Seeking Discoveries: Tribeca Film Fest celebrates 15th year with new and traditional forms of storytelling

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The Tribeca Film Festival (TFF), presented by AT&T and other sponsors, returns to downtown Manhattan for the 15th time April 13-24. Never lost, even on its 15th birthday, is the fact that the fest, founded by Robert De Niro, Jane Rosenthal and Craig Hatkoff, was launched in 2002 as a response to the horrific devastation in the area after 9/11.

With so much change since—in technology, the industry, and consumer habits—TFF has evolved from an occasion to heal lower Manhattan to a must-attend event for a growing film community of industry and civilian cinephiles, the traditionally inclined, the technologically adventurous, and movie fans of all ages and tastes.

The upcoming film program includes 101 new features from 32 countries, including 77 world premieres, eight international premieres (outside their native countries), six North American premieres, four U.S. premieres, and five New York premieres.

How affected has TFF been by the changes in technology and the business over the years? Says TFF programmer for feature films and interactive content Loren Hammonds, “We continue to look for films with new voices; the film landscape hasn’t changed as far as we can see, except that TV and the digital platforms are attracting as well.”

And with festivals sprouting everywhere and other major fests going strong, has competition increased for premieres? Hammonds acknowledges that the fight continues, that competition is ongoing, but “movies often choose us.” Suggesting a reason, he adds. “More than 80% of the films we had last year [for acquisition] got picked up.” (For this year, the programmers guesstimate that about 25% of the films unspooling have come into TFF with distributors attached; the rest are up for grabs.)

A total of 130 directors will present feature works at the fest, with 42 of these filmmakers making their feature directorial debuts. Eighteen directors are returning with their new films. The film slate was chosen from a total of 6,626 submissions. TFF has about 14 members on its programming committee who pour over all submitted material. “Our main priority,” Festival director Genna Terranova declares, “is to find and present films of the highest quality.”

TFF doesn’t just program but it listens and learns. Says Terranova, “Over the years, Tribeca audiences have told us they want fewer choices and these filmgoers are incredibly intelligent and warm. This was also noticed by our filmmakers, who know that, contrary to the city’s reputation of being tough, our audiences are so smart, thoughtful and courageous [in their choices and reactions].”

Again, TFF will hand out plenty of awards, show their deep respect for shorts by again presenting a well-regarded shorts program, and allow plenty of time for talk, whether Q&As following many screenings or the popular “Tribeca Talks” program with live conversations with such industry heavies and cultural icons as Tom Hanks, Tina Fey, Francis Ford Coppola, Patti Smith, Alfonso Cuarón, Jodie Foster, Chris Rock, Ricky Gervais, Donna Karan, Anthony Bourdain, Baz Luhrmann, Joss Whedon, Olivia Wilde, J.J. Abrams, Katie Couric and Julie Taymor.

Most screenings will return to the same downtown Manhattan venues (Bow Tie’s Chelsea Cinemas, the School of Visual Arts Theatre, Regal Cinemas Battery Park, etc.) and, additionally, some of the city’s museums will present art-themed films. The festival’s alternative/interactive hub will again be in north Tribeca’s Spring Studios, which will feature immersive and alternate storytelling experiences, including TFF’s vibrant Storyscapes sector, now in its fourth year.

With so much to offer, TFF has no specific targets for its audience, says Hammonds. “What we do is think about being a festival in New York City with an audience that is so culturally diverse. So in our curation we go for diversity.”

TFF’s robust statistics, strong feature film lineup, continuing quest for those “awesome, cool” new ways of storytelling and delivering, and its many other movie-centric events suggest “same old, same old,” but there are changes for 2016.

A big one is dividing the closely watched and aggressively scouted competitive narrative fiction category into two new categories—U.S. Narrative and International Narrative. Explains Terranova, “In our 15th year we wanted to deepen our support of American narrative filmmakers and have opened our competition to separately showcase the U.S. and international features.”

