By Michael Miller.
The Tribeca Film Festival has developed a reputation for its documentary program, which it further burnished in 2013. A few notable titles presented at the festival this year were: Big Shot (directed by Kevin Connolly), part of the festival’s ESPN Sports Film Festival, which winningly profiles John A. Spano, a man who reportedly took ownership of the NY Islanders NHL team in 1997 for a personal investment of $1700, only to be revealed as a fraud; Flex Is Kings (directed by Michael Beach Nichols and Deidre Schoo), an entertaining, inspirational portrait of a street dance competition in Brooklyn; and The Kill Team (directed by Dan Krauss), a devastating film that investigates a soldier who becomes accused of the very war crimes he tries to report.
Here is a rundown of several other significant non-fiction titles from the fest:
Let the Fire Burn (directed by Jason Osder) recounts events in Philadelphia on May 13, 1985 when the police—in an attempt to eject inhabitants—dropped an explosive device on the roof of a fortified row house. The property was occupied by MOVE, a counter culture organization with a long history of conflict and antagonism with the Philadelphia police and its neighbors. The resulting fire ended with the deaths of eleven, including five children, and the total destruction of sixty-one homes. Nearly thirty years later, the events of this day are barely remembered in Philadelphia and virtually unknown everywhere else. Let the Fire Burn tells this important story not by using present-day interviews of the subjects, but through copious archival footage of news accounts, televised hearings after the fire, public affairs programs, and the video deposition of a child survivor.
This contemporaneous approach takes the viewer back to that time and lets them sort out the divergent points of view reflected in the footage. Video profiles of MOVE present a group exhibiting aspects of the Black Power movement along with a Back to Nature religious element. Members of the group all took the surname “Africa” and wore dreadlocks; they lived without electricity and other modern conveniences. This was considered provocative behavior at the time and was augmented with their loud and vocal disdain for authority and frequent brandishing of firearms. Such behavior created immeasurable friction with the neighbors and police as the film illustrates.
Let the Fire Burn also supplies the history of a prior violent conflict between police and MOVE in the summer of 1978, in which a police officer was killed. Footage of the police brutally beating MOVE member Delbert Africa that day increased tension between the parties. Perhaps one of the more interesting artifacts of the time though, is the video record of the hearings of the independent commission assembled to investigate the event. We hear the non-specific ramblings of surviving MOVE members stating their grievances with the city, along with testimony of the police chief that appears to implicate him in defying a direct order from the mayor. What becomes sadly clear is that all parties to the conflict were to some degree culpable and, as a result, six children died.
Highlighting a struggle of a different nature, Powerless (directed by Deepti Kakkar and Fahad Mustafa) introduces us to two residents in Kanpur, India—a city of 3 million that regularly experiences electrical power outages of twelve to fifteen hours a day. Loha is an electrician who installs illegal connections to supply power to residents of the city. Ritu is the new chief of the Kanpur Electrical Supply Company (KESCO), its first female head, and she has been tasked with eliminating the “powerlessness.” As nearly 30% of KESCO’s losses arise from illegal connections and stolen power, she has assembled a task force to address this theft. While acknowledging that the illegal connections are a problem, KESCO’s customers justify their actions due to the frequent long outages; that this theft prevents the investment in additional generation capacity is immaterial to the customer. Complicating matters are KESCO’s records kept entirely on paper and a bureaucracy resembling the 19th century.
Despite the nature of his vocation, Loha is a pleasure to watch as he scrambles up power poles through a thicket of disorganized wires to make a connection, though it can be hard to watch as the sparks fly while he is establishing a connection. Due to the lack of electricity, industry has left many residents of Kanpur—formerly referred to as the Manchester of India—jobless and in poverty. Powerless makes it clear that electrical power generation and transmission capacity in India in general, and in Kanpur in particular, are insufficient to meet the needs of industry and an increasing population. That this level of energy poverty exists in one of the world’s fastest growing economies is palpable.
Speaking truth to power is the central theme in Herblock: The Black and the White (directed by Michael Stevens), a profile of the long time Washington Post editorial cartoonist. Filled with short bursts of talking head interviews, Herblock: The Black and the White paints a portrait of a patriotic mid-western idealist who did not attack his subjects but rather expressed his disappointment in their actions or policies. Firsthand accounts are provided by journalistic lions such as Tom Brokaw, Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, Tom Friedman, Gwen Ifill, David Brooks, Ted Koppel, Eugene Robinson, Ben Bradlee and others. They candidly discuss their experiences with—and even fear of—Block, who scaled the wall between news and opinion at the Post to ensure the points of his cartoons were accurate. These interviews are best when deconstructing one of Herblock’s cartoons such as the image of a leaking drum labeled “OPEC Oil” atop a file cabinet despoiling open drawers labeled “arms-defense,” “foreign policy,” “inflation,” and “transportation” all crowned by a simple title: “It gets into everything.” Less effective is the device used to frame the documentary, in which an interview with Block is recreated using Alan Mandell standing in for the deceased subject. Statements delivered here are based on his writings and, while no doubt accurate, when delivered aloud seem didactic instead of profound. Another distraction is found in the heroic soundtrack by Rob Mathes, which is evocative of Aaron Copeland but oddly out of place here. Consequently, what is in large part a well-produced profile of one of the late 20th Century’s most important voices takes on the flavor of a hagiography.
