tunisia’s status as a cinematic hotspot in the North-African region, following recent international hits such as Satin Rouge and Les Silences du Palais.

The Iraqi filmmaker Samir, now based in Switzerland, presented Forget Baghdad, a fascinating portrait of Iraqi Jews who fled to Israel decades ago, but by far the best film of this unofficial Arab sidebar, and Tribeca’s US indie offerings overall, was Firedancer. The film is the debut feature of the young Afghan-American director Jawed Wassel, and was submitted as the first Afghan feature for the Foreign Film Oscar category last year. After working on the film – which describes young Afghans in Queens coming to terms with their dual national identities – for seven years, Wassel was tragically killed by one of the film’s producers after an argument about back-end profits. The producer is currently facing trial, and Vida Zaher-Khadem and editor Bill Gerstenmeier stepped in to finish the film. The result is a remarkably strong feature, tracing the steps of a young artist who tries to reconnect to his Afghan identity. Despite the tragic circumstances of its production, and the big risk Wassel took in working with non-professional actors, the film displays a vibrancy that most other US indies seem to lack these days. The film employs an unhurried storytelling tone, interspersed with humor and touches of magic realism.

The festival made much of Roc-a-Fella CEO Damon Dash’s self-penned debut Death of a Dynasty, a satirical take on the hip hop business, recently acquired by Wellspring for US distribution. But Maxie Collier’s documentary Paper Chasers shows the industry’s true colours, from the street hustler hawking his mix tapes to the successful record exec who expresses regrets at his ruined family life. ‘Paper’ means money in rap-speak and the film shows those pursuing it at the height of the dot-com boom and hip hop’s bling-bling culture. Collier documents his own production and personal life to further illustrate the power of the paper chase, and seeks to define ‘entrepreneurship’ in contemporary black culture: the music, the trainers and the media. Wealth seems to be within easy reach; when the film crew sees how the completely unknown Atlanta DJ Cris turns into multi-millionaire rapper Ludacris, they start to dream of fast bucks themselves. But as all the successful people in this documentary explain, it’s not about greed, it’s about persistence, about starting over when you’ve had a bad break, about working around the clock to make it happen.

Another strong documentary was Hooked by Michael Skolnik and William O’ Neill, the first film release of lifestyle magazine Fader. Hooked is an non-judgmental introduction to the world of the basketball player Demetrius ‘Hook’ Mitchell. Hook spends most of his time behind bars, still commanding respect for shooting hoops from his fellow inmates, but less so for his heartfelt attempts to strengthen his soul. When one of his mentors relocates, he breaks down in front of the camera. Finding the strength to make it through the day seems harder than jumping over a car in spectacular dunk moves. Two other documentaries, Bomb the System and Style Wars Revisited, tackled the subject of graffiti and b-boy culture.

Unfortunately, the festival also had its fair share of US indies redoing Kieslowski, Raymond Chandler and Quentin Tarantino, some of which – amazingly – have been bought for distribution. But the moment I took a break from my self-enforced roadmap, I stumbled upon a film that hit like a shot in the arm – one that went on to win two major prizes for its director, the Italian actress Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, best known internationally for her role in Claire Denis’ Nénette et Boni.

In her directorial debut Il est plus facile pour les chamaux…(It’s Easier For Camels), Bruni Tedeschi plays the rich daughter of an Italian industrialist who feels crippled by her wealth. Confession is her favourite pastime. The priest tells her it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than to be a rich person in heaven. The film is reminiscent of Jacques Rivette’s Va Savoir with its references to theatre and play-acting – rich girl tries to live at peace with the world, but the world doesn’t want to live in peace with her. Bruni Tedeschi injects a finely-judged mixture of humour and despair into the role. Many great dialogue scenes – some with the delightfully spiteful Chiara Mastroianni – ensue, examining the tiniest of emotions in the way we have come to expect from people like Rohmer. Bruni Tedeschi went on to win the award for Best Actress in a Feature Film and Best Emerging Narrative Feature Filmmaker, handed to her by Martin Scorsese.

Industry insiders seem to agree that Tribeca has to narrow down its focus, but for a fledgling festival it has already done an admirable job in bringing the world to Tribeca’s doorstep. That’s no mean feat, considering that those arriving by subway have to walk right past Ground Zero to get to the festival site.