Blowin' Up
Blowin’ Up

By Michael Miller. 

The 17th Tribeca Film Festival unspooled April 18 – 29, 2018 across seven venues in Manhattan. The festival celebrates storytelling whether in the form of narrative features, documentary, virtual reality and even retrospective screenings. Here are some of the memorable offerings from this year’s festival.

The documentaries at Tribeca are uniformly strong. One of the best, Blowin’ Up (Wang-Breal, 2018), received its world premiere at the fest. The film opens with Kandie, a young African-American woman with giant hoop earrings telling the story of how she came “into the life.” She is speaking about prostitution. Her slide into this activity was gradual and borne of economic necessity, but before long, she felt trapped in relationship with her pimp. “Blowin’ Up,” she explains, is a term for prostitutes that leave their pimp: “so I blew up.” With this prologue, the viewer is dropped into a courtroom in Queens County, New York. From the proceedings, viewers deduce that the young Asian-American woman defendant in the court has been arrested for prostitution; this is a proceeding that will determine how her case will navigate the criminal justice system. The technique is disorienting: the courtroom is crowded with people constantly entering and exiting, few being identified; the exchanges between the judge, the prosecution, and defense speed by with unfamiliar terms (all near simultaneously translated into Mandarin); the pace of the action belies its constant repetition. Despite the controlled chaos, the courtroom feels different. The judge, the Honorable Toko Serita is fully engaged and shows real concern and compassion toward the women before her. While the defense and prosecution are by nature adversaries, the exchanges are not adversarial. This court is indeed different; it is the Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Court, which was established in 2004 as an alternative to the traditional criminal justice process. Rather than treat defendants as criminals, the court addresses prostitution as a byproduct of human trafficking and seeks a better resolution for women who have been arrested. Instead of going to trial or pleading guilty, defendants are given the option of attending a certain number of counseling sessions with a social services provider. If they complete the sessions and aren’t rearrested during the six-month period that follows, the charges are dismissed, and the case sealed. Wang-Breal also introduces us to Eliza Hook, a service provider with the Girls Education and Mentoring Service. She is a serious, smart, driven and fiercely protective of her clients. We watch as she counsels her clients and tells them what to expect in each day’s proceedings. With the exception of some court officers and an interpreter, everyone working in the courtroom is a woman. Wang-Breal takes an immersive approach to telling this important courtroom story, and it works. Here is an instance where criminal justice reform is working; Blowin’ Up is satisfying and extremely effective in demonstrating the humanity of all on screen.

In contrast, the documentary, The Man Who Stole Banksy (Prosperio, 2018), which also had its world premiere at Tribeca, is more problematic. The film poses a number of questions regarding street art, ownership, and commerce but resolves none of them. In 2007, Banksy, the internationally known street artist, traveled to Palestine with fourteen other street artists to paint on the West Bank wall drawing attention to Palestine and to raise funds for local artists. One of the many works Banksy made while in Bethlehem, “The Donkey with The Soldier,” was painted on a local structure and not the barrier itself. (It is the work referenced in the documentary’s title). The image depicts an Israeli soldier with rifle slung over his back checking the ID of a donkey. In the context of the West Bank, the message of the work is incisive illustrating the disdain and distrust of the IDF towards a mere animal. The owner of the wall preferred to see the Donkey as proxy for the Palestinian people and was highly offended. Instead of painting over the work, which would have been his right, he allows a local businessman and an associate to cut the work from the wall and sell it on Ebay for $100,000. The film follows this cut out from the wall across the globe, as it travels to Denmark, London, and Los Angeles. But mostly, Prosperio includes interviews that debate the work to address his points. Steve Lazarides, Banksy’s former manager, argues that a work’s location or context is integral to its meaning. Art collector Stephan Keszler and art historian Christian Omodeo take the opposite position. That these two would have a financial incentive influencing their opinion is not brought up. The film then proceeds to introduce Paolo Buggiani, an 80-year-old Italian artist who went around New York in the 1980’s removing Keith Haring’s from the streets and subway. Buggiani still has the art all stored in his studio; while he never profited from his collection, he has denied the works a wider public audience effectively muting the artist’s voice. Prosperio may be presenting multiple opinions regarding street art and commerce leaving it up to the viewer to decide how they feel. Unfortunately, it all comes across as muddled, unfocused, and incomplete. Arguably, the most rational response to the whole Banksy episode comes from Vera Baboun, the then City Mayor of Bethlehem, who understands the importance of street art like Banksy’s in shining light on the plight of Palestinians in the West Bank. As with any con job, The Man Who Stole Banksy delivers less than it promises.

