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Tribeca Film Festival

Online Dailies Coverage of the Tribeca Film Festival.


New York - Tribeca 2012 Documentaries

    The Tribeca film festival has become the most important market oriented film festival in the United States and long excelled with strong documentary programs. Characterized by broad thematic orientations and concerns with global issues these documentaries have frequently received kudos as part of the best Tribeca sections. This year there were 33 feature length and 15 short documentaries with most originating in the United States.  Productions focusing on socio-political issues constitute the single largest group. Traditional Tribeca concerns with music, sports, and the arts found their place as well. Though these other categories were attractive, they seemed less compelling than the issue oriented documentaries.

    Raymond De Felitta raised poignant issues in his investigation of the impact of his father’s 1966 NBC News documentary on the civil rights struggle in Greenwood, Mississippi. His film BOOKER’S PLACE: A MISSISSIPPI STORY is centered on a black waiter Booker Wright. Booker’s courageous, frank and outspoken commentary on his customers and race relations had been captured by Frank De Felitta’s documentary “Mississippi: A Self Portrait”.  The community of Greenwood retaliated by shunning Booker and destroying his existence. His persecution led to Booker’s eventual murder under suspicious circumstances.  The interrogations carried out by Frank and Raymond Felitta for their documentaries span 45 years and the juxtaposition of current interviews and those from the 60s are striking. They reveal that even today some older residents of Greenwood share mindsets with firmly embedded racist views. In their recollection, there was harmony between blacks and whites in the civil rights days, a harmony which continued into our times. Booker’s Place features superb use of archival film footage and stills reinforcing the story. Also offered are reflections about the documentary film makers’ responsibility to take possible consequences of their work into account. As also demonstrated last year by the Swedish MIXTAPE production, directed by Goran Hugo Olsson, old television programs are a powerful source of material for today’s documentary film makers.

    Directed by David Redmon and Ashley Sabin this film is a striking micro economic case study of the problems creating jobs in a small coastal Maine town. Jobs no longer existed since the sardine canning factory that had provided them for many years closed down. An immigrant entrepreneur sets up a lobster processing plant, which provided again employment to mostly senior citizens who had been laid off before. Yet local vested economic interest running local politics are threatened by the venture. Further, d a distant bank’s refuses to extend credit and freezes the accounts of the lobster plant, resulting in closure of the processing plant. The elderly workers who have no place to go to and the investor goes bankrupt. The documentary provides a telling commentary on the impotence of local communities about their own fate and the failure of banks and official agencies to put America to work again. Workers accepting low wages, the existence of a market for the products they make, and even an investor’s willingness to invest, cannot override the odds established by distant private decision makers and powerful local interests, no matter how irrational they appear to be.

    Superbly executed the documentary SIDE BY SIDE by Christopher Kenneallty is a veritable tour de force on the impact of digital technologies on filmmaking.  Narrated by Keaby Reeves, the production draws on the skillful questioning of a large number of film makers and technical experts. It generates a wealth of information and extraordinary insights about the use of traditional film stock and the application of the rapidly developing digital technologies.  Digital technologies have invaded filmmaking through the backdoors, via post production, color correction and special effects. Now with the advent of digital distribution favored by the studios and the rapid growth of using 3D, shooting on traditional film stock seems to be on the wane. Celluloid appears to be fading and champions of digital technologies likes George Lukas, James Cameron, and Steven Soderbergh to name but a few are dominating the discussion. Only few years elapsed from the use of digital media for Dogme’s THE CELEBRATION, the digital SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE receiving an Oscar, and the trail blazing 3D AVATAR which had few segments shot on celluloid. Today there is no development of traditional cameras and Arriflex rules the field.  

