Tribeca Film Festival – 2002

| May 12, 2002

The Festival

This one’s a big one, right from get-go. De Niro is one of the organizers, Scorcese’s hovering in the background and everyone from Susan Sarandon to the New York Times food critic, Gael Greene, is on a panel. I arrived to pick up my press pass with some anticipation and much dread. After all, does the presence of a multitude of big movie stars really augur well for small-time filmmakers and actors?
Signing in was itself quite an adventure, since everyone who had any connection to some kind of press seemed to have turned up (about 550 credentialed journalists, I later learned) and the crowd trying to figure out how to get into the premiere of Hugh Grant’s About a Boy seemed to grow in geometric progression. Luckily, Tribeca is one of the mostly visually interesting parts of Manhattan–very cool interiors of completely dumpy buildings, the odd exquisitely carved door and galleries and boutiques on every street corner–the wait didn’t seem so long. And an occasion like this is always a great chance to see the New York version of that essential part of the cultural milieu: rich people volunteering to do something for a celebrity cause. The celebrity in this case is Robert De Niro, my favorite Vito Corleone and a darling son of New York. So while the Ones with the Deep Pockets checked their lists to make sure we were legit, I got back to trying to decide whether this De Niro connection was a good thing or not. On the one hand, he had attracted (and provided) an enormous amount of resources–a flirtatious couple from American Express, serving up free popcorn on the sidewalk, and more substantially, a luxurious hospitality tent–but on the other hand, he had lined up four major premieres which would certainly grab the limelight away from the little movies that a festival is usually meant to showcase. I mean, sure, people were buying up tickets for the celeb events like hot cakes, but how well were the shorts and first-time directors doing? Of course, documentaries don’t sell like feature films, but some of the people who might have tried out a different sort of film were probably caught up in the hype of back to back Hugh Grant, Sandra Bullock, Al Pacino, Jodie Foster and Star Wars premieres.
Well, at least it was bringing people to this neighborhood that used to be in the shadow of the Twin Towers, and is now just steps away from the disaster site. The funny thing, though, is that Tribeca is still essentially a posh neighborhood full of upscale eateries and fancy-schmancy boutiques: not your typical candidate for help. How badly have the businesses actually suffered from 9/11? Or is it the recession that was the culprit, in which case why aren’t we helping the working class neighborhoods, which are usually the worst affected? OK, now I think I’m just venting because I didn’t get into that great Food in Film panel organized by Martin Scorcese. The bottom line is that the selection of films being shown is so diverse that even your average New York City movie-goer is overwhelmed. Whatever 9/11 purpose this festival may have, it is hard to complain about the films themselves.

The Films

The four big-ticket movies here–Grant’s About A Boy, Pacino’s Insomnia, Bullock’s The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, and Star Wars: Attack of the Clones–sold out quickly enough. Martin Scorcese’s Best of New York selections, which included Manhattan, On the Waterfront, Force of Evil, The Naked City and The Wrong Man also fared well (a press perk were the little write-ups for each film composed by Scorcese himself). What was suprising was the amount of people who turned up to see the documentaries and shorts. Manito, first-time filmmaker Eric Eason’s sketch of life in the working-class Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights, was screened at 10a.m. on Sunday morning, and yet a decent-sized United Artists’ theater was soon filled up.
The credit for much of this enthusiasm must go to the choice of films in each category. One particularly striking selection was Breath Control, a documentary about beatboxing and its role in hi-hop. Music turns up in several of the documentaries, including Hip Hop Hope, which records the reactions of a group of New York hip hop artists to 9/11, Jimmy Scott, a portrait of the legendary jazz vocalist, and I’ll Sing For You, which documents the return of Malian blues singer KarKar to his native country. Another doc which generated a lot of buzz was Chiefs, described as “Hoop Dreams meets On the Rez.” Director Daniel Junge follows the Wyoming Indian High School basketball team as it battles for the state championship.
The feature films in competition included two set in Washington Heights in upper Manhattan (Manito and Washington Heights), the raucous Slovenian comedy The Last Supper, which follows two escapees from a mental institution as they try to make a movie, and Three Days of Rain, a collection of six short storied by Chekov. Some among these have already been recognized–Manito won prizes both at Sundance and the South by Southwest Festival–but others are being shown in New York, and sometimes in the United States for the first time. The films are also surprisingly diverse in terms of target audience. While The Last Supper was the largest grossing movie in Slovenia last year, A Dog Called Pain and The Cloud of Unknowing, a ghost story of sorts, are suitably abstract visual experiences. Again, the young-people-choosing-a-life movies, including Manito, Washington Heights, Scenes of the Crime, Blind Spot and Too Pure could be particularly well shot episodes of Law and Order.
Since the fact that this festival is being held in New York seems to be such an important part of any discussion about it, it is fitting that one of the most interesting panels brings together two of the things New Yorkers can justifiably be proud of: film and food. Food in Film, which was moderated by food critic Gael Greene and included Martin Scorcese among the panelists, was held at the The Screening Room Restaurant and included a lunch, sponsored by the Barilla pasta company. While delicacies like grilled loin of rabbit featured on the sampler menu, the discussion was slated to include the usual suspects: Like Water for Chocolate, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, and When Harry Met Sally, and was followed by a screening of Rossellini’s The Rise of Louis XIV. Other panels included a historical discussion on the New York film industry, a chat with New York Filmmakers, a couple of Sloan Foundation funded events about science in movies, and a Producing 101 breakfast.

The Future of the Festival

NY1, Time-Warner’s 24-hour local news network, covered the opening ceremony live from City Hall, and many others were actually declaring that the Tribeca Film Festival would soon rival its older neighbor, the New York Film Festival (NYFF) and even Cannes, which starts soon. Does this look like an accurate forecast? Well, for starters, I’m still not sure how Tribeca is supposed to be different from the NYFF other than the 9/11 angle. And I don’t think that holds water. The buzz around the press office seems to be that Tribeca might be more open to new North American movies than NYFF, since it doesn’t bear the burden of being the film festival of the cultural mecca of the United States. The selections in this first year are consistent with this view: there are several small-budget American films that are innovative in either form or substance, and there don’t seem to be a lot of mediocre European films. If they keep this up, Tribeca can definitely carve out an identity for itself and the movie-loving crowds of the tri-state area can look forward to getting to know fresh filmmaking talent right in their own backyard.

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