And TFF is launching a new initiative—the Tribeca Digital Creators Marketplace—which will serve as the first-ever marketplace for digital and online content. The industry’s most promising content creators will be connected with buyers, producers, agents and brands, setting a new standard for the creation, sale and showcasing of digital series and standalone content.

In recognition of the rise in quality and viewing of TV, there’s the fest’s new “Tribeca Tune In” sector, which further expands its television programming to season premieres, conversations and related events. (Among others, HBO and Oprah Winfrey’s OWN are taking part.)

Regarding trends that emerged in this year’s pack of films, Terranova observes that while the current presidential campaign suggests an avalanche of politically or even ethically themed films to come, the 2016 submissions and selections already reflect more preoccupation with social and political issues, especially the country’s policing and prison systems.

Another trend is “an emergence of new filmmaker voices from more diverse backgrounds.” In the new U.S. narrative fiction category are directors from different arenas, including music (Robert Schwartzman with Dreamland, about a May-December romance, a kind of a family affair that features older brother Jason Schwartzman and mother Talia Shire), stand-up comedy (Netflix comic Demetri Martin directing Dean, about an illustrator) and the Internet (web series creator Ingrid Jungermann with Women Who Kill, a lesbian comedy-mystery set in Brooklyn and featuring true-crime podcasters). Citing fest opener Kicks, Hammonds also points to a number of coming-of-age films with “strong performances from young talent.”

Of special note this year is that the largest percentage ever of female filmmakers, maybe one-third, is represented.

Commenting on all the fest energy devoted to new kinds of storytelling (but with proof of concept very much up in the cyber-air), Hammonds believes evidence “is found in our creators” and cites the VR experience called “Invasion,” directed by Eric Darnell (who helmed Madagascar). Yes, Hammonds concedes it is only six minutes long, but “it speaks to changing narratives and new ways of telling stories.” And, he adds, TFF has the longest VR piece yet. “It’s called ‘Allumette,’ but at 20 minutes it’s still short.”

Terranova says “these new options are something that works holistically in a world that is converging. We embrace this trend or so-called ‘craze’ as a way of responding to the community around us, specifically the artistic community. It’s important as a festival to support new ways of storytelling, as our responsibility is to support the film community. The value in doing this is also to allow stories to come in different ways.”

“We’re a festival of discovery,” Terranova declares. “Discovery is our core mission.”

Yet, with all the “awesome” and “cool” epithets thrown at alternative storytelling, there is discovery in traditional storytelling in a number of the very few films press-screened early before our deadline.

Old-fashioned storytelling and unforgettable visuals are particularly strong in at least one discovery—namely, the in-competition El Clàsico. Quite a surprise is this Iraqi road pic about two economically challenged Kurdish Iraqi dwarfs leaving their small village and loved ones to trek against all odds to a soccer game in Spain to deliver some precious Iraqi shoes to a beloved soccer star. Since embargoes prohibit early reviews, all that should be written is that many will discover plenty of charm and spectacle here.

Among the strong docs (and many will stir controversy) are Command and Control, about an atomic bomb warhead in the ’80s that threatens to go live at an Arkansas Air Force base, and designer Stefan Sagmeister’s visual triumph The Happy Film, a very personal, near-happy excursion into the roots of happiness.

On the narrative feature side, controversy smolders in Junction 48, an Arab-Israeli collaboration that takes viewers into the world of Palestinian hip-hop singers living in a very control-conscious Israel where both Arabs and Israelis have profound issues to work through.

Over TFF’s many years, gay themes in the lineup have become more assimilated into the movies themselves rather than simply landing as “Gay Films” on the fest’s genre lists. This year, there are at least two docs, Strike a Pose and Memories of a Penitent Heart, where AIDS figures, but both docs are about so much more. The former, featuring the once almost-famous backup dancers for several Madonna tours in the early ’80s, and the latter are full of revelations of survival, coping and the toll that secrecy and lying take in addition to the more familiar scourge of AIDS.

The Holocaust also figures obliquely but poignantly in the doc Keep Quiet, about a young leader of Hungary’s anti-Semitic extreme right-wing paramilitary who learns of his Jewish roots and converts (but not so convincingly to everyone).

