Anthony Kirby checks out some of the highlights on offer at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
Founded by writer/producer Jean Rosenthal, writer/reviewer Craig Hatcoff and actor/director Robert De Niro as an engine to revive the economy of Lower Manhattan following the tragedy of 9/11 and with sponsorship from AT&T, IBM, SAMSUNG and United Airlines, the Tribeca Film Festival has more than succeeded and is a resounding success with both industry and public.
This year the festival presented 274 films from 42 countries comprising narrative fiction, documentaries, animation and shorts.
Samar Qupty and Tamer Nafar (Junction 48)
Winner of the Award for Best International Narrative Feature was Junction 48, an unvarnished presentation of life and injustice in present-day Israel. The main protagonist of the drama is Kareem (Tamer Nafar), an aspiring rapper who comes from Lode, a small town near Ben Gurian Airport, Tel Aviv. “My songs aren’t political they just describe the place I come from” – a deprived town with brackish water and intermittent electricity, where his Palestinian-Israeli family has lived for generations. One morning, Kareem and his family are woken up by the sound of bulldozers. They have just minutes to vacate their home. It appears it’s on disputed territory near a historic home the authorities wish to turn into a museum. Since they have both goats and doves they plead with the police to at least let them take the animals. Their pleas are in vain and the indiscriminate violence of the police is reminiscent of apartheid South Africa.
In a Q&A following the screening, Udi Aloni, the film’s director, said, “I think most of you know that the present Prime Minister of Israel and the authorities don’t like me. The authorities try to control film production, also there’s a sort of self-censorship that artists must follow to get funding. We got funding for this project from Germany and the U.S. This allowed me to make the type of film I wanted.”
Mr. Aloni, a secular Israeli, worked with the principle actors after he’d developed his script. “I worked especially with Mr. Nafar (Kareem), both he and Ms. Qupty are major stars in Lebanon and Israel.”
He’s somewhat hopeful for peace in his native country in the coming years. “The energy of both Israeli and Palestinian youth is infectious. Of course you have ISIS and Bibi Netanyahu stirring up the pot. We try to make a difference through art.”
Ireland offered Deep VR at the festival, an experimental virtual reality project. Designed by Project Leader Owen Harris (Dublin) and Niki Smit (Netherlands) and music by Andreuch O Maonaigh, this Ireland/Netherlands co-production was screened at The Festival Hub very early in the festival. Deep VR is a meditative and psychoactive VR experience controlled by the player’s breathing. Co-creator Harris made this game to deal with his own issues with anxiety; it’s a glimpse into how VR can be used in different ways, including our bodies and minds.
Brian Gleeson and Damien Molony (Tiger Raid)
Ireland was also represented at the festival by Tiger Raid, featuring Irish actors Brian Gleeson and Damien Molony. Directed by Simon Dixon, Tiger Raid deals with the almost unbearable tension of front-line warfare and how it destroys the souls of men. Joe (Gleeson) and Paddy (Molony) are mercenary soldiers on a top-secret abduction mission in either Iraq or Afghanistan. However, their boss, Dave, keeps pushing the boundaries between them. The fragile bonding between the two battle-hardened soldiers begins to fracture throughout the film.
The pacing and tension of this first film by professional advertising director Simon Dixon never lets up. The film’s greatest asset is the dynamic chemistry between Gleeson and Molony. The scenario of the screenplay pays subtle tribute to Frank O’ Connor’s story ‘Guests of the Nation’ and Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game. For the dynamic performances by Gleeson and Molony and its unrelenting depiction of the human cost of war this film deserves to be widely seen.
Alan Sabbagh, Julieta Zylberberg (El rey del Once)
Alan Sabbagh, an Argentinean character actor, won The Audience Award for his performance in El Rey del Once (The Tenth Man), an Argentinean US co-production directed by Daniel Burman. There is a biblical tradition that to form a quorum there must always be ten men at a Jewish religious service. It’s the Purim Festival, Ariel a middle-aged, overweight, non practicing Jewish man is summoned by his father to fill in for him in the vibrant Jewish community of present-day Buenos Aires. Ariel’s father (Usher), a hero in the community, has gone upcountry for a funeral. Ariel must fill in. Since it’s Purim kosher meat and chicken are in high demand. Ariel becomes a fixer for the whole community. He reconnects with many former friends, but is run off his feet with work and his responsibilities. A former girlfriend (Ms. Zylberberg ), who has become Hassidic, makes clear to Ariel that she still cares so our hero reembraces his religion. It’s when taking a ritual bath at a synagogue that Ariel is reminded of the tradition of the tenth man.
Alan Sabbagh’s underplayed performance provoked much laughter from the largely English-speaking US audience. The performance is realistic but not broadly comic. The film should do well financially in Argentina, The US and Israel. Hopefully, it will be remembered at awards season.
As Tribeca is primarily an American festival, US films predominated. Many independent productions were given their world premieres, several were brave in their subject matter and treatment. The Return, Youth in Oregon, Wolves, The Phenom, and A Kind of Murder all deserve mention.
Kelly Duane de la Vega and Katie Galloway’s The Return was winner of the Audience Award for Best Documentary. In 2012, in a humanitarian gesture, the electorate of California adopted Proposition 36 striking down a draconian law of the 1990s known as the three-strikes law. This law imposed life sentences for mostly substance-abusers convicted a third time of petty crimes done mostly to support their addictions. This documentary follows three prisoners about to be released from jail.
