'Wolfpack' and 'Palio' are doc standouts at Tribeca 2015

ScreenerBlog

Documentaries are always a strong part of the lineup at the Tribeca Film Festival, and this year is no exception. You won’t find one more fascinating than The Wolfpack, the curious and disturbing inside look at a family living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Mother Susanne is a former Midwesterner who met her husband, Peruvian Oscar Angulo, when he offered to lead her and her friends on a tour of Machu Picchu. They now have seven children—six boys and one mentally challenged young girl, all home-schooled and subject by their father to absurdly strict conditions: Due to his irrational fear of outside influences, they are hardly ever permitted to leave the apartment. Yet Oscar is a passionate movie buff, and he’s allowed the kids to watch whatever DVDs they want; the boys are particularly keen on the works of Quentin Tarantino and often dress in all-black outfits (including black fedoras) derived from Reservoir Dogs. Inside the apartment they also film elaborate tributes to their favorite movies with costumes fashioned from cereal boxes and yoga mats and the like, with Halloween an extra-special occasion.

Filmmaker Crystal Moselle met the Angulo boys just as they were starting to rebel against their father’s crazy strictures. Fourth child Mukunda was the first to take an extended walk alone outside; dressed in a Halloween Michael Myers mask, he freaked out passersby and drew the attention of the police. The other boys soon followed suit, and Moselle films them as they experience the world outside their apartment with joy and wonder. Despite their hermetic upbringing, they seem very bright and oddly well-adjusted.

Amazingly, Moselle was given total access to this eccentric family, and she even trains her camera occasionally on Oscar, who appears to be a reclusive megalomaniac. (“He shows his rebellion by not working,” one of the sons observes; the family apparently gets by on government funding for their home-schooling—which opens up a lot of questions about the diligence of New York City social-services bureaucrats.) There’s also clear evidence here that the mother has been abused, and no doubt that abuse has extended to her children, though any past physical harm to the boys is left unexplored.

The production notes say both parents approve of the film, which may be the greatest example of cognitive dissonance of all. Several of the Angulo boys are pursuing careers in media, and they appear to be largely unscathed by their singularly strange childhoods. The Wolfpack is a film that leaves you with many unanswered questions, and almost cries out for a Seven Up­-style sequel.

Another utterly fascinating Tribeca doc is Palio, director Cosima Spender's film about the Italian city of Siena and its historic obsession with the annual summer horse races that give the film its title. These extremely dangerous-looking bareback races in the city’s central piazza arouse furious rivalries among Siena’s various districts; the winning jockeys are venerated, and the losing ones are treated like traitors. And as more than one participant observes, “It’s not a race, it’s a game,” subject to money changing hands to give one district advantage over another in terms of horse selection, positioning within the starting ropes and other factors. In fact, a veteran of the Palio flat-out calls it “a game of legitimate corruption.” (Another negative aspect left unaddressed is the whipping of the horses.)

Spender focuses on three of the Palio’s greatest champions (all wonderfully colorful) and a rising young jockey who refuses to play the political game and just wants to prove what a great rider he is. The film also boasts exceptional production values: great cinematography, propulsive editing, meticulous sound design and a great score. And the race sequences, with thousands of citizens filling the town square, are as thrilling as anything you’re likely to see in this summer’s CGI-driven blockbusters.

Other Tribeca docs are also offering a window on very specific and intriguing subcultures. Matt Fuller's Autism in Love focuses on four autistic subjects, probing whether their socially distancing condition allows for what we think of as conventional romance. One is a middle-aged man faced with his longtime wife’s battle with cancer; another is a heartbreaking young man who bemoans his autism and longs for a normal love life. And finally, there’s an actual couple of eight years struggling to define their relationship and whether a more serious commitment is in their future.

David Evans’ A Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers Did introduces us to two friends whose fathers were high in the Nazi chain of command and responsible for countless deaths during the Holocaust. How do such men deal with that legacy? One despises his father; the other is in near-complete denial about his father’s culpability, viewing him as just a cog in a great wheel and not a man whose decisions led directly to brutal executions. Deepening the picture is the presence of British human-rights lawyer Philippe Sands, whose own Jewish family was impacted by the actions of these men’s fathers.

Finally, and most chillingly, Hemal Trivedi and Mohammed Ali Naqvi’s Among the Believers goes inside Pakistan’s madrassas, where young children are taught nothing but the Koran, schooled in hatred of the West, and told that “‘progressive thought’ is dying.” A boy who succeeds in memorizing the Koran, they are informed, will save ten relatives who otherwise would have gone to Hell. Trivedi scored an interview with the leader of the madrassa movement, cleric Maulana Aziz, an ISIS supporter who cheerfully touts his belief in strict Sharia law. The opposing voice in the film is nuclear physicist Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy, who travels the world lecturing about the fundamentalist crisis in Pakistan. The doc also focuses on two 12-year-olds, a boy and a girl, who take very different educational paths. As the film notes, a turning point came in December 2014, when Aziz tried to justify the massacre of 132 schoolchildren in Peshawar by the Taliban, igniting an unprecedented wave of protests.