By Michael Miller.
The 14th Tribeca Film Festival unspooled April 15-26 at multiple venues in Manhattan. Notable this year is the fest’s major presence in the Financial District downtown; a very short walk from the World Trade Center memorial site. Ten screens were in use at the Regal Battery Park effectively shifting the festival’s hub from Chelsea and the East Village. The Tribeca Film Festival had its origins in the aftermath of the events of September 11, 2001 as a means of drawing audiences into lower Manhattan for something to celebrate. The significance of this new setting in terms of the festival itself was palpable. Here are four highlights from this year’s festival.
Tribeca is becoming known as a showcase for female directors. A standout in the Narrative Competition program was Viaje written and directed by Paz Fabrega. A simple story of spark and attraction follows Luciana (Kattia Gonzalez) and Pedro (Fernando Bolanos) who meet cute at a costume party and take off for an adventure into the Costa Rican forest. A montage of quick cut edits as the couple wait on the curb for a bus is particularly endearing as they joke, gesture and laugh wordlessly. Told primarily from Luciana’s point of view, the film’s tone is light as easy as the couple experiences each other and the beauty in the wilderness. We see the beginnings of an honest relationship and it’s easy to get swept away with the passion the two attractive leads have for each other. Luciana is confidently self-aware and it is satisfying watching as she stays in control of her destiny. Shot in gorgeous black and white, Viaje offers much to like and leaves audiences with a smile.
Tribeca also consistently screens a strong program of non-fiction film. 2015 continued that tradition with several outstanding offerings. A Courtship, directed by Amy Kohn, looks at attraction and relationships from another angle. The documentary introduces audiences to the practice of Christian courtship, wherein a woman cedes the responsibility of finding a husband to her parents and the will of God. In the case of Kelly, an Alabama native in her mid-30’s now relocated to Grand Rapids, Michigan, she enlists a local Christian couple, Ron and Dawn Wright as her adopted spiritual family. Ron and Dawn are middle-aged with two school age daughters. She entrusts them with the quest of finding her a husband. This arrangement also includes Kelly taking up residence in the Wright’s home and performing chores and housework. Ron is clearly excited by the challenge even enthusing about “meeting all these cool guys,” a statement that Kohn lets hang for a full beat before moving on. While courtship is a concept foreign to many in the 21st Century, the film is respectful to all on screen and even handedly depicts Kelly’s struggles and joys. However, Kohn draws into bold relief the inherent patriarchy of the arrangement and how that even applies in Dawn and Ron’s own marriage. In one frank address to the camera, Dawn states matter-of-factly that Ron makes all the decisions in their household and if he makes a bad decision the blame is his alone. The simplicity of this worldview may appeal to some, but a bad decision no matter who is to blame still has impact on the entire family. Yet later, Dawn surprises us with some spot-on advice to Kelly about a key issue that arises in a nascent relationship. A scene where Kelly returns to Alabama to visit her mother and step-father is especially powerful as they counsel her about the arrangement with the Wrights. Kohn excels at putting a human face on a practice that many Americans may easily dismiss out of hand.
Once again, ESPN plays an integral role at Tribeca screening the Tribeca ESPN Sports Film Festival. A notable entry in this year’s fest was Fastball, directed by Jonathan Hock which studies the beauty and physics of the national pastime’s titular pitch. For fans of baseball this fast paced documentary, narrated by Kevin Costner, dives deeply into the legends of the game including Walter Johnson of the 1920’s Washington Senators and Bob Feller of the 1930 – 1940’s Cleveland Indians. On-screen interviews with living legends such as Hank Aaron, Goose Gossage, Bob Gibson, and Nolan Ryan round out the film with recollections of particular games and at bats. As the film makes clear, baseball at its essence is a clash between the pitcher throwing a ball as fast as is humanly possible at a speed which approaches the threshold of what a batter can see, recognize and respond to with the bat. Deconstructed to this core, Fastball revels in the beauty of this simplicity. Baseball is a game that plays to the strengths of math geeks and statisticians; the doc takes on the challenge of determining who threw the fastest pitch. The film does this using archival footage of pitching tests conducted with Walter Johnson and Bob Feller. These methodologies, while primitive and amusing today, were the best available at the time. Contrasted with current technology, we are told the measurements aren’t all comparable. In what could have become an eye-glazing segment, Hock, has mathematicians and physicists explain compellingly the calculations to adjust all the measurements over time onto a common footing. This amps up the drama as the film builds to the reveal of who is actually the fastest pitcher in baseball. Even casual fans of the game find a lot to like in this film.
A Faster Horse, directed by David Gelb follows Dave Pericak as he leads the project team at Ford Motor Company in the redesign and launch of the 6th generation Mustang for the 2015 model year. At its initial release in 1964, the Mustang became an instant American icon. Gelb’s film lovingly traces the car’s genesis and history from the original concept through the production meetings Pericak leads as the new model nears its debut. After the spectacular failure of the Edsel in the 1950’s, getting the go ahead from Henry Ford, II to build the Mustang was hardly a sure thing; we even learn that the car was originally to be called the Cougar, a nameplate Ford applied to its Mercury Division sports car later that decade. Gelb excels with this film in showing how things get made; he exhibited this skill in his previous film Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011). We see the managers making the tough decisions to spend an extra $1 per vehicle to address a deficiency found late in the development process as well as the men and women on the assembly line as they weld and bolt together the final model. It would be easy to dismiss this film as a slick promotional video. But that’s not the case here; even the regrettable Mustang II from the mid 1970’s gets screen time. The enthusiasm on display as Gelb films Mustang owners be effusive about their vehicles is infectious. Particularly notable is the father/daughter team that together rebuilt a 1971 Mach 1 Fastback which they drove cross country to the 50th Anniversary celebrated at a North Carolina racetrack. Such a bond between humans and machine can be unbreakable.
Michael Miller is an independent scholar who frequently reviews documentaries for Film International’s “Around the Circuit” column.