Forget the juggernaut of Avengers: Infinity War, my last weekend of April wrapped New York’s Tribeca festival showcasing selections from 46 countries and almost 9,000 submissions. Before it started I also saw Lynne Ramsay’s savage thriller You Were Never Really Here, based on the Jonathan Ames novel. Cannes awarded it best screenplay and best actor to Joaquin Phoenix in the role of Joe, a battled-scarred, haunted character who, while caring for an ailing elderly mother, gets hired to rescue children from sex rings. He does so with extreme prejudice when a job for a well-connected politician propels the scenario, with its immersive images and soundscapes (score by Jonny Greenwood) into a deeper circle of hell. Dark, disturbing, and unforgettable.
From the festival (check out the online guide: https://www.tribecafilm.com/filmguide), the following highlights a number of dramatic and documentary features, several shorts, docuseries and a virtual reality presentation.
In Susanna Nicchiarelli’s Nico, 1988 (Italy/Belgium) Danish actress Trine Dyrholm gives an astonishing performance as singer Christa Päffgen, known as Nico, in the last years of a tormented life. Veteran film writer Kent Jones helms the major jury award winner, Diane, with Mary Kay Place a wonder to behold in the lead role of an aging widow searching for atonement while trying to pull her son, Brian (Jake Lacy), out of the throes of addiction. Canadian director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody team up again for Tully in which a harried mom, Marlo (the excellent Charlize Theron), finds an unusual but effective way to cope with the arrival of a third child.
Other films had strong female roles, including those of fictional American women on death row in Hagar Ben-Asher’s chilling and affecting Dead Women Walking. Michael Mayer’s adaptation of Chekov’s The Seagull has Annette Bening as the celebrated actress Irina, Saoirse Ronan as the young ingénue who beguiles Irina’s partner Boris, and Elisabeth Moss as the bitter Masha, who resents both. Elle Fanning is convincing as the 19th century teenage author of Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus in Haifaa Al Mansour’s Mary Shelley. Joy Rieger received a jury best actress award for her role as the teenage Lana dreaming of escape from a rundown community on Israel’s Mediterranean coast in Keren Ben Rafael’s Virgins (Israel/France/Belgium). (Others in less successful films: French actress Léa Seydoux opposite Ewan McGregor in Drake Doremus’s futurist human/robot tale Zoe, a Canadian co-production; Alia Shawkat (Blaze) in the lesbian romance Duck Butter; Mary Elizabeth Winstead as a transgressive standup comic in All About Nina; Liv Hill as an exploited teen in Jellyfish; Marguerite Bouchard in the Quebec teen sex comedy Charlotte a du Fun (Slut in a Good Way).
Local hero, writer-director-actor Edward Burns, hits a home run with Summertime, set in Long Island’s Rockaway Beach circa 1983, sporting a great ensemble of young actors and a fabulous period soundtrack. The vibe is unabashedly feel-good with no smoking, drug-taking or f-words . . . miraculous.
Awarded best international narrative, Marios Piperides’ Smuggling Hendrix (Cyprus/Greece/Germany) is a great shaggy dog satire about the misadventures of Greek Cypriot Yiannis when his canine companion, “Jimi,” bolts through the divided island’s UN buffer zone and gets trapped on the Turkish side.
Writer-director Amélie van Elmbt’s The Elephant and the Butterfly (Belgium/France) gets an extraordinary performance from Lina Doillon as the little girl, Elsa, who discovers that her accidental babysitter, Antoine (Thomas Blanchard), is actually her father. Two other excellent child performances: Sarah Casu as 10-year-old Vittoria torn between two mother figures in Daughter of Mine (Italy/Germany/Switzerland); Milan Hurduc as nine-year old Dragos in Ioana Uricaru’s Lemonade (Romania/Canada/Germany) about an immigrant mother, Mara (Mãlina Manovici), whose desperation to maintain her American residency is exploited by an unethical immigration officer.
I’m generally not a fan of the horror zombie genre, but the Australian “midnight” selection, Cargo, by directors Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke, with Martin Freeman in the role of a father trying to save his child, added a compelling Aboriginal angle to the allegory of the human causes and consequences of a modern environmental plague. Speaking of death and after, Shawn Snyder’s To Dust is an excellent two-hander between Géza Röhrig (Son of Saul) as a Hasidic Jewish cantor, Shmuel, grieving his wife’s death, and Matthew Broderick as the biology teacher he involves in his obsession with what happened to her bodily remains.
