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The 2016 Tribeca Film Festival

Sunday 15 May 2016, by SIGNIS

New York, May, 15th, 2016 (L. Rich). The annual Tribeca Film Festival held in New York City continues to attract large numbers of filmgoers during its ten-day run—138,000 in 2015. This year, In addition to the 102 features and 74 short films screened from 42 countries, most of which were world premieres, the festival again offered many multimedia attractions. Conversations with filmmakers and TV producers, advance viewing of television and streaming service series, interactive projects and virtual reality experiments are just some of the opportunities to learn more about media trends and innovations.

As usual, the feature-length narrative and documentary films presented offered a wide range of themes, directors and on-screen talent. Following is a brief overview of some that may be of interest to SIGNIS readers.

Change, Conflict and War

A number of films in one way or another dealt with the impact of social upheaval and dislocation and war, often in the Islamic world.

Shadow World offered an unsparing analysis of how global arms trade, led by major US and European corporations, profits from unending conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere. Tickling Giants profiles Egypt’s most popular TV satirist who arose during the Arab Spring to garner an audience of 30 million, only to have to flee as the el Sisi regime came to power.

National Bird is unique in its even-handed but damning recounting of the travails of three whistleblowers who once worked in the US drone warfare system employed in Afghanistan, Yemen, and elsewhere. After Spring, which counts Jon Stewart, the popular former host of The Daily Show, among its producers, is a heart-wrenching yet somehow hopeful look at the largest Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, seen through the eyes of two families. Both these films were among the best that the festival had to offer.

Junction 48, is the story of a Palestinian rapper living in Israel; in As I Open My Eyes, a young Tunisian singer’s struggle to find her voice as a woman and in the resistance to the dictatorship occurs on cusp of the rising there. Both movies raise questions about whether music can ever be divorced from the social-cultural-political milieux in which it is created.

To round out the thematic, it is worth mentioning two of the darker tales viewed in the festival. The Fixer is the story of an Afghan who emigrates to the US to leave the horrors of war in his homeland, while The Loner uses a film noir approach to follow the path of a former Iranian child soldier who does not go to “Paradise” like so many of his peers in the Iran-Iraq War, but ends up seeking a sort of salvation in the midst of the drug wars of Los Angeles ethnic mob factions. The two films present in chilling fashion the prospect that there are broken sectors of US society that cannot be fixed or saved, no better than the terrible social chaos spawned by wars elsewhere.


On the brighter side, numerous features explored human relationships in the varied forms family takes in modern society,not without conflict, identity questions, loss and pain, but nonetheless affirming the power of these imperfect bonds to rise above all of that.

Earnest portrayals of Mother-Daughter journeys to find accommodation and then peace shine through The Meddler, a comedy about a widow (Susan Sarandon) who can’t help but intrude in her adult daughter’s life, and in All We Had, in which a mother and daughter live on the edge of poverty, successfully directed by and starring Katie Holmes.

Several films present the prospect that family is where you find it, perhaps not in the traditional places. Mr. Church is a dramatic turn for Eddie Murphy as the chef-anonymous savior for a single mother and her daughter over the course of many years. The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea hits some predictable but positive notes exploring how a widower and street-wise young girl can end up sailing off into the horizon as practically father and daughter. Hunt for the Wilderpeople sends a grizzled bushman (Sam Neill) on an odyssey through the New Zealand backcountry with his foster son, running from the alleged child welfare services in a truly humorous and inventive film.

A more sober look at child welfare, the courts and family is Custody, which eschews the standard characterizations of single mothers and their children, social workers, lawyers and judges, instead presenting us with complex characters trying to do their best in the face of a broken system.

For family dysfunction, The Family Fang is hard to surpass: Nicole Kidman and Jason Bateman (also director) are the offspring of two performance artist parents whom the judge in Custody would likely send to jail. The siblings’ hard-pressed search for their missing parents in the end offers freedom from a disturbing past. On the other hand, the biracial family in Little Boxes must come to terms with who each—father, mother, son—are when they move from the cosmopolis to the white suburbs where the pre-teen son is an item of curiosity more than of direct racism.

In both Memories of a Penitent Heart, a US documentary, and California, a Brazilian feature, family crises arise when a relative is found to have AIDS. Memories… honestly and compassionately wrestles with the difficulty the filmmaker’s Catholic, Puerto Rican family has in coming to terms with the gay uncle’s lifestyle, illness and death—even years afterwards. California weaves a narrative about the awkward teenage turmoil over identity and sexuality together with the discovery that a favorite uncle is HIV-positive.

Love and Identity

The confusing and messy nature of love in human relationships—sometimes in family—and how we see ourselves in regard to others suffuses the six edgy vignettes in Madly, all directed by known actors and directors. Similarly, the French film, Courted, while ostensibly about a trial judge and jury, is an understated look at the inescapable lure of the desire for connection.

Crime proves to be fertile ground for exploring human connections, identity and literary creativity in the clever plot of the Cuban film, The Human Thing. A writer, a thief, a policewoman and a mob boss are all linked via a stolen manuscript. Likewise, we find in A Kind of Murder a typical murder mystery touching upon the question of broken relationships and how pursuing the question of who one really is can be fatal.

When Worlds Collide

As one might expect in a festival with a good number of international releases, several films observe what happens when world-views collide. High Rise in an absurdist manner uses an apartment building divided along class lines to take the capitalist model to its ultimate dystopian conclusion. In The Man Who Knew Infinity, based on the real life of Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, rational, Western prejudice refuses to acknowledge the breakthrough of truth because the discoverer is from an “inferior” culture and believes the theory is of divine origin.

A Hologram for the King gives us an American businessman in Saudi Arabia trying to function out of supposed US entrepreneurial superiority in a culture he does not understand and in which he therefore repeatedly fails. In Icaros: A Vision, a woman dying of cancer seeks a cure in a shamanic retreat in the Peruvian jungle, where she and other foreigners do not readily grasp what world they have entered. A connection with a young apprentice to the shaman who is suffering his own need for healing helps her find her way.

Facing Anguish

Finally, some of the most interesting films at the festival were those that dealt with the possibilities for human beings to live any kind of meaningful life in the face of devastating trauma. The Last Laugh examines the role and limits of humor in surviving an event like the Holocaust. It does this through Interviews with Jewish comedians and most notably a holocaust survivor who actually recounts what was funny about her encounter as a young prisoner with the infamous Dr. Mengele.

Midsummer in Newtown follows the attempt of theater professionals from New York City to engage children in a musical production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The remarkable aspect of the documentary is its setting: Newtown, Connecticut, where 20 children and six teachers were killed by a gunman in 2012. The film integrates the process of the production with the stories of children and adults who suffered loss, in particular a couple whose daughter was killed. There is no pretense that the play made everything whole again; rather it is seen as one step in a long process of healing that may never end for some. What is salient is the dignity of the main personalities we come to know in Midsummer in Newtown.

Children of the Mountain is a story of the harsh reality faced by a woman in Ghana who gives birth to a severely disabled boy. Abandoned by the father, told repeatedly it is her fault according to commonly held superstitions, she sets out on a quest for help for her son. She meets frustration and abuse at every turn—her despair becomes palpable to the viewer. At times the pull of self-preservation threatens her maternal instinct. This story of the strength of spirit of a lone woman was the runner-up for the festival’s Audience Award for Narrative.

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