Tribeca Film Festival – 2003

| May 12, 2003

In just one year of existence, Robert DeNiro’s Tribeca Film Festival has managed to become a major player in the international festival circuit. When it debuted last year, many people, including me, wondered aloud whether this would just be a vanity project that would lose steam before the last screening. The trial is still not over, of course, but local papers are screaming “We Cannes” and touting the TFF as the new first stop on the annual festival tour, displacing the famed French festival and providing just as many big names. In my report last year, I also wondered how exactly the TFF would differentiate itself from its local big brother, the New York Film Festival, which is held each fall and lays claim to being the premier film destination in the country. That question was answered partly by the selection of films in last year’s festival–a wonderfully eclectic mix of innovative shorts, mainstream big-name premieres, gritty American features, and off-the-wall European comedies–and this was something which increased the buzz around this festival. The NYFF is much more Euro-centric and highbrow, and it seemed about time that we had a celebration of pure talent which is as sassy and unpredictable as this wonderful city itself. This year’s TFF promises to bring even more action, especially since the ghost of 9/11 has receded somewhat, and so the organizers do not feel as obligated to tout the festival as an effort to re-invigorate the downtown economy. No film festival should have to bear a burden like this, and since the TFF has already shown itself to be a contender to the best U.S. film festival throne, there is no reason to continue to force a utilitarian justification onto it.
Even though there will be more films this year, the basic structure of the festival which runs from May 3rd to the 11th, remains the same as last year. Apart from the usual feature and documentary competition sections, there is also a student shorts section, a New York New York section which includes features like Just Another Day, a hi-hop musical from the director-star of the off-Broadway hit, The Bomb-itty of Errors, as well as documentaries associated with the city, and a Midnight section which ranges from Hey is Dee Dee Home, a documentary about the Ramones’ bassist, to The Eye, a hard-core horror flick from Hong Kong. The Restored and Rediscovered section covers all-time favorites like Once Upon a Time in America and The Barefoot Contessa, as well as Charles Laughton Directs The Night of the Hunter, a program of the rushes, trims and outtakes from the classic movie. The showcased films also cover a decent range, from Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things to Film ist.(7-12), a film history of sorts which uses clips from early commercial films in a free-form narrative, and from Baghdad On/Off, which chronicles an Iraqi filmmaker’s attmpt to return home after year in exile, to Shaolin Soccer, China’s biggest ever box-office hit, about kung-fu masters playing soccer. The panels seem a little less snazzy than last year’s–anyone who read my report on last year’s festival will remember my excitement over the Food in Film panel–but with Helen Hunt gracing the Actors on Acting panel and Nathan Lane and South Park creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone livening up the proceedings at the What’s So Funny: Laughter in Movies panel, the signs bode well.
The Tribeca Film Institute which organizes the TFF, claims that more than 150,000 people attended last year’s festival, and goes on to give various other “interesting” facts about the festival–did you know that a film festival could generate 78,000 cab rides, and 90,000 restaurant meals–but the most important realization remains that the TFF may have carved out a unique niche for itself. In this city, where the paucity of film-watching opportunities is not exactly a problem, every new festival begs the question “Why another one?” For those of us who live in the tri-state area, the direction in which the Tribeca Film Festival’s identity is evolving gives a solid justification for its existence. If they keep up their commitment to the diversity of films in content, form and national origin, the Tribeca Film Institute will not only become an important fixture in this city’s cultural calendar, but it may be able to ultimately replace Cannes as the place to be in May.
