The Tribeca Film Festival this year showed great strength in its talks and special events. Three highlights:
SPEEDY (TED WILDE, US, 1928)
starring HAROLD LLOYD
April 24, 7pm, Spring Studios
Speedy (Ted Wilde, US, 1928), the fantastic, 90 minute, Harold Lloyd silent film, shot, often, at top speed, in New York’s streets from Coney Island to Yankee Stadium, has been newly restored by Criterion. Screened at the Tribeca Film Festival for the first time, the sound track was, ingeniously, commisioned for the spectacular DJ, DJZ-Trip, who scored this madcap film, filled with wildly crazed slapstick, death defying stunts, car chases, wonderfully silly jokes, and tender love. DJZ-Trip’s inventive, nuanced, dramatic, clever, fun and poignant score is a masterpiece and the entire audience was on their feet when it was over! There should be more public screenings of the film with this live sound performance or, at the very least, a DVD released with DJZ-Trip’s brilliant sound rendering of Lloyd’s brilliant visuals.
A total wonder. Must see and must hear.
CATHERINE MARTIN with HAMISH BOWLES
Get The Look
APRIL 17, 2:30pm, SVA theater
Catherine Martin, the supra-imaginative costume designer and production designer who works with (among others) Baz Luhrman, her husband whom she met in art school, discusses her career withVogue’s Hamish Bowles. Martin’s rich, funny, articulate conversation about life as a costume and production designer gives a true feel for the joys and difficulties of the jobs. Luhrman’s films call for the creation of intimate, exotically sexy, and extreme worlds, each one special to the film and Martin works out these worlds for and with him, such as their collaborations for The Great Gatsby (2013),Moulin Rouge (2001), and Romeo and Juliet (1996).
Martin’s fascinating career in costume design and production design.
This talk quickly evolved from an interview of Ava DuVernay into a hot, sensational discussion between two artists. DuVernay and Q-Tip, who hadn’t met before but knew each other’s work, brought the conversation to what a great conversation should be: using one subject to open many others. They were obviously very heartened and intrigued by each other and by their overlapping and contrasting lives as both had moved from the indie world into a more corporate one and both were involved in exposing African-American life. They were articulate, warm, smart, self aware, introspective, public, deft and worldly and both had a love of the work, a love of their times, and a sense of an unfolding future. The audience was as involved, as excited, as the speakers.
An ingenious pairing on the part of the Tribeca Film Festival, fascinating from beginning to end.
TOTO AND HIS SISTERS
Director/Writer/Cinematography: Alexander Nanau
Awards: Best International Documentary @ Zurich Film Festival | Best Documentary @ Warsaw Film Festival | Silver Eye Award @ East Silver Market, Jihlava | Audience Award @ Festival dei Popoli | Honorable Mention Int. Competition @ Dok Leipzig | Prize of Ecumenical Jury @ Dok Leipzig | Prize of the Trade Union ver.di @ Dok Leipzig | Grand Prix @ Premiers Plans Festival | Best int. Documentary @ Luxembourg City Film Festival
Alexander’s stupendous documentary, Toto and His Sisters, has won numerous awards at other festivals but had its New York premiere at The Tribeca Film Festival. The film follows three young Romani or Roma (gypsy) Romanian’s, 10 year old Toto, 14 year old Andreea and 17 year old Ana, living in a derelict public housing complex in Bucharest, and was shot in their home, school, and neighborhood over 15 months. The film is supple in its construction and moves seamlessly into the ordinariness of the intense misery of lack of money, food, running water and cleanliness and the overkill of addiction, fear and instability to show how these situations make, literally, not just a sickening life but an enclosed world from which it is hard to see beyond.
Nanau brings new concepts to the documentary as a form. He feels that “the film has to work as dream with open eyes. That’s how I like to experience film. Being drawn away completely in an emotional experience. When you wake up from a very intense dream, you feel changed and I think that’s how film should work. I’m not a big fan of factual documentaries or of using documentary consciously as a tool to raise awareness. It will not work as a dream. It will always work as if reading a newspaper article. That’s the reason I decided to make this film this way.”
Nanau is a Romanian brought up in Germany when his parents emigrated and his father continued his practice as a doctor. He understands an experience of displacement. His great influence, as he sees it, though comes from his training in theater. He also was drawn to documentaries such as Salesman (Albert/ David Maysles, US, 1969) but was influenced equally by Stanley Kubrick’s films. This construct of documentary as “a dream” with its own logic, own theater, and interwoven world with parallels to and splits from with waking/other life, and combined with a sense of a defined but open space, that the stage production is, is echoed in his feeling that a documentary should “be like a big film.”