And there are docs that help clarify other troubling events like After Spring, which takes place in a huge Syrian refugee camp of 80,000 just over the border in Jordan. While the inhabitants appear to be treated well, controversy should arise surrounding some values applied there and their effect on the future.

Also caught at an early screening was Detour, a tricky spin on noir that affords the opportunity to see actor Emory Cohen, who played the nice Italian-American hero of art-house hit Brooklyn, go 180 degrees in another direction as a thoroughly evil no-goodnik. This is one of TFF’s many acquisition titles.

Other films of interest but not seen include several with their filmmakers or subjects making special appearances: I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, with a live performance from the doc’s star Steve Aoki (son of famous restaurateur Rocky Aoki), and Geezer with a performance from Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day. Soccer great Pelé will show up for the biopic Pelé: Birth of a Legend, as will Sir Richard Branson for his doc Don’t Look Down, about his air-balloon adventures.

Other intriguing entries in the World Documentary competition include Betting on Zero, what is described as a “financial docu-thriller” about hedge-fund titan Bill Ackman and his crusade to expose Herbalite as a pyramid scheme, and Bugs, which examines the unlikely food trend of edible insects (maybe four-forks-up for this one?).

In the new competitive U.S. Narrative Fiction category is Justin Tipping’s debut and world premiere Kicks, a hip-hop coming-of-age tale about a Bay Area teen and his pals who are determined to retrieve stolen sneakers. And Live Cargo is announced as an adventure on a small Bahamian island. It stars the very talented young indie actor Dree Hemingway (yes, that Hemingway).

Also on tap is Centerpiece selection Elvis & Nixon, which imagines a meeting in 1970 when the King shows up on the White House lawn a few days before Christmas seeking to be deputized into the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs by the President himself. Stars Kevin Spacey and Michael Shannon might make this a most hilarious encounter.

And TFF’s genre-skewing Midnight section opens with Holidays, the horror anthology’s world premiere.

Also to be noted are a few works-in-progress, and moving 180 degrees away into classic film territory is a special screening of Martin Scorsese’s Robert De Niro starrer Taxi Driver, in a remastered version that honors its 40th birthday. The onstage conversation to follow will bring together Scorsese, De Niro, Jodie Foster, Cybill Shepherd, and Paul Schrader (who will be talkin’ to us!).  

And many eyes will also be turned to the world premiere of Madly, an anthology film directed by Gael García Bernal, Mia Wasikowska, Sebastian Silva, Anurag Kashyap, Sion Sono and Natasha Khan that will open the Fest’sInternational Narrative Competition.

A24 has already bagged the sci-fi romance Equals from Drake Doremus, who here teams with star Kristen Stewart and is notable for delivering a few years ago the surprise romance hit Like Crazy.

Magnolia has Ben Wheatley’s Brit entry High-Rise, starring Tom Hiddleston as a newcomer to a building where residents are divided into social classes. The “classy” cast also includes Luke Evans, Sienna Miller, Jeremy Irons and Elisabeth Moss.

Also sure to stir curiosity (and maybe some genre confusion) is Nathan Silver and Mike Ott’s Actor Martinez, about a computer repairman and aspiring actor who commissions indie directors Mike Ott and Nathan Silver to film his life. And compulsive obituary readers won’t want to pass up the passing-away-themed doc Obits, about the obit writers at The New York Times.

On a brighter note, the Tribeca/ESPN Sports Film Festival Gala, with Shaquille O'Neal and Penny Hardaway in attendance, will bring out moresuperstars.

In addition to all the “awesome” and “cools” (and, yes, there are some “huhs”?) surrounding TFF’S alternative storytelling activities, the fest will surely remain a testament to the fact that traditional storytelling in solid films continues as the reigning “awesome” and “cool.” After all, if it ain’t broke, why fix it? But hats off and headsets on to TFF as the fest goes full-throttle with their mission of discovery—because that assures everyone wins.