The Return is told from the viewpoint of the about-to-be-released inmates, most having spent over ten years in detention, the social workers who interact with them both in detention and following their release, the legal workers who fearlessly fight to set them free, and their fractured long suffering families.
What does it mean to be released following a long detention? How does one begin to reintegrate into society? The Return follows the struggles of two former lifers as they try to restore relationships with their wives, their children, now adult, and relate to grandchildren. Regret and anger is in part an issue as they struggle to find gainful employment, and manage mental health problems and personal triggers which had led to incarceration. Finding the process extremely difficult one older releasee has a long talk with his supportive wife and decides to spend some personal time in a halfway house.
At the federal level, President Obama is striving to release many prisoners convicted under this draconian 1990 law. He’s decried the fact that the U.S. has the highest prison population in the industrial world. The Return has put a human face on this massive problem. It well deserves its award.
Frank Langella (Youth in Oregon)
Youth in Oregon, directed by Joel David Moore, sees Frank Langella as Raymond Engersoll, a surgeon and heart specialist who has been warned that without a second heart operation he could have a heart attack or stroke at any time. Knowing all the odds and feeling that even with surgery he might live less than five years, he decides to return to his native Oregon (one of three states where assisted suicide is legal) to be euthanized. He makes the announcement at his eightieth birthday party traumatizing his entire family. His long-suffering wife (Mary Kay Place), formerly a nurse, is apathetic, his daughter (Christina Applegate) overwhelmed by the announcement becomes emotional and is completely opposed. Ray, a brilliant self-made man says, “Listen, I’m already an encumbrance on all of you, since my earlier attach. I don’t want to be a further burden. I’ve made my decision. I’m booked into a facility in Eugene for next Thursday. The procedure will take place on Friday. I’m getting to Oregon with or without your help.”
Ray knows that he’s been far too focused on his career over the years and hurt those who love him most. He doesn’t want to cause more pain but is stubborn in sticking to his decision.
As always Langella is superb as the hard-headed yet conflicted Ray. Underplaying her role as his long-suffering wife Place is also affecting. Applegate is simply emotional as a loving daughter. Billy Crudup as the son in law simply wants his wife back.
Actor/writer director Joel David Morse, knows how to get the most from his accomplished cast. A film that hopefully will be widely viewed.
Taylor John Smith and Zazie Beetz (Wolves)
Looking like a young Matt Demon newcomer Taylor John Smith features in Bart Freundlich’s Wolves as star player Anthony Keller of St. Anthony’s High School in this realistic story of present day white US middle class. Tapped for an athletic scholarship, if he maintains his academic grades, Keller is under pressure from both his teammates and his family to continue to succeed. Keller’s father Lee, a teacher of creative writing at a state university, is experiencing middle-aged angst. Formerly a star basketball player, forced to retire because of injury, he misses his glory days. He’s in a relatively happy marriage to a marketing executive (Clara Gugino) but has developed a gambling addiction which may put everything in jeopardy. Not only has he gambled with family funds, he’s also borrowed heavily from several shady characters. Anthony, just seventeen, learns of this when called to the administration offices at the school. Fees for his second term have not been paid. By taking on extra contract work his mother comes up with the money.
Young Anthony is under a lot of pressure; should he simply drop out of high school and work to keep his family on track or continue on his academic and athletic course?
The action of the film moves fluidly between the halls of academia, the public basketball courts of New York City and the modest apartment buildings of the city’s Lower East Side.
Wolves is a powerful portrait of a boy coming of age in urban New York. All the performances are understated and true, especially Taylor John Smith as Anthony. The basketball sequences are electric. With selective marketing the film could become as successful as The Basketball Diaries.
Staying on the court, Noah Buschel’s The Phenom stars Johnny Simmons as major League first year basketball player Hooper Gibson who has lost his focus. After freezing during a game, he’s sent down to the minor leagues and mandated sessions with an unorthodox sports psychologist (Paul Giamatti). The psychologist pushes the reluctant sleep deprived athlete to uncover the origins of his unease. Adding to Hooper’s problems is the troubled relationship he has with his overbearing ex-prisoner father (Ethan Hawke) who’s tough love has developed Hopper’s talent and added to his anxiety.
“When were you happiest playing baseball?” asks the psychologist of the sleep deprived Hooper.
“When I played little league and simply focused on hitting the oncoming ball. I didn’t care about anything just on the game and the approval of my teammates.”
“I can give you back this joy,’ says the psychologist.
Patrick Wilson (A Kind of Murder)
In A Kind of Murder directed by Andy Goddard, architect Walter Stackhouse (Patrick Wilson), who’s love is crime writing, is in an unhappy marriage to the mentally ill Clara (Jessica Biel). To aid in his writing Walter keeps a scrapbook of real life crime cases. He becomes fascinated by the case of Melchior Kimmel (Vincent Kartheiser), a bookseller from New Jersey. Melchior is suspected of murdering his wife Helen at a long-distance bus rest stop. All the evidence is circumstantial. Authorities cannot proceed with the case but a dogged police inspector keeps Kimmel under observance, harassing him in his book store. Walter’s fascination with this case becomes an obsession. He visits Melchior’s store. Secretly he wishes his wife Clara dead. When Clara enroute to visit her dying mother turns up dead at the same rest stop Walter is seen as prime suspect. Is he?
A Kind of Murder proves itself to be a classic film noir seamlessly combining philosophical thoughts on culpability with edge of the seat Hitchcock style suspense.
The 2016 Tribeca Film Festival took place April 13 – 24.