Documentary at Tribeca: Formats, Cinéma vérité, Exposé

by Patricia Aufderheide
Tribeca Film Festival

Image Courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival

Is documentary a genre? The Tribeca Film Festival this April, which Indiewire just rated among the top three for documentary, gave a chance to survey the scene of docs and look for trends. “Too many people think documentary is a genre,” said programmer Cara Cusumano. “But documentary can have every genre a narrative film can be.”

You can slice the genre question a lot of ways, but you can’t deny that the marketplace for real-life entertainment has never been hotter, and even on the indie doc circuit makers are working within formats that sell. And you can’t deny Tribeca Film Festival is positioning itself as not only a showcase but a market. At the documentary smorgasbord of Tribeca, you could see documentaries working within formats designed for great promo and quick sale. But you could also find the improbable, the quirky, and the shocking.

Celebrities and competitions. Some big, shiny New York films featured celebrities or platforming off other media, like the fest opener, Bao Nguyen’s Live from New York!, (an SNL appreciation);  Douglas Tirola’s DRUNK STONED BRILLIANT DEAD, which recalls the enormously generative comedy network around National Lampoon and along the way demonstrates the crude adolescent sexism that was a constant theme; and Very Semi-Serious, Leah Wolchok’s portrait of New Yorker cartoonists.

Other films appealed with the never-fail option of tracking a competition. My favorite one this year was a quirky version of the genre: Ryan Harvie and John Paul Horstmann’s Bodyslam: Revenge of the Banana. What happens when one member of a revue built on the theatrical basics of wrestling does not get the hipster joke? Ouch. What’s at stake is not just bad-roommate dynamics; this is an art that has been mending the fractured lives of its participants. If you like your competitions more straightforward, you had your choice. The award-winner for editing, Cosima Spender’s Palio, focuses on corruption in Italian horse racing. Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt’sHavana Motor Club takes you to Cuba, where drag racing—long suppressed as an example of imperialist decadence—is back. And if you can handle the, well, gore of Gored—I found it hard—you’ll learn a lot about the aesthetics of bullfighting while getting to know the most gored bullfighter in history, who defies those aesthetics.

But formats weren’t always reflected in the awards, which showed eclectic taste both for subject matter and style from the juries. Camilla Nielsson’s Democrats, an extraordinary insider’s look at negotiations for democracy under a dictator’s gaze, won the documentary competition. Al Maysles’ last film, In Transit, made with Nelson Walker, Lynn True, David Usui and Ben Wu, won a special jury award. Palio won an editing award for editor Valerio Bonelli’s work. Ewan McNicol and Anna Sandilands’s Uncertain, about a small Texas town whose lake is being destroyed by algea, won the best new documentary director award, with special mention for Erik Shirai’s The Birth of Saké. The shorts winner was Body Team 12, about fighting Ebola in Liberia, directed by David Darg, with special mention for We Live This, directed by James Burns.

And otherwise, some longstanding uses for documentary—telling untold stories with intimacy, and telling truth to power—were fully on display.

Intimate Experience. Among the competition films, I saw a strong showing in cinéma vérité-style films focusing on people you otherwise would never meet, giving you access with intimacy to their experience. Along with Armor of Light, Among the Believers, and Democrats (discussed here), I deeply admired Al Maysles’ last film, In Transit.

It is a remarkable bookend to the Maysles brothers’ Salesman (1968). Like that film, in the guise of a ride-along, it becomes a quiet essay on failures of the American dream. Editor Lynn True, who also was a co-director, should get a lot of credit for that. (The film was also co-directed by Nelson Walker, David Usui, and Ben Wu.) The film drops in on conversations among riders on the Amtrak Empire Builder line, Portland to Seattle, with the great majority of the film along the plains. People tell each other stories that both win and break your heart; foundationless optimism about change of place keeps them hoping for a better job, partner, self, life. Their good will and generosity stand out in comparison with the few cards any of them have been given to play. The intimacy of the camera eye is as surprising as the confessional mode it catches.

Other observational docs in the fest caught my eye. In competition, Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg’s In My Father’s House follows a Chicago rapper trying hard to be both a good son and a good dad. Although the festival cut was still uneven, the film gave us access to a Black man struggling with identity issues in circumstances that, while common, shouldn’t be—as he well knows. Andy Schocken and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s Song of Lahore tracks film-industry musicians whose community was shattered by the Taliban,and who hope to find attention internationally by playing jazz with a traditional south Asian accent. Hint to what happens: Wynton Marsalis likes them. The film surprises not only for its cross-cultural insights but because the musicians allow the camera to chronicle their conflicts, failures and challenges in dealing with both a foreign musical tradition and the constraints of a music-disapproving political environment at home.

David Osit and Malika Zouhali-Worrall in Thank you for Playing chronicle guilelessly the passion of a family whose toddler son is dying of cancer, and whose way of coping is to design a game that lets outsiders in on the experience. It’s perhaps most remarkable for opening up a taboo topic. “We want to raise issues that people often avoid—fear of terminal cancer, even fear of death generally,” said Osit. The film has already attracted attention from hospitals, medical associations and support groups. Amy Kohn’s A Courtship follows, scrupulously and even heroically without comment, years in the life of a beautiful 30-something woman who’s decided to leave her marriage prospects in the hands of God and her chosen father figure, another born-again Christian. It left me slack-jawed.

Transfatty Lives is a personal diary film (a genre that flourished in the 1990s before wearing out its welcome) by Patrick O’Brien, a filmmaker who cultivates a wacky persona (as “Transfatty”) and copes with a diagnosis of ALS by making a film as the connections between his mind and body progressively break. His film style is either quirky or irritating depending on your taste, but he’s definitely not depending on your sympathy. “He lets his freak flag fly with pride,” says another ALS patient with admiration.

Exposé. Documentary hasn’t lost its ability to shock and inform, as the market for entertainment has heated up. A range of films took up tough subjects.

Shocking news doesn’t necessarily make for good documentaries. But two films caught my attention for their combination of craft, storytelling skill and subject matter. Along with Indian Point (discussed here), perhaps the biggest eye-opener—certainly given the attention to police violence these days—was Nick Bernardini’s Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle. It should galvanize change in police departments where officers assume that Tasers don’t kill; it comes just in time for another scandal. The investigative film shows that the Taser company has ignored data showing that repeated Tasering can induce heart failure, and has encouraged police in its trainings and materials to see Tasers as non-lethal. It’s not fancy, but it’s cleanly made, with great use of dashboard-cam footage, interviews with survivors and bereaved, and an anchoring character, a cop who has come to understand the consequences of unregulated Taser use.

Other films more doggedly pursued their topics, with the likelihood of finding audiences among those who care about the topic. Matt Fuller’s Autism in Love takes viewers past preconceptions among autistic adults. Requiem for the American Dream, by Peter Hutchison, Kelly Nyks and Jared P. Scott, gives you an extended lecture from Noam Chomsky, who repeats with his historic deadpan delivery his increasingly indisputable messages about the weaknesses of unregulated and financial capitalism. Prescription Thugs is Chris Bell’s heartfelt family story of prescription painkiller addictions, threaded into an argument about the fecklessness of Big Pharma. Robin Hauser Reynolds’ CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap offers a no-surprises mix of experts, statistics, and examples to argue the urgency of changing the culture of both education and the workplace.

Some of the documentaries already had placement on HBO, ESPN, Independent Lens, POV and other venues. But for others, the venue provided a chance to begin those conversations.


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