In Stockholm, Ethan Hawke, back working with Canadian writer-director Robert Budreau (Born to be Blue), is terrific as Lars, the Bob Dylan-loving robber bumbler whose antics in a bizarre 1973 bank heist in the Swedish capital — turning several hostages, notably Bianca (Noomi Rapace) to his side — gave rise to the so-called “Stockholm syndrome.” Also based on actual events, and given that I was staying next to the legendary Chelsea Hotel, I should mention Ondi Timoner’s Mapplethorpe, about the controversial photographer who died of AIDS and famously hung out there with singer Patti Smith before becoming a gay icon. (The Chelsea was immortalized in a Leonard Cohen song and is where Sir Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey, the classic Kubrick film of which is having a 50th anniversary revival at Cannes this month.)
On to the hybrid of docudrama with Danish provocateur Mads Brügger’s subversive satire The Saint Bernard Syndicate in which school chums Rasmus Bruun and Frederik Cilius Jørgensen (actual Danish comedians) head to Chongqing, China, with a scheme to sell Saint Bernard dogs to a Chinese elite that covets pedigree dogs. Having been diagnosed with ALS, Rasmus presses on as the whole wacky blend of fact and fiction goes to the dogs. Bruun received the jury’s best actor prize in the international competition. The best actor award for U.S. narrative went to Jeffrey Wright as a longtime inmate awaiting release in the powerfully realistic prison drama O.G. directed by Madeleine Sackler, another filmmaker with a documentary background.
Moving to the documentary selections, Tribeca premiered the first episodes of two terrific docuseries. Just as the 50th anniversary of Rev Martin Luther King’s assassination has sparked new films, Bobby Kennedy for President recalls another figure of hope and tragedy. Directed by an African-American woman, Dawn Porter, the series streaming on Netflix combines archival material with contemporary interviews. The Tribeca panel on it included Bobby’s daughter Kerry Kennedy whose book Robert F. Kennedy: Ripples of Hope will be released June 5. Even more timely given Donald Trump’s war on the media as “enemies of the people” was the premiere of the Showtime series The Fourth Estate directed by Liz Garbus, which goes behind the scenes of The New York Times coverage of the Trump presidency. It’s scheduled for broadcast in late May (http://www.sho.com/the-fourth-estate).
Tribeca tuned into the political moment with introductory video segments that connected to women speaking out (https://www.timesupnow.com/) and to citizen activism (https://www.rockthevote.org/). In that vein, among the feature-length documentaries is Norah Shapiro’s Time for Ilhan (https://www.timeforilhanfilm.com/), the inspiring story of former Somali refugee Ilhan Omar’s successful run for the Minnesota state legislature. She took on a longtime incumbent to become the first Somali Muslim immigrant woman elected to public office in the U.S.
Neil Gelinas’ Into the Okavango (https://www.nationalgeographic.com/films/okavango/) chronicles an epic four-month 1,500-mile expedition across three countries (Angola, Botswana, Namibia) to document what is happening in a river basin that is among the last remaining wetland wildernesses under increasing pressure from human activity. Another conservation perspective comes from John Kasbe’s When Lambs Become Lions, capturing the frontlines of the battle to protect wildlife in Kenya pitting park rangers against elephant hunters and the illegal ivory trade. Nicolas Brown’s The Serengeti Rules addresses critical research into the role of “keystone species” in the restoration of vulnerable ecosystems.
The jury award went to writer-director Gabrielle Brady’s Island of the Hungry Ghosts (Germany/U.K./Australia http://www.christmasislandfilm.com/), which contrasts the beauty of Christmas Island, and its remarkable migration of red crabs from jungle to shore, with the presence of a high-security detention facility in which the Australian government holds asylum seekers, some suffering from trauma and torture, for indefinite periods. PJ Raval’s Call Her Ganda (U.S./Philippines http://www.callherganda.com/) probes the case of a transgender Filipina woman, Jennifer Laude, murdered by a U.S. Marine protected by the Visiting Forces Agreement, in order to understand why it became a sensational flashpoint in The Philippines post-colonial evolution.