The buzz surrounding the Tribeca Film Festival could be felt in downtown Manhattan for weeks before the event. Covering the festival for the first time, I have found myself slightly overwhelmed by the amount of interest that has been devoted to this relatively new forum. Robert Deniro and Jane Rosenthal’s brainchild has transformed Tribeca into the “in” place to be for new and established filmmakers from around the globe. The Festival has done an excellent job recognizing all types of film, which has been well received by the public. The inaugural festival could have been looked at as an event that would bolster moral in lower Manhattan after the 9/11 attacks, this being said, Deniro and Rosenthal knew that this years festival had to distinguish itself as a pertinent venue for film appreciation. Along with new program director Peter Scarlet, Deniro and Rosenthal made the 2nd annual Tribeca Film Festival a rousing success.
Fox Searchlight Pictures chose the Tribeca Film Festival to debut director Danny Boyle’s (Trainspotting, Shallow Grave, The Beach) UK smash 28 Days Later. The film kicked off the Midnight screening sessions at the festival, which was perfect for the Horror film. Screenwriter Alex Garland and Producer Andrew Macdonald were there to introduce 28 days Later to the exited capacity crowd. Macdonald took a seat next to me during the film and was pleased with the crowd’s positive reaction. Hong Kong’s smash hit thriller The Eye made its U.S. debut at the festival as well. Co-Director Darren Pang was on-hand to introduce the film and told the crowd “I hope you can sleep tonight after our film.” Tom Cruise has already bought the rights to this creepy tale for an upcoming remake, and judging from the audience’s reaction, Cruise made a smart business move. The Midnight screening sessions are just one of the events that make this festival so unique, New Yorkers are always interested in soaking up the true sense of art; screening these types of films at this time added a genuine sense of fright to the film’s content.
The most interesting part of the Tribeca Film Festival was the film panel discussions that took place throughout the week. I had the opportunity to sit in on three of these panels, and was enthralled by the discussions that took place amongst the panelists. The panel about comedy in film turned out to be a lesson in laughter with South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone trading comic licks with actor Nathan Lane and writer producer Paul Rudnick. It was interesting when a question arose about comic timing, Director Jay Roach simply told the audience to look at what was transpiring in front of them, “This is what I try to manage on the set.” The panel about war on film was extremely interesting, and never once turned into a political discussion. Actor Barry Pepper (Saving Private Ryan, We Were Soldiers) discussed the importance of authenticity in war films, he also expressed concerns that people often think war movies are “cool,” when they should really be looked at as moving historical documents. In the Panel about super heroes in film distinguished stage and film actor Alan Cumming (X-2: X-Men United) compared these characters to Shakespeare. He noted that many of the characters in the X-Men films have detailed stories behind them that shape the film and make it compelling to the audience. These panel discussions allowed aspiring actors, writers, directors, and fans to take a look at cinema through the eyes of successful and intelligent filmmakers.
The Festival featured some major star power as well, the festival concluded with the premiere of Paramount Pictures The Italian Job. Robert Deniro, Jane Rosenthal, Mark Wahlberg, Donald Sutherland, Seth Green, Mos Def, and a slew of other actors, directors, and producers were on hand to celebrate the film’s premiere. In talking with these Hollywood heavyweights the same sentiment echoed, they all felt honored to have the film make its debut at the Tribeca film Festival. This shows that the festival has done its job in cementing its place amongst the important cinematic events of the year. When asked if the festival was a success this year Jane Rosenthal said, ” Just look around you, there are New Yorkers all around us showing up to celebrate the importance of film, we are so proud of this event and are looking forward to doing it again next year.

