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Tribeca Film Festival Documentaries

When the Tribeca film festival management announced that this year's festival edition would program on the lighter side providing more uplifting and joyful fare, Woody Allen had an appropriate response. Films selected, including his, are only a palliative and people waking up in the middle of the night are driven by fears about losing their jobs and paying their bills. Though there was certainly joyful fare among the feature films screened and some ‘uplifts' in the documentary section, but many films in the superb documentary programs were rather serious and somber focusing on the multiplying local and global problems we are facing.


This is an extraordinary and timely exposition by Kirby Dick of US elected officials and their political staff members in Washington who are closet gays, yet get re-elected on ‘family value' platforms and vote against most measures supporting civil rights for the gay, lesbian and transsexual minority groups. The documentary shows that about one third of the office staff on the hill are gay, a figure which was confirmed in subsequent news reports. This fast moving documentary exposes the hypocrisy of pretending to be straight among congressman, governors, and staffers while they enjoy privately a well known gay life style and act against the interest of gay groups.
As a viewer put it, the US American economy is like a casino where no one except for the inside managers knows the rules and everybody else is taken for a ride. This extraordinary first production by Leslie Cockburn documents the Ponzi scheme played by a happy union of banks and Wall Street generating extraordinary wealth for the key player and bankrupting millions of Americans who got caught up in the sub-prime real estate scam. The giant bail out payments by the US government to the very institutions which were responsible for the economic breakdown will be covered by the tax payers with no mechanism in place to ensure future stability. Cockburn offers us a clear and crisp introduction to the casino, to the economic impotence of virtually all Americans. Another must see film.
Cathy Henkel shows in this well researched film the systematic destruction of rain forests in Indonesia through systematic burning and the devastating impact this has on our climate. There is an excellent investigation of the underlying profit drive by large scale international agribusiness corporations but also of the reasons why any solution must meet the survival needs of poor small plot farmers. Yet apart from a well developed analysis, the documentary records a case study of solutions developed by activist environmental groups in cooperation with major financial institutions in spite of all odds.
Produced and directed by Yoaf Shamir one of the most outstanding young Israeli film makers whose films FLIPPING OUT(2008) , FIVE DAYS (2005) have travelled the most prestigious film festivals, DEFAMATION was for me the best international documentary at Tribeca. Addressing the sensitive issue of anti-Semitism in a seemingly light hearted vain, Shamir posits the controversial question as to who benefits from the belief in anti-Semitism and what the function of such belief is. I know of no other film or documentary that links this belief to the maintenance of Jewish identity. With respect to concept, execution, and structure as well as reflexivity, this documentary is a must see film soon to be released in the United States by First Feature Films.
GARAPA (Brazil)
The Brazilian director Jose Padiha who received last year the Golden Bear in Berlin for the controversial documentary ELITE SQUAD, meditates in this stark black and white film about the abject poverty of three families in rural Brazil. Rather than editorializing Padiha let the images of the living conditions and the voices of the hungry poor speak for themselves.
Though the government provides a modicum of support it is not enough to feed the poor which have to replace milk and food by garapa, sugar water. Certainly this film is an outstanding ethnographic venture, yet given that approach we learn little about the structural factors generating abject rural poverty. Nevertheless Padiha's film was among the best documentaries in Tribeca.
On the surface Alexis Manya Spraic provides an entertaining exercise about illegitimate children of billionaire Larry Hillblom trying to get hold of some of his fortune after he disappeared from his island home in Micronesia. There are lengthy description of Hillblom's sexual prelidictions and the international sex haunts he frequented ion the Far East. But cutting through the superfluous elements of this documentary, we find a compelling legal struggle between a lone native island lawyer who defeats a giant California law firm well connected to the body politics. Unfortunately not enough space is given to the corruption among lawyers representing and looting Hillblom's estate and the circumstances of the settlement.
The development of cybernetic organism consisting of natural and artificial that is now mostly electronic and mechanical components has long been a science fiction fantasy ever since Clynes and Kline coined the term cyborg sixty years ago. TRANSCENDENT MAN is a documentary portrait by Barry Ptolemey of Ray Kurzweil the most effective advocate and theorist of the future man- machine fusion. Whereas Huxley's 1932 novel Brave New World shows us the dehumanizing consequence of modern science in a genetically manipulated political order, Kurzweil and his adherents as presented in this documentary seem to be oblivious to the social and ethical problems surrounding the manipulation of the body. Techno narcissism pervades their views and the producer had no answer to the question as to who benefits. Thus we have no clue if the poor will ever be able to pay to have a chip implanted in their brain enhancing their memory and reasoning capacities. Apart from these qualifications, TRABNSCENDENT MAN is superbly executed and its arguments about accelerating scientific innovations and developments are readily accessible.
If born into a slum or favela professional dancing may be an escape route, yet if you are colored no Brazilian ballet will employ you, thus the international ballet arena is the only option. This uplifting documentary with dark undertones portraits how two young dancers try to escape their background. It provides a clear understanding of the socio-economic context and the tremendous odds against the dancers, including prejudice and self doubt. One of them will succeed in a highly competitive international dance competition which provides a scholarship to the best dancer. ONLY WHEN I DANCE is well structured and photographed and, given the theme, holds the attention of the audience.

This is the first of two articles. The next one will deal with Tribeca and independent films.

Claus Mueller
New York Correspondent firts published on


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