In God We Trust (directed by Derek Anderson and Victor Kubicek) is a fast paced documentary about Bernard L. Madoff, the Ponzi scheme he perpetrated and the ensuing investigation. What makes this film satisfying is the front row perspective provided by Eleanor Squillari, Madoff’s personal secretary of 25 years. Instead of allowing Bernie’s betrayal to consume her, Squillari recognized the value of her personal files and the knowledge of the firm she gleaned over her career. She approached the FBI to cooperate in the investigation. We see as Squillari describes the floor plan of the offices occupied by Bernard L Madoff Investment Securities (BLMIS) in the iconic Lipstick Building in midtown Manhattan. We learn that there were essentially two distinct operations. One was the securities trading operation, which occupied most of the space in the offices business processed the stock trades on behalf of others for a fee. This business was above board and this is the operation where Madoff’s sons Mark and Andrew worked. The investment business staff was sequestered on a floor separate from the rest of the operation and this is where the fraud was carried out by an extremely small number of employees considering the sums invested. In addition to being employees, Eleanor and many others were also investors with BLMIS and consequently lost everything. The film is also propelled by interviews with others related to the story including Brad Garrett, the FBI agent and Erin Arvedlund, a financial journalist who had written presciently in 2001 in Barron’s about Madoff’s questionable investment results and demands for secrecy from his clients. The film also outlines a corollary to the sad case that the Securities Investor Protection Corporation (SIPC), which in theory covered invested sums up to $500,000, would not apply in the case of Madoff’s fraud. In what is perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the story, Madoff pled guilty to everything as charged and did not cooperate with investigators. In this sense, many of the details of his crimes will go with him to the grave. In God We Trust puts a human face on the unexpected victims of his greed and betrayal.
On the narrative feature side, one film stood out at the festival, Taboor (directed by Vahid Vakilifar). This Iranian drama opens with the unnamed main character (Mohammad Rabbanipour) arising from a simple cot in a claustrophobically small room whose floor, ceiling, and walls are clad entirely in aluminum foil. This single, still shot cues the viewer that something different is about to unspool. The hero is a distinctive-looking middle-aged Iranian man with a thick white beard and fierce eyebrows. The camera lingers on his face giving us the opportunity to study every wrinkle, pore, and whisker. In that we find the main conceit of this film; it is a feast of sensory stimulus. The sound design is superb, particularly as the man dons an aluminum union suit, trousers, and jacket and we distinctly hear every crinkle of the foil as he moves. The film’s sound just barely crosses the line into the hyper-real; the audience is aware of the sound and may even be aware that sound we hear does not entirely correspond to the camera’s point of view. This ever so slight but intentional dissonance heightens the viewer’s awareness and draws them into the film even if subconsciously.
Set almost entirely at night, Taboor plays liberally with light and shadow. At points the characters (several other unnamed men are introduced over the course of the story) carry a lantern around the landing of an otherwise unlit interior staircase. The camera is motionless as the light moves and the texture of the plaster and the steepness of the stairs are gradually revealed. Director Vakilifar repeats the technique in another shot, and thus allows the observant to savor the experience again. There are several shots in which entire screen is black, save a sliver of light through an open door in the distance. Other images of the shadows cast by intricately detailed railings and lamp shades are visual treats.
Narratively, the film is a conundrum. The man rides a motorcycle through the nearly empty streets of Tehran, and is seen exterminating insects in a building’s boiler room. He gets stuck in an elevator and climbs out. Nothing much is discussed, but it is all fascinating. While there is a likely allegory about contemporary Iran (for those who choose to look for one), some viewers may just want to soak up the film’s dazzling images, which will stay with the viewer percolating and forming meaning. Taking the sensory theme further, the director presents the man’s point of view as he experiences a virtual reality version of a roller coaster attraction through an abandoned goldmine. There is even a comic visual payoff when the hero leaves the attraction. The same is true for the viewer, who will appreciate the unexpected qualities of this unusual film.
Experiencing Taboor is not unlike realizing at the bottom of the fifth inning that you are watching what has so far been a no-hitter. Will the pitcher strike the next batter out? Can the third baseman catch that foul pop-up? Does the man say anything? Will the camera ever move? This kind of engagement in a film experience is intoxicating for festivalgoers.
Michael Miller is an independent scholar who frequently reviews documentaries for Film International’s Around the Circuit column.
For more on the festival, see Gary Kramer’s report here.