x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The Tribeca International Film Festival turns ten

With its considered mixture of crowd-pleasers and more obscure films this year, the Tribeca Film Festival is set to draw its usually enthusiastic crowds. We take a look at the low-budget independent films that are likely to shine at this year's event.

A scene from the documentary Give Up Tomorrow, which charts an absurd and tragic legal battle in the Philippines that is still ongoing, has its international premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
A scene from the documentary Give Up Tomorrow, which charts an absurd and tragic legal battle in the Philippines that is still ongoing, has its international premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

In its 10th year, the Tribeca International Film Festival is an institution, with an outpost in Doha and a new foray into distribution.

Its initial mission – to revive lower Manhattan – has been accomplished. And anyone who doesn’t believe that there is life after September 11, should view the soaring property values in the neighbourhood that the festival was created to save.

Last year, Tribeca opened with Shrek Forever After, one of the season’s top studio releases. This year the opener, The Union, Cameron Crowe’s documentary that explores the bond between Elton John and Leon Russell, is Crowe’s first non-fiction film. With this crowd-pleaser about the making of John’s latest album, Crowe has moved from Almost Famous (his ode to rock’n’roll touring) to filming very famous musicians.

Since Tribeca’s inception, it could count on crowds to turn out for marquee names, especially since the marquee also listed founder Robert De Niro. Yet now the key trend at the festival, which shows 93 films until May 1, is its evolution into a forum for low-budget American films, many of which are all the more obscure for being passed over by Sundance.

Few films look more low-budget than Treatment, directed by Steven Schardt and Sean Nelson. The plot is rooted in the dilemma of any independent filmmaker – how to get your film made? Josh Leonard, star of the trailblazing low-budget Blair Witch Project (1999), plays a director named Leonard who learns that a star is about to enter rehab, and then persuades his producer partner to pay a huge bill to enrol Leonard for a week. Actor and would-be director meet. If all went as planned, this send-up of New Age self-help and shameless ambition wouldn’t be a comedy.

The veteran American independent director Michael Cuesta brings Roadie to this year’s Tribeca Festival. Cuesta has already directed two features – L.I.E. and Twelve and Holding – yet he’s more widely known as the creator of Dexter, the popular cable series about a serial killer who kills only other killers. Cuesta has also won awards for his commercials. Roadie follows a middle-aged equipment mover for the band Blue Oyster Cult as he returns home to a quiet New York neighbourhood and reconnects with his mother and former friends. He’s just been fired from his job, and old memories that he confronts are grim. Cuesta’s scripts are always about people living quietly, away from the centre of things, and Roadie is a tender portrait of characters whom you rarely find in a Hollywood movie.

Ron Eldard is convincing as a middle-aged rock employee in Roadie, but acting honours might go to director/writer Park Jung-bum, who also stars in his film The Journals of Musan. Park plays Jeon Sung-chui, a North Korean defector who risked his life to escape his country, only to end up on the margins of life in Seoul, the South Korean capital. The dazed solitary refugee with a bowl-shaped haircut and a shy, monosyllabic reticence is vulnerable, and criminals target him for abuse. Desperate for any bond, he joins a church and adopts a stray puppy, but none of his good deeds go unpunished. Jung-bum, unknown outside Korea, asks troubling questions about the dark side of freedom.

The emerging Korean star joins plenty of established celebrities at Tribeca. Blackthorn, a sequel to the classic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), has an international cast that reflects a strategy to market the film on several continents. Blackthorn brings us a Cassidy (Sam Shepard) in Bolivia as he walks through the desert, saving the life of a Spaniard on the run (Eduardo Noriega) who tries and fails to kill him. “I’d say Blackthorn is a nostalgic Western,” said Spanish director Mateo Gil, “nostalgic of the Western heroes and their old values.”

In an epic that salutes everyone from John Ford to Sergio Leone, Cassidy learns that his travelling companion’s life might not be worth saving. Dominique McElligott and Stephen Rea round out the cast. On a budget of $7 million (Dh25.7m), Blackthorn manages to capture a landscape that is as grand as the original. Shepard, 67, is sure to be in the running for a prize this week.

Another star ensemble explores the tension between lust and loyalty in Last Night, directed by Massy Tadjedin. Keira Knightley plays a fashion journalist who suspects her husband of three years (Sam Worthington) of infidelity with a colleague. The film leads us from a late-night quarrel in their smartly appointed loft to a day and night that they spend apart that challenges their commitment to each other. Guillaume Canet and Eva Mendes play outsiders who intrude on a relationship under stress.

Cinematographer Peter takes us into the world of these 30-somethings as they move through hotels, restaurants and parties. Crucial scenes take place in Soho House (in what may be the hip club’s debut product placement on screen.) Watch carefully, and you’ll learn how to sneak into a party there.

The festival’s independent dream-team cast is in Angels Crest, the tale of a small town in the American west, directed by Gaby Dellal, exploring the effect on a small town of the disappearance and death of a young child. Heart-throb Thomas Dekker plays a young father who leaves his pickup truck for a few minutes, long enough for his young son to climb out and vanish into the snow, where his body is found the next morning. The tragedy draws in the entire town – with Lynn Collins as the boy’s young alcoholic mother, plus Mira Sorvino and Elizabeth McGovern as the motherly proprietors of the local diner, and Jeremy Piven as a district attorney who’s convinced that he’ll bring it all under control by prosecuting the aggrieved father for criminal negligence. Even in costume, the small-town Rocky Mountain west hasn’t looked this glamorous since Twin Peaks.

Famous names rarely save independent films from indifference in the marketplace these days. Independent documentaries also fight for a small audience. They may find their largest public at Tribeca.

Leading the pack is Gnarr, a documentary by Gaukur Ulfarsson about the comedian Jon Gnarr’s 2010 campaign to be mayor of Reykjavik, the capital of financially troubled Iceland. Gnarr sounds like the title of a horror film, yet the documentary could be a sequel to Inside Job, Charles Ferguson’s scrutiny of the international banking crisis, which won this year’s documentary Academy Award. (Ferguson began his film with an analysis of Iceland’s ill-fated decision to heat up its economy with an aggressive privatisation campaign and high-interest internet bank accounts.) Accusing the Icelandic elite of deception, Gnarr ran a campaign that seemed drawn from Jim Carrey’s brazen honesty in Liar, Liar. He told truths that politicians had avoided, and the voters elected him. The audience is left wondering whether the joke has worn thin in Iceland, which might explain why Gnarr is making its world premiere in New York.

Documentaries tend toward tragedy. A sad and grim non-fiction tale that will, despite that or because of it, draw crowds at Tribeca this year is Give Up Tomorrow, a US/UK co-production directed by Michael Collins. The anatomy of a wrongful conviction is a perennial documentary subject. This one has some special wrinkles. Its protagonist, Paco Larranaga, was charged, convicted and sentenced to death in the Philippines for the 1997 kidnapping, rape and murder of two girls, even though photographs and eyewitnesses placed him on another island, hundreds of miles away. Archival footage takes us to his chaotic trial, and to years of pressure from Larranaga’s family after his conviction. Only when the Spanish government and the Spanish king intervened on Larranaga’s behalf – the young man has Spanish citizenship, thanks to a Spanish father – did the Philippine president relent and allow him to serve his sentence in Spain. Yet the innocent Larranaga is still behind bars, in Europe.

In Give Up Tomorrow, justice is a tragic work in progress. Perhaps, though, Tribeca will play a pivotal role here: the inevitable attention that the documentary’s international premiere receives at the festival could bring new pressure to free Larranaga.

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