From documentaries to gay-specific themes, this year continues downtown’s recovery
The vast majority of New York’s many film festivals and series cater to specialists. Even Lincoln Center’s New York Film Festival presents an extremely selective compilation of work mostly shown in other festivals.
By contrast, the Tribeca Film Festival, now in its fourth year, covers a lot of ground. One can choose glitz (Sydney Pollack’s “The Interpreter,” Paris Hilton in “House of Wax”), social consciousness (numerous politically minded documentaries), the extremes of Japanese horror or James Benning’s “13 Lakes,” an avant-garde film consisting of ten-minute shots of lakes.
Tribeca’s first year seemed more concerned with attracting stars than good films, but its programming has improved greatly, since Peter Scarlet, formerly with San Francisco’s festival, took over the reins. There are three main competitive sections for narrative features, documentary features and shorts. The program also includes a lengthy roster of films shot in New York. Tribeca satisfies the urge for a week of documentaries or locally made work.
While many of this year’s selections are unknown quantities, there are local premieres of heavily buzzed films like Wong Kar-wai’s “2046,” Michael Winterbottom’s sexually explicit “9 Songs,” Jacques Audiard’s “The Beat That My Heart Skipped” and New Queer Cinema pioneer Gregg Araki’s “Mysterious Skin.”
Apart from “Mysterious Skin” (adapted from Scott Heim’s novel), films of particular interest to the LGBT community include Craig Chester’s “Adam & Steve,” Henry Corra’s “Same-Sex America,” Duncan Tucker’s “Transamerica” and Joseph Lovett’s “Gay Sex in the 70s.”
A French counterpart to leftist British director Ken Loach, Robert Guédiguian always shoots in his Marseilles neighborhood and uses the same cast of lead actors. Despite his deep sympathy for working-class people and the downtrodden, his films sometimes suffer from a cozy complacency — especially his most popular one, “Marius and Jeanette”—or melodramatic excess. With “The Last Mitterrand,” he’s gone in a completely different direction. Guédiguian has made a biopic of sorts, depicting the efforts of author Antoine Moreau (Jalil Lespert) to write a book on the late French President François Mitterrand. In a career-defining performance, Michel Bouquet plays Mitterrand. Bouquet, seemingly growing more skeletal as the film progresses, emphasizes the man’s physical frailty.
Generally likable, his personality is nevertheless defined by an odd mix of arrogance and vulnerability.
Although it’s not readily apparent, Antoine is as much Guédiguian’s real subject as Mitterrand. At first, he seems like a mere plot device. One wonders why the film spends so much time on his divorce from a pregnant wife. He’s hardly a magnetic figure like his subject. Yet we see the president through his eyes, those of a young man thinking seriously about mortality and history for the first time. The film depicts the death of an old order of socialist idealism and leaves it to us and Antoine to imagine a new one. Some details will be lost on spectators unfamiliar with French politics. Still, it’s a potent elegy for the man and his era.
Even present-day France looks like a paradise next to the misery depicted in Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani’s documentary “The Devil’s Miner,” which suggests that Bolivia desperately needs child labor laws.
Centering on 14-year-old miner Basilio Vargas, it depicts life in his impoverished village where children as young as his 12-year-old brother toil away in the horrifically dangerous mines. If they survive the frequent accidents, they can look forward to dying of lung disease by early middle age. This atmosphere of dread has informed the local culture; the villagers practice an unusual form of Catholicism in which they worship both God and the Satanic “Tio,” guardian of the mines. (PETA members beware: “The Devil’s Miner” shows a llama being sacrificed to Tio.) The filmmakers are more concerned with ethnography than politics. If globalization or Western-based multinationals bear any blame for the miners’ conditions, “The Devil’s Miner” never addresses it; they are in a particularly difficult situation because they belong to a co-op run by indigenous Bolivians. Shot on digital video and shown on projected video, it looks far better than most documentaries, including those made under more comfortable circumstances.
While Ladkani’s cinematography is handsome, finding beauty in the Bolivian mountains (and even, occasionally, in the mines), he never romanticizes poverty. Vargas becomes a character as vivid as any fictional creation. One hopes that he can find the happy ending denied most of his peers and live his dream of becoming a teacher.
In 1970, Syrian director Omar Amiralay made his first film, “Essay on the Euphrates Dam.” It’s a nearly wordless, 15-minute celebration of the building of a dam, which created an artificial lake, in the village of Al-Mashi on the Euphrates River. It concludes with images of school kids: the final shot is a child’s drawing. Now more skeptical about the project and Syria’s ruling Baath Party, Amiralay returned to Al-Mashi 33 years later to make “A Flood In Baath Country.” The festival is showing the two films together.
Amiralay has obviously thought deeply about the implications of filming interviews. He sets a politician under a spotlight in an otherwise black room. A teacher is shot in a close-up that fills the right third of the screen with his face, magnifying his slight awkwardness. However, “A Flood In Baath Country” feels fragmentary and scattershot. Returning to the ending of “Essay on the Euphrates Dam,” Amiralay’s real subject is the upbringing of Syrian children, who are taught in school to equate love for the Baath Party with love for their country. The film might have been stronger had it concentrated on education, like Frederick Wiseman’s “High School” or Abbas Kiarostami’s “Homework.” Amiralay uses the dam, which destroyed some historically significant landmarks, as a metaphor for the Baath party’s pernicious effects on Syria and its false ideas about progress, but that topic is reduced to a framing device.
None of these three films yet has an American distributor. While “The Last Mitterand” and “A Flood In Baath Country” may be too culturally specific for these shores, I’m sure “The Devil’s Miner,” which would be perfect for a Film Forum run, will return to New York.
The Tribeca Film Festival runs April 19-May 1 at various downtown venues. “The Last Mitterrand” is at Pace University at 6 p.m. on April 22 and Battery Park Regal Cinema (RC) 8 at 1:15 p.m. on April 23; “The Devil’s Miner” RC6 at 4 p.m. on April 22, RC8 at 4:15 p.m on the 23rd and RC4 at 8 p.m. on the 28th; “A Flood In Baath Country” plays at RC1 at 9:15 on the 23rd, RC8 at 4:15 p.m. on the 26th and RC6 at 1 p.m. on the 29th. General screenings are $10, with family discount packages and other features at various prices. Call 212-321-7400 or visit tribecafilmfestival.org.