Last year’s Tribeca Film Festival was a curious mix, with some intelligent programming buried beneath an avalanche of screenings, panels and events. In May last year, it was a relief to see documentaries and features from several Arab countries, after months of pro-war propaganda in the mainstream media. This year, the festival lacked focus. No sub-themes, no discoveries and too many films.

Four years ago, the festival was founded to bring life back into the neighbourhood of Ground Zero. With a huge corporate sponsor and a new director (Peter Scarlet, formerly of the San Francisco festival) they hoped to strike a balance between crowd-pleasing blockbusters and credible programming. The dichotomy, $ vs. art, is highly visible throughout the festival. Its press screenings were of films without distribution only: the weak and the foreign.

How the press was going to see, and possibly cover, the festival’s more prestigious titles, such as Jim Jarmusch’s collection of short sketches Coffee and Cigarettes or Mario van Peebles’s Baaadasss!, did not seem to concern anyone. Following my cinephile instincts, I had a feeling one of the festival’s discoveries was going to be a feature called Green Hat by Liu Fen Dou. Many others had also turned up at the press screening, but unfortunately the film itself couldn’t make it that day. The film, a tale of modern sexual politics in China, went on to win the awards for Best Narrative Feature and Best New Narrative Filmmaker, but I didn’t get to see it.

Access to films during the festival proved quite difficult to audience members who didn’t carry a credit card of the afore-mentioned corporate sponsor. Film industry members could sign up for accreditation only if they forked over hundreds of dollars. The New York Film Festival in the autumn, a more sedate affair, is also often sold out, which is a very New York hype-creating tactic – make your event inaccessible and people will think you’ve got something going on. So what was going on in Tribeca?

Last year, the European fare stood out amidst the videotaped US indie dross. Really, nothing has happened on this front since Pi and it doesn’t look like it soon will. American indie, which spawns countless Tarantino-wannabes each year, already celebrates itself at Sundance in January and Tribeca gets the cast-offs. I gave one of the indie films, Poster Boy, a shot because the premise sounded like a black comedy: conservative politician asks his almost-out-of-the-closet son to help him win young Republican souls. Unfortunately it wasn’t a comedy at all, but a very earnest, digitally made coming-of-age story.

I also gave a chance to Homework because it was produced by Jim Stark (Mystery Train) and Jarmusch’s favorite French actor Isaach de Bankolé. A spoilt teenage ballerina meets a French African dancer (De Bankolé); a plumber by day, he helps her fight the bulimia that causes her toilet to clog up. When I walked out after 40 minutes into the screening next door, I had unwittingly found this year’s sub-theme: Americans and their disturbing relationship to food.

Crazy Legs Conti is a well-made, bittersweet documentary of an athletic Bostonian who competes professionally in the many eating contests around the U.S., which is a fast-growing subculture. Conti livened up the festival by eating his way through a wall of popcorn in Tribeca. Some Americans will do anything to be a winner, even if it means eating sticks of butter until you puke. A nice addition would have been the documentary (Best Director Sundance 2004) Super Size Me, which is showing in New York theatres right now. Its filmmaker/guinea pig Morgan Spurlock eats nothing but McDonalds food for a month and lives to tell the tale.

Time for the Europeans, who proved to be a lot more interesting. Young Italians are definitely on the rise, as proven by the excellent La spettatrice by Paolo Franchi, in which a mortally shy Valeria starts to stalk a neighbour. She’s too intense to call her fascination with Massimo a crush. She even follows him from Turin to Rome and works her way into his life. But when the equally shy Massimo reciprocates some of her feelings, she freaks out. A masterfully acted tale showing hints of Paul Auster’s obsession with identity. Another continental gem was Vladimir Moravek’s Bored in Brno, a black comedy in the best Czech tradition, about several individuals trying to reach their goals in life, with not much success. Its lead actor Jan Budar is the Czech equivalent of Gareth from The Office, although slightly more harmless.

Particularly strong were the UK entries, with Ian Hart winning the Best Actor award for his role in John Furse’s Blind Flight. Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus is commercials director Andrew Douglas’ first documentary, originally commissioned by BBC Arena. The film consists of singer/songwriter Jim White’s musings about the mythical American South, which Douglas couples with stunning aesthetics, a welcome relief in the documentary world where many a worthy topic is tackled with great zeal and not a whole lot more. Another such documentary is Alias Kurban Said by Dutchman Jos de Putter, who turns his search for the author of the Azerbaidzhani epic Ali and Nino into a meditation on the art of storytelling. Like Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, this lushly visualised doc is shot on film and it shows.

Tribeca did manage to get their hands on the North-American premiere of Let’s Rock Again!, a documentary by music video director Dick Rude as he follows Joe Strummer and his Mescaleros on tour in the U.S. and Japan, before Strummer’s untimely death in 2002. His access to Strummer shows us a battle-scarred rock warrior, who is happy to muck about with his young Mescaleros in dressing rooms. But he also feels the pressure of having to sell his second album with them, and he drags himself to New Jersey radio stations and seedy boardwalks to do so. His efforts aren’t tireless: he knows the drill and pours every bit of energy into it, but it doesn’t look like it’s enough to make a huge success out of the band. Let’s Rock Again! is a tribute to his passion and commitment, and also shows how hard life on the road can be.

With two documentary competitions (one for first-timer directors and one for the vets) Tribeca may be masking the fact that it can’t secure enough good features. But it offers a fascinating mix of winners and losers, from all over the world. Spearheaded by Michael Moore’s Palme d’Or, America’s documentaries are doing quite well, both artistically and commercially – while US feature films continue to wither.