By Gary M. Kramer.
The 13th annual Tribeca Film Festival wrapped up on April 27th, and by and large the documentary films were the festival’s highlights. The narrative features were more of a mixed bag, with strong performances saving familiar stories. Here is a run down of several films that played at this year’s fest.
The incredible documentary Point and Shoot deservedly won the Festival’s award for Best Documentary Feature. In the opening scene, 29 year-old Matthew VanDyke introduces himself on camera and presents his Smith and Wesson extreme ops knife, armored vest, and his helmet with a camera mount. He is setting off to join rebel fighters in Libya. But how did a mild-mannered guy from Baltimore end up fighting a war in Libya? For Matthew, who was raised on action movies and grew up with “choose your own adventure” stories, Point and Shoot shows it was easy. He took a road trip through the Middle East on his motorcycle to film his adventures. It was, he eloquently explains, a “crash course in manhood”—albeit one that involves a crash resulting in a broken collarbone. He also had to overcome his OCD issues, such as his constant hand washing and fear of sugar. Seamlessly weaving Matthew’s footage with interviews and news reports, Point and Shoot shows how the adrenaline rush Matthew experiences prompts him to take the other side of the camera and shape the events he is documenting. Meeting Nuri in his travels, he feels compelled to help fight after the Arab Spring breaks out. His efforts extend to participating in the war in Libya. Even after a tense stretch in prison (a beautifully animated sequence where his OCD is really tested), Matthew refuses to return home, preferring instead to test his manhood further—ultimately to the point of filming himself shooting at an enemy soldier on camera. Point and Shoot asks quite boldly: Can we become the idealized image we had of ourselves? The answers as Matthew discovers and filmmaker Marshall Curry reveals are both staggering and thought-provoking.
Another strong doc with an African war angle was Virunga. After a brief history of Congo, this engaging documentary addresses the issues plaguing the Virunga national park. From poachers to SOCO, a company wanting to get the oil and mineral wealth of the park, there are many reasons for the dedicated rangers to be concerned. And the most important are the 800 mountain gorillas that are close to becoming an endangered species. There are several scenes of the adorable animals playing and bonding with the park rangers. There are also some breathtaking images of the park, as seen by sweeping camera moments and National Geographic-style shots. But Virunga has more on its mind as it follows the efforts of Melanie, a French journalist who launches an undercover investigation of SOCO’s influence with money to pay security forces and mercenaries to determine if conservation or civil war is more valuable. Virunga‘s politics are certainly with the park and its people, and the film sparks outrage—especially as rebel groups and M23 militias fight in tense sequences. The animals may be as afraid as the people, a fact that only emphasizes the point that if the people leave the park, they will lose everything. If the filmmaking is unsubtle—more interested in telling the audience what to feel than what to think— the messages are still important.
Tribeca is also known for showcasing sports documentaries, and Maravilla, an Argentine doc about the boxer the “Marvelous” Sergio “Maravilla” Martinez, was one of the best sports films at the fest. Director Juan Pablo Cadaveira chronicles this one-time Middleweight champion of the world as he hopes to regain his title. The World Boxing Council (WBC) stripped Martinez of his belt on a technicality. Maravilla deftly uses archival footage to trace Martinez’s remarkable career, his background and family life, as well as interviews with various boxing professionals and promoters to provide a touching portrait of this underappreciated boxer. While almost everyone agrees that Martinez was unfairly treated, it takes tremendous efforts by the athlete’s dedicated and frustrated manager, Louis John DiBella, to get Martinez a fight with current Middleweight champion Julio Chavez, Jr. In the process, Maravilla reveals much about the politics of the WBC, rival promoters, as well as the extent of Martinez’s campaign to recapture his title. (This includes doing stand-up comedy and Argentina’s version of Dancing with the Stars). The handsome bruiser Martinez comes across as tremendously likeable in Cadaveira’s film, and he is poetry in motion inside the ring and out. However, it is the 12 rounds between Martinez and Chavez, Jr., a ten-minute sequence late in the film, that is absolutely nail-biting, and part of what makes this film so marvelous.
In contrast, another underdog story, Next Goal Wins, about the American Samoan soccer team that has never won an official match, was a disappointment. This benign film opens with the infamous 31-0 loss the team suffered against Australia in 2001. Nicky Salapu, the goalkeeper, was humiliated, but he smiles as he says, cheerfully, that he wants a rematch. However, while the team’s next chance at league play comes with the South Pacific Games, it goes quickly, with 5 straight losses and no goals against their rivals. Enter Thomas Rangen, a tough Dutch coach who meets his match with this team that plays with heart, just not very well. Directors Steve Jamison and Mike Brett have affection for the game and the team members, but this overlong feature spends too much time showing bad soccer and frustrated coaches. Next Goal Wins profiles only a handful of players, such as Jaiyah, the first transgender player in soccer. But one hardly gets a sense that soccer is in the lifeblood of Jaiyah or Nicky, despite the latter insisting that it is. Instead, the filmmakers concentrate on two players recruited specifically for the team because of their American Samoan heritage. Next Goal Wins also emphasizes the idea of pride, which is important for a team that has long been at the bottom of the FIFA ranking. However, few of the teammates express their frustration with their situation. Alas, much of the film is as repetitive as drills in soccer practice, driving home the message that one goal, one victory, is a tremendous personal and professional victory for everyone. It may well be, but Next Goal Wins does not make that achievement feel particularly satisfying.