Among the narrative features, a standout was O.G. (Sackler, 2018) which features Jeffrey Wright as Louis, a maximum-security prison inmate in the final weeks of his 24-year incarceration for a murder he committed in his youth. (Wright won the Festival’s Best Actor Award for the role). Louis is something of an elder statesman in the prison society. He knows the process, the expectations, the players, and how to survive day-to-day as an incarcerated man. He’s also a natural leader having lead a prominent prison gang. However, he has decided to step away from that role as the final weeks of his incarceration erode. Louis takes an interest in Dante Beecher (Theothus Carter) a newly arrived inmate who he befriends although not without complication. But protecting Beecher pulls Louis back into the politics and conflict of the prison eco-system. The drama centers on a power vacuum created by Louis’ impending release and a conspiracy unfolding at the prison. Danvers (William Fichtner), an investigator, leans on Louis for information of the plan. Louis is caught between feelings of self-preservation and old-school-honor while he faces the uncertainty of his soon to be new life outside. O.G. is director Madeline Sackler’s first narrative feature; her previous experience as a documentarian gives this film a naturalistic realism. Filmed at an active maximum-security prison, the film includes incarcerated men in addition to the actors. While O.G. covers familiar ground of the prison film genre, there are little surprises such as a scene where Louis is confronted by a family member of the man he killed that make this film well worthy of attention. And there is Wright’s astonishing performance.

Tribeca continues to grow its virtual reality (VR) offerings each year. For this year’s festival, nearly two dozen interactive works were mounted in a warren of small intricate sets at the Festival Hub on Varick Street. Still very much works in progress, collectively, they illustrate the path this technology is taking. Two entries, “Dinner Party” and “Queerskins: A Love Story” took viewers on a virtual journey. The former featured a UFO abduction, the latter, a car ride with the parents of a man who had died from AIDS. Both programs, while gimmicky, had moments of engagement, but illustrate the unique potential of this new technology.

Celebrating its 35th anniversary, Scarface (De Palma, 1983) screened in the iconic Beacon Theater to a near capacity crowd. The audience, some seeing the classic on the big screen for the first time, was fully engaged and bursting into applause as oft-quoted lines – especially, “Say hello to my little friend!” – were delivered. Following the screening, director De Palma was joined on stage by actors Steven Bauer, Michelle Pfeiffer and Al Pacino for what turned out to be a memorable Q&A badly moderated by Jesse Kornbluth. After several minutes of the men on stage recounting the film’s genesis and filming, the moderator attempted to include Pfeiffer in the conversation by asking her weight at the time of the shoot. The audience turned on Kornbluth with choruses of “boos” and “nos.” Finally, as the room quieted down, Pfeiffer, ever the pro, responded, “But I was playing a cocaine addict, which was part of the physicality of the part, which you have to consider. The movie was only supposed to be a three-month, four-month shoot. Of course, I tried to time it so that as the movie went on, I became thinner and thinner and more emaciated.” In spite of the sour taste of the Q&A, I have to confess I was seeing Scarface for the first time. Yes, the film is dated; yes, the performances are campy and hammy; and of course, the violence is over the top. But sharing this experience with more than 2500 excited fans in the theater, I could not have enjoyed it more.

Michael Miller is an independent scholar who frequently reviews documentaries for Film International’s “Around the Circuit” column.

Read also:

Observation and Immersion: 2018 AFI Docs

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