U.S. Marines and the killing of foreign civilians is also at the heart of Michael Epstein’s House Two about the November 2005 massacre of 24 men, women and children in Haditha, Iraq, during the American occupation. (The horrific events were dramatized in Nick Broomfield’s 2007 film, Battle for Haditha.) Epstein uncovers a miscarriage of justice in what became the biggest and costliest trial in Marine Corps history, with the probable perpetrators granted immunity despite perjuring themselves. Moreover, the testimony of the sole survivor, a young girl, was kept out of the proceedings, and the general responsible for signing off was none other than Trump’s current defence secretary James Mattis.
There were excellent docs dealing with diverse, sometimes bizarre, aspects of American culture. The audience award went to Dyana Winkler and Tina Brown’s United Skates, about the rise and fall of roller-skating rinks frequented by African Americans, ending on an upbeat note. Tom Dumican’s No Greater Law investigated children’s deaths among an Idaho sect called “Followers of Christ” that believes in faith healing alone. Assia Boundaoui’s The Feeling of Being Watched digs into FBI surveillance of a predominantly Muslim Arab-American community in Illinois. Laura Brownson’s Netflix production The Rachel Divide looks into the controversy over Rachel Dolezal, who was born white but became a self-identified black activist. In terms of the arts, Jeff Kaufman’s Every Act of Life is a revealing tribute to acclaimed playwright Terrence McNally. The Albert Maysles award for best new director went to Dava Whisenant for the highly entertaining Bathtubs Over Broadway, about the golden age of “industrial shows,” expensive musicals made exclusively for private corporate clients, as searched out by Steve Young, a longtime writer for the David Letterman show.
The documentary film that made the strongest impression on me was the award-winning 22-minute Notes from Dunblane: Lessons from a School Shooting (https://www.facebook.com/notesfromdunblane/) directed by Kim Snyder who also made Newtown (https://www.newtownfilm.com/), about the 2012 shooting of first-graders at Sandy Hook. In March 1996 a massacre of primary school children took place in the Scottish village of Dunblane, shocking Britain and leading to tough gun controls and no recurrence since.
The Sandy Hook massacre prompted Dunblane’s Catholic pastor, Rev. Basil O’Sullivan, to reach out to Newtown parish priest Msgr. Bob Weiss. The film, which notes that 1,600 mass shootings have occurred in the U.S. since Sandy Hook, concentrates on the efforts of post-traumatic healing and exchange of correspondence between the two Catholic priests, both of whom were present for a special post-screening panel that also included several survivors from the Valentine’s Day 2018 Parkland school shooting involved in the “march for our lives” campaign.
Also deserving mention is the half-hour Earthrise (http://www.earthrisefilm.com/) about the first image of earth from space captured 50 years ago in 1968 by the Apollo 8 astronauts who recount their experiences and memories of an awesome sight that evoked a planetary consciousness as never before. The icon image of our blue planet against the blackness of space had a powerful impact on the astronauts and the world, offering a perspective of Earth as a shared home transcending national, political, and religious boundaries.
Finally, Tribeca’s “Cinema 360” program premiered the virtual reality docuseries This is Climate Change, created by Danfung Dennis and Eric Strauss, that immerses viewers in the realities of an unfolding global crisis as it has an impact on people and places. The experiences range from melting ice and disappearing glaciers to raging wildfires to rainforest destruction to the desertification of once-fertile lands — all signs of ecosystems in peril that call for an imperative of collective action.
Although this is my last Prairie Messenger column, I will continue to follow the film scene as president of One World Arts and a programmer of its the One World Film Festival (http://oneworldfilmfestival.ca/), the longest running documentary film festival in Canada’s capital, now in its 29th year. I am also on the board of the Group of 78, which is devoting its next annual conference in September to the theme “Meeting the Climate Challenge: Accelerating the Transition to a Past-Carbon World” (http://group78.org/annual-policy-conference-2018/). As part of that, the G78 and One World Arts will be presenting a special screening of the documentary Anote’s Ark (http://www.anotesark.com/) by Canadian filmmaker Matthieu Rytz. A reminder that we are all in the same boat when it comes to the imperative of protecting our planet for future generations.
My last word is to look for the best in the cinematic experience — for what engages as well as entertains by moving audiences and illuminating the signs of the times. Keep watching with that in mind and you will be rewarded.