    After the death of his 98 year old grandmother Gerda Tuchler   the film maker Arnold Goldfinger is charged with dissolving her apartment. She had lived there since leaving with her husband Kurt Nazi Germany for Palestine in the 1930s. Goldfinger uncovers old documents, letters, and photos that reveal a hidden family history forcing him to reconstruct the family past. This includes involving his reluctant mother in the investigation and travelling with her to Germany.
    He discovers that his grandparents   had a close friendship with a German couple the von Mildenstein which lasted well beyond the Nazi period.  They renewed contact after the war and maintained their relationship exchanging gifts and spending vacations together. Von Mildenstein was a former SS officer who had arranged Eichmann’s appointment in the Third Reich. He was identified by Eichmann during his trial as the first functionary to suggest that all Jews be removed from Germany.  The grandparents’ strong attachment to Germany and their involvement with the Mildensteins was a family secret until uncovered by Arnold. Strangely, his parents did not raise questions about the family’s hidden past, though his grandmother’s mother had perished in the Theresienstadt concentration camp   since she refused to leave Berlin.   Selective memory and denial played a role in this fascinating family story.  Their strong link to German culture and history proved more powerful for the grandparents than the experience of the holocaust and life in Israel.

    In this original documentary Nisha Pahuja presents two sharply contrasting responses of young Indian women to the modernization and rapid change of their country. They redefine their role through a retreat into Hindu fundamentalism or competition for the Miss India Pageant.   Pahuja shows rather objectively  how adolescents  participate bin in the summer camps of the Dura Vahini movement, learn how use  weapons  and are indoctrinated with values radically  opposed to anything not conforming to  Hindu fundamentalism including the need to kill opponents if necessary.  Nothing could be further away from their traditional orientation than the women who were handpicked and groomed for the national Miss India competition, including radical makeovers and bleaching of their skin. Apparently for some young women strengthening fundamentalism and maintaining traditional family structures provides answers. For others Western notions of beauty prevail as does the quest for participation in the media industries.  Though important and disconcerting trends are depicted in The World Before Her,   for the large majority of India’s population of the 1.2 billion neither fundamentalist hate for non-believers nor the quest for Western beauty is relevant. Nonetheless the film received deservedly the award for the best documentary feature.

Evidently, there were other productions in the documentary program which should be singled out.  Beth Murphy focuses in THE LIST on the dreadful fate of Iraqi collaborators assisting the US estimated at more than 120.000 individuals. They will have no protection once US troops have pulled out and were already singled out for certain death by radical militias.  Less than 10% have passed thus far immigration hurdles frequently without being able to bring their families, a scenario that will have a sequel in Afghanistan.

PORTRAIT OF WALLY directed by Andrew Shea tracks the attempt to reclaim a painting by Ego Schiele which had been stolen by the Nazis from the Museum of Modern Art. Shea offers an insightful portrait of a small closed circle of high ranking US museum and gallery officials’ and donors, a self enclosed art elite, refusing to let go of art work acquired under dubious circumstances.  WAGNER’S DREAM is an elaborately well produced production by Susan Froemke and Bob Eisenhardt. It reviews the artistic process of renowned stage director Robert Lepage’s creation of a new Wagner Ring cycle for the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Among his principal innovations are the effective applications of audio visual technologies, but more importantly the use of a 90.000 pound machine that will meet all scenic requirements for the cycle. The documentary captures the interaction of singers, staff, executives and technicians with The Machine which turns out to be the star of the show. Thus Wagner’s Dream becomes Wagner’s machine.

As in past Tribeca editions, screening the documentaries was an enlightening experience. If exposure becomes a learning exercise and new grounds for reflection are broken, the curators have done a superb job and hopefully will do so again in 2013.

Claus Mueller


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About Tribeca Film Festival

Online Dailies Coverage of the Tribeca Film Festival, April 17-28, 2013


The Tribeca Film Festival brings together local, national, and international talent to provide the New York City, downtown community with five days of screenings, educational workshops, and various special events.
Live coverage with dailies from Lia Fietz, Suzanne Lynch, Claus Mueller, Maria Esteves 


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