On the fiction side of the fest, Zero Motivation won the Founders Award for Best Narrative Feature. This agreeable, amusing Israeli film depicts the lives of Zohar (Dana Ivgy) and Daffi (Nelly Tagar), who work in a rural army base’s Human Resource office as Postal NCO and Paper and Shredding NCO, respectively. Zohar has contempt for her commander Rama (Shani Klein), who is gunning for a promotion. Daffi, meanwhile, wants to be in Tel Aviv, and gets transferred via the officers training program. This separation complicates the two young women’s friendship, and they soon declare war on each other. A catfight in the HR office, complete with a staple gun battle, is both funny and silly. Zero Motivation also shrewdly presents the various mini-dramas that ensue as a new recruit creates a problem for the unit, or when Daffi is transferred back from Tel Aviv. The film excels in capturing the boredom, restlessness, and anxiety these female characters face with gentle satire and sarcasm. This approach works best when Zohar enacts a sweet, satisfying revenge on Rama, but sometimes director Talya Lavie overdoes it. A sequence in which Zohar hopes to lose her virginity to a handsome departing soldier, only to watch him being humiliated, goes on a bit too long. Yet Zero Motivation is certainly a worthwhile film; it presents a world seen all too little in films, and the performances by Ivgy and Tagar are quite winning.
The engrossing Italian drama Human Capital opens with a bicyclist being run off the road one night. Cut to six months earlier when Dino (Fabrizio Bentivoglio) drops his daughter Serena (Matilda Gioli) off at her boyfriend Massimiliano’s (Guglielmo Pinelli). What unfolds is a trio of interconnected stories involving secrets and lies, class issues, and guilt. Director/co-writer Paolo Virzi uses a familiar narrative structure—the same story told from three overlapping points of view—and his story is familiar too. The rich characters try to exploit and protect themselves at the cost of the poor ones. Relationships between parents and children are strained; affairs occur between unhappy people, and the possibility of financial ruin motivates folks to behave badly. Human Capital is a glossy melodrama, well acted by the entire ensemble cast—Valeria Bruni Tedeschi is a standout; she won the Festival’s Best Actress in a Narrative Feature Film prize for her role in the film. However, for all the effort to illuminate the issues of hubris and entitlement, Human Capital fails to ignite.
Broken Hill Blues was also an interlocking ensemble drama. A radio informs viewers that ground deformation in the characters’ Swedish mining town is making the ground fragile during the mining process. Authentic and mostly unpretentious (save an extended sequence in a misty forest), this chilly film is filled with natural beauty and gritty realism. In a town where sunset is at 3:27 pm, five youths eke out a life. Markus (Sebastian Hiort af Ornäs) wants to work on cars, but will likely work in the mine. Zerlin (Lina Leandersson) is a swimmer hoping to escape town. Daniel (Alfred Juntti) literally boxes with his father. These youth are dreamers confronted by harsh reality disrupted by the earth rattling while they are in the mine, in the pool, or at the kitchen table. It’s a bleak drama that gives a strong sense of place but like the lives of the characters it goes nowhere slowly.
Another film about small town teen life was Beneath the Harvest Sky, about two lifelong friends, the tough, angry Casper (Emory Cohen) and the more sensible Dominic (Callan McAuliffe). These friends grapple with having to make choices in situations that are often beyond their control. Casper’s dad (Aiden Gillen) is a drug trafficker who coordinates buying prescription pills locally and doing drug runs to Canada. Casper is lured into helping his dad because of the easy money, and lack of opportunity for a bad kid like him. Dominic, on the other hand, is smart and hard working. He spends his school break harvesting potatoes to earn money for a car that can help him leave town. He wants to move to Boston with Casper and start life after high school there. Beneath the Harvest Sky chronicles Casper and Dominic’s experiences, and the best scenes are of the two friends hanging out—shooting potatoes in an abandoned house, or in an extended sequence, when they follow Casper’s uncle Lee (Timm Sharp) across the border. Writers/directors Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly are best when they show their characters fenced in by circumstance. Casper’s girlfriend Tasha (Zoe Levin) tells him she’s pregnant, while Dominic falls for Emma (Sarah Sutherland), who is more focused on her plans for college. How each teen copes with their situation is what makes the film interesting. But the filmmakers telegraph too much of its action, particularly when a character is stopped by the cops and arrested. This sequence, although well done, stalls the narrative momentum and dramatic tension. Perhaps it is meant to mirror the stalled lives of the characters, but it is more boring than absorbing.
Gary M. Kramer is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and co-editor of the recently published Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.
For more on the Tribeca Film Festival, see Michael Miller’s report here.