Final Day

At the end of the day the crowd left, happy. After a week of non-stop screenings, drive-in experiences, celebrity-studded premieres and panels, and family events, street fairs and rock concerts, the 2nd Annual Tribeca Film Festival finally drew to a close on May 11th, 2003. That wonderful Hospitality Tent on N. Moore and Greenwich was folded up, and the buzz around the Tribeca Film Center quieted down its normal year-round hum. Those of us in the tri-state area can now take a well-earned vacation from the frenzied scurrying between theaters which filled up the days of the festival. And yet, when all is said and done, I am still not sure what I think of this festival. It overwhelms those who attend, in terms of both sheer volume and diversity. The gala premieres ensure that celebrity-sighting will be a daily activity. At the same time, there are enough clever new films being screened, that you don’t feel like big-name marketing has trumped the art. In some ways, the Tribeca Film Festival reflects the chaos of this wonderful city: there is way too much going on, all at the same time, and much of it has an Emperor’s-New-Clothes taste to it. From this perspective, TFF has indeed established itself as THE festival of the city. But on the other hand, it could be said that the fact that over 200 films are being shown might scare off the casual film buff. She will recognize that this means that she will have to depend on the luck of the draw, and just hope that the measly 10 films she has time to pencil in, turn out to be enjoyable. In contrast, when she attends a screening at the New York Film Festival, she knows that the probability of hitting the mother lode is upped by the fact that only a handful of films make the cut. But as I said, the crowd looked happy enough to take its chances, and so the TFF with its obscenely huge program seems to have been an unqualified success.
One of the movies I saw at a press screening before the festival was Cinemania, a documentary on five New Yorkers who take cinephilia to unbelievable extremes. At the TFF, I felt like I had become one of them. From the time I got off at the Franklin Street station to get to the first screening at the Tribeca Film Center, I was timing the walk between each of the x venues of the festival. Since the streets downtown are not as conveniently set out in a grid as they are further uptown, I tried to figure out various as-the-crow-flies routes, particularly between the Hospitality Tent and the United Artists multiplex where most of the regular public screenings were being held. Convinced that there is also an optimal order in which movies should be seen, I drew up various possible schedules for each day, before deciding on the final layout. In the end, I saw some charmers and some I-don’t-believe-I-fell-for-this stunners, but what was far more interesting, I saw the variety of people that the festival had attracted, from the scions of the art world, to that average cinema buff, who is banking on her luck to pick a winner. After a silent movie, the Columbia grad students mouthed off on technique even as they finished off the last salty pieces of popcorn and gossiped about their professors, while the little old couple behind me looked at each other and shrugged. “When’s our next one?” asked the old man. “Do we have time to hit McDonald’s?” After the Sri Lankan counterpart of “Boys Don’t Cry,” I wondered aloud to a neighbor about how the filmmaker seemed to have been more influenced by the Iranians half a continent away, rather than the Indians across the Palk Strait. “Are they also Hindus?” she asked me, and then in the same breath, “Are you going to the drive-ins?” At the Hospitality tent, while I gorged on delicate little chocolate-shell pastries filled with a slightly tart raspberry cream, various impossibly good-looking young people sat around, looking just as impossibly bored. Foreign actors, I thought to myself, but wasn’t particularly successful in drawing them into conversation. I had a little more success with Eva Saks, director of Confection, a short about a little girl and a pastry, who was setting up promotional postcards for her film next the coffee/pastry stand in the tent. The most friendly people by far were the volunteers who roamed around outside the UA theaters, shepherding the-bridge-and-tunnel crowd, as well as the well-heeled artsy types in and out of the waitlist queue and pointing out the way to the nearest subway, restaurant, or celebrity.
A distinguished jury, including Michael Moore, Whoopi Goldberg, Nora Ephorn and Parker Posey picked the winners in each category, and awards were handed out in a star-studded ceremony on May 11th at the Stuyvesant High School Auditorium. Li Yang went home with the Best Narrative Feature Award for Blind Shaft, a grim story about miners in China, while Best Documentary Feature went to Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Hugo Berkeley for a normal life, which follows seven young Albanians as they return to Kosovo from refugee camps. Valeria Bruni Tedeschi was awarded the Emerging Narrative Feature Filmmaker award, and the Emerging Documentary Feature Filmmaker award went to Mohamed Zran. Tedeschi also won the Best Actress award for her role in It Is Easier For a Camel–and Ohad Knoller was named Best Actor for Yossi and Jagger. Keeping Time, a portrait of bass player Milt Hinton, and Together, the new film from Chen Kaige of Farewell My Concubine fame, shared the Audience Award for Best Feature Film.
As the Tribeca Film Festival matures, it shows signs of becoming a tour de force in the festival circuit. Its size and the energy generated in the downtown area are two of the reasons why TFF may start to rival the NYFF as New York’s main draw, and Cannes as the premier film destination in May. The number of films may turn out to be a programming nightmare and create too much confusion for the typical filmgoer, but one hopes that over the years, organizers Robert DeNiro and Jane Rosenthal will figure out the optimal number of films, and we can look forward to a wonderful new reason to visit New York.

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