Two stunning movies won big awards at the 14th Tribeca Film Festival. Camilla Nielsson’s Democrats, which follows the drafting of and country-wide referendum on Zimbabwe’s new but as yet unimplemented constitution, took the top award in the documentary competition. Laura Bispuri’s Sworn Virgin claimed the Nora Ephron Prize with a depiction of gender morphing and blurring that might have made Ephron’s head spin.
I’ve been going to the TFF since its inception and boy, has it changed. What was once a catchall for every kind of film with the purpose of drawing people back to lower Manhattan post 9/11 has become a multimedia populist celebration, bearing the brand of one of the world’s wealthiest zip-codes. The TFF has something for almost everyone: a sports film section; a free drive-in located in the upmarket Brookfield Place shopping mall; and Spring Studios, a “creative hub” located just south of Canal Street, where audiences lined up around the block to hear panels with industry honchos or to try out virtual-reality gear and drink cocktails in the Bombay Sapphire–sponsored Storyscapes exhibition. This year, the big events skewed to the timeless demographic of TFF founders Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal with “Sinatra at 100: Films & Music” and a Monty Python celebration, including a new documentary by Roger Graef and James Rogan on the Python’s stage work and a live appearance by all the surviving Pythons with John Oliver. Offered a ticket to the Python event, I declined in favor of spending eight hours in the soul-killing Regal Battery Park Stadium 11, a multiplex above a hotel in a shopping mall, where I watched competition movies, most of which were tired and depressing. How masochistic could this movie critic have been?
While maintaining outposts on the Upper West Side and in Chelsea, the TFF is once again largely based in Tribeca, with the majority of press and public screenings held at the Regal Battery Park. Pass and ticket holders who queued the recommended 30 minutes before screenings almost always found seats, but once in the theaters, they were subjected to the hell of endlessly repeated commercials for TFF sponsors: a cringe-inducing 60-second spot promoting Tribeca as an East Coast Beverly Hills (which indeed it is); a dirge-like country-and-western song that I can’t identify (about “dancing on the edge of the grave” and “pockets full of pain”) that played over a variety of punchy logos. Just the thing to get you in the mood for films that were, for the most part, themselves downers, but of a more fragile or relevant sociopolitical kind. In a festival that has for many years supported women in the film business (this year a third of the features were directed by women), it was particularly disconcerting to have to watch a commercial for Lincoln (a major TFF sponsor) in which men sold the cars while a woman served coffee to the customers.
With the exception of Sworn Virgin, which Strand acquired and will release later this year, the documentary selections proved more satisfying than the fiction films. As tense as a well-wrought political thriller, Democrats gives us intimate access to the three-year negotiation between the leader of the party propping up Zimbabwe’s dictator Robert Mugabe and the opposition candidate, who would certainly become prime minister himself if an unrigged election could be held. Most remarkable is the respect the two men show each other as they attempt to create a constitution and their sustained courage in a situation in which imprisonment, execution, or assassination loom as distinct possibilities. Sundance favorites Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe’s (T)ERROR and Crystal Moselle’s The Wolfpack held up on second viewings. Ivy Meeropol’s investigation into the nuclear power industry, Indian Point, proved itself all too prescient when fire damaged the titular site, located just 40 miles up the Hudson from Tribeca, two weeks after the festival ended. And following screenings of Andy Schocken and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s Song of Lahore, some of the Pakistani master musicians whose courage and dedication in the face of Islamist repression is depicted in the documentary came onstage to play one of their world-music hits, a transcendent cover of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.” It was the kind of event that lifted the TFF above its failings and keeps me returning every year.