There’s nothing prurient in Nanau’s take, rather he reduces the extremes of these three young lives to the everyday and make its obvious that it is everyday. Nanua films in their one room apartment, often crowded with skinny, injecting, teenage junkies, and in the local streets, school, and kids’ club. The film comes across as not particularly distancing because Nanau’s view is less a focus on the specific impoverished life in Romania of marginalized Romas then a focus on a life trapped. Nanau, without forcing the point, contextualizes these children through the internal traps that confine any growing child who has no boundaries and is surrounded by, and part of, confusion, disconnection, violence, exclusion and ignorance. Neither Toto nor Andreea are able to follow basic sequential details such determining what an even/odd number is or what a “word” is, as Andreea could not, or clap in co-ordination with a group, as Toto could not. Ana, at 17, had a 5th grade education but, with a growing drug addiction, was also not able to concentrate or feel her own senses enough to go further. Toto and Andreea, however, were still young enough to cry with sudden feeling, for example when they see their mother in prison after six years apart.
The club to which Toto and Andreea go is notable for two reasons. First, it is the only obvious entrance to an outside world. Secondly, the club is unique to Bucharest but its successful format is being considered in Paris and other European cities. Started by a Romani, it began as a proactive enterprise where children living in the streets were brought to the club. They learned arts, maths, and letters. Toto is taught American hip-hop by a talented Romanian dancer and Toto is able to make connections through those moves that he couldn’t in other forms. Especially for his age, he shows such dexterity that he wins second prize in a dance contest.
Nanau wanted to give a camera to Toto and Andreea but he also wanted them to know what to do, feeling that self taught camera work in documentaries often is only playful. He held a film workshop in the club for three months, showed the kids movies, showed them how stories were put together, and showed them short films by Abbas Kiarostami. They “re-scened” the Kiarostami films, edited their versions and added music. They saw how a film came together and this gave them focus and revealed that continuity can build into something. Only after Andreea wanted to use the camera, Nanua worked with her, and told her that her footage would be included in the documentary if it was good. Over 15 months she came with footage “now and then” and it “became better and better” and it appears in the film as both diary video with Toto and in a scene where she argues desperately with her sister to try and stop her from using.
There is an element of Frederick Wiseman’s “observation documentaries” in this film’s approach but in many ways Toto and his Sisters is its own creation. It is both local and universal in its understanding of people. It is as much about literal poverty and social prejudice as it is about the consequences of any person’s disconnection from forming a sense of a self strong enough to withstand hardship, to develop personal boundaries and world perception as well as to grow. Nanau, in the Q &A after The Tribeca Film Festival screening described how he played a part just by being present and by working with them -“I became an open door to a different world and that was something that could give them strength to get out.”
As such, Toto and His Sisters is breaking the documentary paradigm. It is new type of documentary as it is neither a fly on the wall work like that of the Maysles brothers or Wiseman, not is it interactive, in the manner of Marcel Ophuls’ The Sorrow and the Pity (France, 1969) or Heddy Honigmann’s Privé/ Private (Netherlands, 2004). Rather it is both equally proactive and non-interactive, both present and distant, both involved and witnessing (versus observing) and as such I posit that a more appropriate genre description is “Interface Documentary.”
A tremendous film and, in many ways, an unprecedented accomplishment- an observational film that is both distant from and proactive in the lives of the films principles.
Director/ writer: Paz Fábrega
Editor: Paz Fábrega, Sebastián Sepúlveda
Cinematographer: Esteban Chinchilla
This black and white film, Viaje, with a World Premier at The Tribeca Film Festival, using little dialogue, takes an old concept – lovers in a primal forest – and gives it a life of real joy. The story is simple - two late-twenty somethings, played with natural chemistry, beauty and charm by Kattia Gonzalez and Fernando Bolaños, meet at a party, play around with each other, go off for a night in the forest where the man works, and then spend a few more nights together. The lovers emit a feel for being young but for being also in transition into their 30s. The way that Fábrega films the forest, it is seen as a living being that is an old and young world much as the lovers are.
The film is simple but has humor, both visual and spoken, and glorious visuals that come from Fábrega’s sense of framing. The simplicity of the film and the energy and the style of the almost unstylized shots is energizing and wonderful. Fábrega spoke in the Q&A of cutting many scenes during the editing so that what was left was straight forward and poetic. Her faithfulness to the essence of the film comes through as the film is short and compact. Fábrega focuses often on Kattia González whose presence on screen is palpable and Fábrega gives us a deep sense of Fernando Bolaños without revealing him too much. This is not an intense film nor one that is polemical or righteous but it has something very new in its feel: it feels both very natural in its content and exceptionally well directed in its structure.
A wonderful, inventive film about lovers. Must see.
THE ARMOR OF LIGHT
Director: Abigail Disney
This documentary is about the US gun control controversies and attempts to show how many people are involved and how many feel bitterly opinionated. The aim of the film is to reveal the emotions in this argument, the politics that fan or erase the emotions, the complexity of the need that the argument serves and, most importantly, a way to try and bring a more pacific talk to the issue of violence.
