x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Tribeca Film Festival boasts talent

While this year's film festival won't rock the US marketplace, it could soon give Sundance a run for its money.

Adam Pesce’s documentary Splinters explores the burgeoning surf scene in Papua New Guinea.
Adam Pesce’s documentary Splinters explores the burgeoning surf scene in Papua New Guinea.

Tribeca this year was nothing if not eclectic with a total of 153 films - including a pair of clever teen comedies from Scandinavia, an ethnographic surfing documentary, and a legal saga from Texas about the dangers of hypodermic syringes.

The festival's prizes went mostly to art films. Its discoveries tended to be no-budget American independents. And Tribeca has now carved out a specialty in films about sport.

Given America's aversion to almost anything with subtitles or a low-budget look, the awards at Tribeca won't rock the US marketplace. But after 10 years, could Tribeca finally be issuing a challenge to Sundance as a showcase for new talent?

Tribeca's top prize went to She Monkeys, an edgy, wry coming-of-age story directed and co-written by Lisa Aschan of Sweden. The festival's screenplay award was won by Turn Me On, Goddamit, another teen film, written by Jannicke Systad Jacobsen of Norway. Both films are the work of young filmmakers in those countries. Whether either will enjoy a life after Tribeca at the US box office is another question. Industry insiders are already considering remaking them.

The festival's acting award honoured a heretofore unknown, Ramadhan "Shami" Bizimana, who plays Yvan in Grey Matter (Matière Grise), directed and written by Kivu Ruhorahoza. The feature was a debut for the director and for a Rwandan filmmaker working in his post-genocide country. The film follows a director trying to make a film about a victim of the genocide who finds herself in a mental institution with a man guilty of mass murder. Cerebral and original, it is a meditation on the challenges of telling the truth.

Another meditation, Artificial Paradises by the Mexican director Yulene Olaizola, won Tribeca's cinematography prize for its elegant near-mute observation of an abandoned coastal resort near Veracruz where a young woman addicted to heroin tries to conquer her habit. It is a hypnotic film (thanks to cinematographer Luisa Tillinger) in which very little happens, but you still can't take your eyes off it. Olaizola's previous films were documentaries.

Tribeca's prize for Best New Documentary Director went to Pablo Croce. His debut film Like Water is one of a dozen documentaries in the festival's concentration on sport, a collaboration with the cable network ESPN. In his portrait of the mixed martial arts fighter Anderson Silva, Croce takes us behind the massive hype preceding Silva's fight with challenger Chael Sonnen last summer to scrutinise the man who is at the top of one of the world's most violent sports. (Abu Dhabi knows Silva from his successful and controversial defence of his middleweight title on Yas Island in April, 2010.)

As an athlete, Silva is an anomaly - certainly not a Raging Bull. He's barely violent in the ring. His technique, reminiscent of Muhammad Ali, is to run in circles around an opponent, denying the audience much of the violence that it pays money to see. As the film opens, a promoter is so frustrated with his champion's unwillingness to please the crowd that he threatens to abandon Silva. The fighter addresses that drama with a shrug and his trademark charismatic smile.

In private, Silva shuns the grand luxury of sport celebrities. Nor is he particularly driven to train for what promises to be the most serious challenge in his career. That nonchalant composure makes him an enigma, and infuriates Silva's opponent, Sonnen.

In the ring in Portland, Oregon, Sonnen gives Silva the battering of his life, which Croce films in gruesome detail. Yet somehow Silva recovers to win in the last few seconds. As in bouts where Ali rallied to overcome an opponent, Silva's sudden triumph is a mystery. Silva the enigma strikes again.

More enigmatic is the central figure in Catching Hell, the new baseball documentary by Alex Gibney, who won an Academy Award in 2008 for Taxi to the Dark Side, a probe into the mistreatment of prisoners by US soldiers in Afghanistan.

Gibney's focus is a 2003 playoff game in Chicago, which would have led to a shot at the world Series for the Chicago Cubs, baseball's legendary losing team. Victory seemed within reach when a Cubs outfielder was poised to catch a ball at the edge of the stands. One of the team's supporters stuck out his hands to try to catch it himself and take home a souvenir. Television cameras watched as neither caught it. The Cubs went on to lose, and a mousy computer analyst named Steve Bartman exited the stadium in disguise to avoid being killed by the angry crowd.

Gibney never got an interview with the reclusive scapegoat for the Cubs' defeat, but his expansive documentary reminds us how a single moment becomes sport mythology. His analysis of mob behaviour doesn't require any knowledge of baseball on the audience's part.

Chicago is famed for its sports. Papua New Guinea is not, which makes Splinters a curiosity for its look at surfing in that country. Papuans took up surfing in the beach town of Vanimo after a pilot left a board there in the 1980s. Filmmaker Adam Pesce, an American who had surfed but never made a film before, takes us to the country's first national surfing competition. We see the splintering effect on traditional life that comes with the race for western-style stardom.

Sadly, a sport that many American youth play is bullying. Even President Barack Obama acknowledges having been the target of bullies, "as a skinny kid with big ears". Tribeca, always a forum for charity events, responded to what's been called an American epidemic by premiering The Bully Project, a documentary by Lee Hirsch.

It's anything but glamorous as Hirsch augments his warm group hug with grim case histories - a boy on a bus whom schoolmates attack daily; the grieving parents of a bullied child who killed himself; a girl who is jailed for taking her mother's gun on a school bus to protect herself from abuse. Education is proposed as one solution, although most of the bullying happens at school. The violence on the screen suggests that any remedy will be a long process.

Another drama at Tribeca found a new twist in the David and Goliath story. Puncture, based on real events, begins when a nurse sticks herself with a syringe while subduing a patient, and contracts HIV. She and an engineer develop a safe disposal substitute syringe. When hospitals refuse to buy it, she hires a tattooed lawyer (Chris Evans) with a conscience to fight them. But the lawyer has his own needle problems. He's a drug addict. In the tradition of Silkwood and Erin Brockovich, Puncture tells the story of a moral struggle on a shoestring. After playing gonzo attorney Mike Weiss, Chris Evans (Not Another Teen Movie, Fantastic Four) is sure to be offered some higher-paying roles.

Not to be outdone, Rid of Me, at Tribeca by way of Portland, Oregon, has no budget and no stars. But writer/director/editor/producer James Westby deploys a wicked wit (and surprisingly high production values) in his story of a shy young bride dumped by her husband for his blonde high-school sweetheart. Katie O'Grady gave one of the festival's memorable performances as a tender soul who turns vengeful.

Westby, an original voice, is also a Tribeca stalwart. Rid of Me is his third feature to premiere at the festival. In 10 years, Tribeca has shown that it has longevity. If it can nurture more talents such as Westby, the festival will also start building a legacy.