2017 Tribeca Film Festival Roundup

At the Tribeca Film Festival, documentaries usually dominate my viewing, and this year was no different. A triple winner of awards at the festival (Best Documentary, Best Cinematography and Best Editing), Bobbi Jene is an excruciatingly personal chronicle of American dancer Bobbi Jene Smith, who performed with the Israeli troupe Batsheva for ten years before deciding to return to the States. Her passionate commitment to her art and her emotional journey from Israel back home is gracefully recounted by director Elvira Lind, who begins her film by showing Bobbi Jene dancing in the nude: this intimate portrait only becomes more so as it goes along.

In Julian Schnabel: A Private Portrait (opened May 5 in New York), director Pappi Corsicato presents Schnabel, one of the contemporary art world’s biggest names, in all his personal and professional glory. Interviewing wives, daughters, friends, colleagues and admirers (among them Al Pacino and Willem Dafoe)—along with the man himself—Corsicato also makes canny use of Schnabel’s own archive of home movies and photos, along with new footage of his most recent work. By saving Schnabel’s greatest achievement—his 2007 film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, for which he was nominated for a Best Director Oscar—for last, Corsicato shows that his subject has an artistic seriousness to match his penchant for self-promotion and celebrity.

If there’s another Cuban besides Fidel Castro who can be ID’d by his first name, it’s Elián Gonzalez, and Elián (opens May 12 in New York) provides a concise overview of how the little boy became a symbol of the simmering tensions between the United States (good) and Cuba (evil) after he was discovered floating alone in the water in late 1999. The coup by directors Tim Golden and Ross McDonnell is an interview with the now-grown up Elián, who stands by his love and adoration for his “god” Fidel and his lack of sympathy for his Miami relatives, who are still angered by our government snatching him from them at gunpoint in the spring of 2000 and returned to his father. There’s even a discussion of whether President Clinton and his attorney general Janet Reno’s handling of the situation could have led to Al Gore’s defeat in Florida, which would make the Elián Gonzalez affair an even biggest historical event than it already is.

Not surprisingly, several of this year’s docs tackle relevant political issues. A Gray State calmly dissects what led to the disturbing deaths of Iraqi vet and fringe right-winger David Crowley, his Muslim wife and their young daughter: there’s copious footage of Crowley making his paranoid dystopian movie, Gray State, and director Erik Nelson allows conspiracy theorists who think the government shut Crowley up to vent their predictable but misplaced anger. Eerily complementing Nelson’s film, David Byars’ No Man’s Land chronicles the stand-off between right-wing militants and government forces at Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge last year, evenhandedly presenting both sides with astonishing footage of the take-over, stand-off and trial, at which the men were found not guilty. As an incredulous observer notes, if these were Black Lives Matter protestors, the outcomes of the stand-off and trial would most likely have been far different.

Two National Geographic docs had world premieres ahead of their network broadcasts. Sebastian Junger and Nick Quested’s searing Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS (premieres June 11) is a meticulous and frightening exploration of how the Islamic State took advantage of the broken country after Assad allowed it to spin into chaos. Entirely comprising archival footage—some of which has not been seen until now—Dan Lindsay and TJ Martin’s LA 92 (now showing) paints a vividly ugly picture of Los Angeles before, during and after the riots triggered by the infamous “not guilty” verdict for the policemen accused of beating Rodney King.

Finally, two films show how we humans adversely affect our planet. The Sensitives introduces several people who have adverse reactions to simply trying to live a normal life: whatever the reason, anything their body perceives as toxic makes them so sick that they have to live in enclosed places. Director Drew Xanthopoulos sympathetically shows their plight and a possible cure: an advocate for their rare malady who is one of the “sensitives” herself. Mark Grieco’s A River Below is a consistently surprising study of the near-extinction of the Amazon’s pink river dolphins, as their hunters and the activists trying to save them do battle in a showdown that raises pertinent questions about the ethics—or lack of such—of both sides.

15th Tribeca Film Festival
New York, NY
April 19-30, 2017