Abigail Disney’s first film Pray The Devil Back To Hell, was as a producer, with Gina Reticker directing. That film was a feat of investigation, political consciousness raising, editing, and cinematic sense of structure (the film was highly constructed, an unusual attribute in today’s documentary world). Fork Films, their company, has been proactive with its documentaries, taking them beyond the film circuit and into political offices, communities, and more. With this history, Disney is already part of the world discussion on war and peace.
The Armor of Light is her first film as director. The beginning is choppy and at times can be hard to follow but the film finds a stride midway when all the strands come together. The topic is examined through two lives, both of whom came to the contention of gun control with complex backgrounds and both of whom are Christians with profoundly motivating religious faith - Lucy McBath and Reverend Rob Schenk. McBath’s father, a dentist, was the chairman of his local NAACP, so McBath grew up with a constant conversation about and activism around black civil rights in the violent, conflicted, oppositional and supportive society of the 1960s. She went into an apolitical career, as a flight attendant, but when her son, Jordan Davis, with whom she was very close, was shot and killed by Michael Dunn, who used the Stand Your Ground law as defense, she entered into activism. Dunn was, after two trials, found guilty of murder and sentenced to life without parole in 2014, which set a precedent among the recent, similar high profile deaths of unarmed young black men.
Reverend Schenk was born into a Jewish family, though his mother had been a Roman Catholic who converted to Judaism. He himself converted to Evangelical Christianity, was a leader within it and was an active anti-abortionist. As this movement became increasingly violent he came to view the situation as being more about violence itself than about the issue of pro-life vs. pro-choice and began to convert again, leaning more toward the issue of guns and the need to publically speak in favor of more control.
Disney interviews the die-hard second amendment advocates, converts and the activist mothers but mainly focuses on these two. The faith itself of McBath and Schenk, rather than their denominations, becomes core to film. As people with deep feelings and experience, McBath and Schenk perhaps are able to understand others who are driven by feelings, which end in violence. This at least begins to dig down into the realities of what the gun story is about. Using the insightful dialogues of McBath and Schenk, Disney lays out the non-verbal elements of the case by following Schenk’s suggestion that the gun controversy is a contest which takes place in an arena driven by fear. As Schenk says, fear is a bad place from which to make moral choices.
In the public screening, a member of the audience identified himself as one of the creators of the Brady Law and he declared the film to be the “single, most insightful, most constructive piece that has been done on this issue” and one that needs to be part of the overall story. The film is an important focus on the complexities of gun advocacy defenses that can be built on unnamed, frightening emotions around which acting out is often the only result. Disney intends to use this film, which was made as, as she put it, a “scrappy grassroots, heavy touch work,” to go into churches, communities, offices, “without a chip on their shoulders, in humility,” much as she did with other Fork films, to allow a conversation, versus an argument, to begin.
The question too that has to be discussed, with depth and equanimity, is why men make these purely violent choices as answers to emotional problems. A second documentary from Fork Films, that dovetails with TheArmor of Light, about this subject, would be a welcome addition to raising awareness about this elephant on the room, from which the whole world suffers.
A humane and multi-layered film on the horrors of gun violence in US society, in specific, and in world societies at large.
Director: Erin Lee Carter
Carr tackles a socially frightening question – Is thinking about a crime a crime? - in her examination of the trial of Gilberto Valle, a New York police officer, who was arrested after his computer revealed detailed discussions, with other men, about raping, torturing, killing, cooking and eating women whom he knew or had encountered and his use of confidential police databases to obtain private information about them. His new, young wife’s information, mother of their baby, was among those posted and about whom he declared a desire to do all of these acts. She found the computer and turned him in.
Carr uses much of the film to follow Valle in his mother’s house where he waits trial, after serving time in jail and posting bond. Valle’s plump face, as seen in the still from the film, is shown in close up often, showing his eyes as confused or vacant, and his demeanor as less adult than childlike. His defense was that this was strictly fantasy. He was found guilty however, by the jury, who determined that many of his actions showed an intention to follow through. The judge, unusually, overruled that verdict and found him not guilty. The film ends with his freedom.
Shelia Nevins executive produced this documentary and Carr at times creates a strong atmospheric debate about the fears that the idea of “thought crime” evokes. She is selective in her choice of experts though and seems ambivelant about the seriousness of this question. This undermines what could be a valid attempt to bring this question into our cultural dialogue. She ignores, in large part, the wider context of male violence, violence toward women, social vogues about what is allowable or not and our own ambilivence toward certain crimes. She also suggests that this is a broad uncertainty throughout the law but avoids obvious situations when “thought” is not considered as different from crime, such as professing to want to bomb a public place, or to pursue child pornography images, or to engage in terrorist activities. These almost all lead to immediate arrest and indictment.
The film tackles the complex issues around the thought of crime versus the doing of crime.