The 11th annual Tribeca Film Festival kicked off last night in Manhattan with the premiere of the Jason Segel-Emily Blunt comedy The Five-Year Engagement, and it will be closing with one of the summer’s most anticipated blockbusters, the Marvel Comics spectacle The Avengers. But in between, the festival gets down to more serious business, offering an eclectic showcase for independent features, foreign-language titles, and intriguing documentaries.
This year, under the guidance of a new programming team consisting of artistic director Frédéric Boyer (formerly of the Cannes Directors Fortnight), chief creative officer Geoff Gilmore and programming director Genna Terranova, the fest is screening a more selective 90 features, down from about 150 two years ago.
I’ve only seen a small sampling of Tribeca entries so far, but already I can recommend three outstanding documentaries. The Revisionaries is an intimate look at the effort by Texas social conservatives to include creationism in the state’s science textbooks, an initiative with nationwide implications because Texas is such a huge market for textbook publishers and one of the few where the state vets every purchase. A key figure in Scott Thurman’s documentary is Don McLeroy, a genial dentist who serves as chairman of the state board of education and sincerely believes that men and dinosaurs walked the Earth at the same time. After much wrangling over language, the creationists agree to a compromise that’s more of a win for their side. Then it’s on to the next battleground: Texas’ history textbooks. The eye-opening Revisionaries proves the culture wars are alive and thriving, and the classic play Inherit the Wind is as timely as ever.
While The Revisionaries may leave you outraged, Searching for Sugar Man will have you walking on air—and probably humming a few of its songs. Malik Bendjelloul’s documentary is the amazing story of Sixto Rodriguez, a Detroit folksinger who released two flop albums in 1970 and ’71, never to be heard from again. Except, that is, in South Africa where, decades before social media, his music became a word-of-mouth sensation among young white liberals and his popularity rivaled that of Elvis. The film is a mystery story, a history of South African protest, and a sobering look at the vagaries of success and failure in the recording business. The saga of Rodriguez, which promises to keep evolving with Sony Pictures Classics’ July release of the film and America’s discovery of his very special music, will surely be one of the most memorable delights of this year’s Tribeca Fest.
For this website’s readers who work in motion picture production and exhibition, an absolute Tribeca must-see is Side by Side, director Chris Kenneally and producer Keanu Reeves’ documentary on the monumental changes happening in the movie world because of digital technology. Reeves has conducted interviews with an impressive array of directors, cinematographers, editors, actors, lab specialists and executives, including Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, David Fincher, David Lynch, George Lucas, Steven Soderbergh, Danny Boyle, Andy and Lana Wachowski, Vittorio Storaro, Ellen Kuras and Vilmos Zsigmond.
Side by Side provides a great primer on how the technologies of film-based photography and digital capture differ, and how digital has impacted so many aspects of the moviemaking process, from production to post-production, editing, color correction, visual effects and presentation in cinemas. The artists run the gamut from true believers in digital like Fincher, Lucas and Soderbergh to film purists like Christopher Nolan and his DP Wally Pfister. Fincher is one of the most opinionated folks on screen, dismissing the “voodoo” of cinematographers who argue for the alchemy of film and lamenting “the betrayal of the dailies,” when it’s too late to rectify on-set mistakes. Pfister is just as militant for the other side, viewing the embrace of digital cinematography as trading “oil paints for crayons.”
John Malkovich praises the speed and flexibility of digital production: “As fast as you can get back to your position, you can go again.” But Fincher has a hilarious story about Robert Downey, Jr.’s anguish over the lengthy shooting sessions enabled by digital cameras during production of Zodiac; as a symbol of protest over filming scenes without a break, Downey left behind several mason jars of urine on the set.
Martin Scorsese seems torn. He’s excited by this “reinvention of a new medium,” but he’s also nostalgic for the days when editing pieces of celluloid literally left “blood in the film.” And shortly after James Cameron reminds us that not one foot of Avatar was shot in a real jungle, Scorsese wonders, “Is the younger generation going to believe anything is real?”
Digital is a big topic, and Side by Side also provides a brief history of how digital visual effects have evolved (with Cameron seemingly there every step of the way, from The Abyss to Avatar) and the incredible strides made by digital cameras from the days of the murky Dogme 95 films to a production like The Social Network.
Certainly, digital projection has improved the experience in cinemas, eliminating scratches, tears and jump-and-weave and providing a pristine image in the 20th week of a movie’s run. (Cameron recalls how prints of Titanic fell apart in projection booths because the movie had such a long run in cinemas.)
But not everything is rosy. What about archiving and preservation? One technician notes that, to date, there have been 80 different video formats—and most of them can’t be played on today’s equipment.
It’s not unusual for a movie to spark lively conversations, but with Side by Side (opening in cinemas in August), the post-screening debates will be all about the movies and where they’re headed.