At the fifth Tribeca Film Festival, standout docs mixed worthy subject matter with noteworthy filmmaking approaches. DOX reviews a sampling.

Hariette Yahr
Harriette Yahr is a filmmaker and writer. She also founded Miami Film Workshops. Her short films have won numerous awards and have screened at festivals worldwide, including Telluride.

Now in it’s fifth year, New York City’s Tribeca Film Festival continues to cull out an identity for itself, marked in part by the strength of its international documentary programme. Co-founded by Robert De Niro, Tribeca was born in the wake of the tragedies of 11 September 2001 to help bolster the downtown neighbourhood of Tribeca – where the World Trade Center stood – while also offering a wide range of fiction and non-fiction films to satisfy the appetites of cinephiles.

Over forty feature documentaries were screened in this year’s line-up, sixteen in the International Competition. Films played to packed houses and Q&As with filmmakers were lively, which makes sense in a city known for its mix of intellectual and filmic fervour. A local favourite was “Wordplay”, a stimulating romp about crossword puzzle fanatics and New York Times puzzler Will Shortz. “Wordplay” screened out of competition because it had premiered at Sundance; Tribeca requires a North American premiere to screen in Competition.

Festival Executive Director Peter Scarlet likes to stress that he’s eager to show the kinds of documentaries that are customarily not easily available to viewers in the US. “Our emphasis remains on giving exposure to filmmakers whose style or subject matter may lie outside the mainstream.”

Blue Blood

”Blue Blood” is the kind of documentary that begs the question: why hasn’t someone made this film before? Since 1897, the men of Oxford have been meeting their Cambridge matches in the boxing ring – duking it out in the yearly Varsity bout. If you’re not a boxing fan, or don’t take easily to blood gushing from mashed noses, give this one a chance anyway, it’ll surprise you: “Blue Blood” is brain meets brawn in an unexpected story of the inner fighter in all of us.

In turn entertaining and insightful, “Blue Blood” was directed by Stevan Riley whose previous work includes “Rave Against the Machine”. “When wracking my brain for a new documentary, it was with a mini-eureka that I remembered the Oxford v. Cambridge Varsity match,” says Riley, who studied at Oxford, dabbling in courses such as Mandarin Chinese before majoring in history. “I’d attended the annual fight night and was blown away by the charged atmosphere and ferocity of the bouts. It was perplexing to watch ordinarily polite academics hurl obscenities across the balconies, hoof-stomping as their boxers tore at each other like bears in a pit.”

“Blue Blood” is not your typical sports film. That’s obvious from the outset: the boxers are not your typical athletes, if athletes at all, some scrawny and clumsy, others clearly more comfortable debating jurisprudence than landing a right hook. There’s Chris Kavanagh, a philosophy major, whose girlfriend shudders at every blow to his head, and Charlie Ogilvie, a fine arts major, whose singing coach is concerned that sparring might affect the alignment of his neck – and thus his tenor voice. Then there’s Justin Bronder, the fiercest of the bunch. He’s the only American (the rest are British), a PhD student in astrophysics and a former US Air Force Academy cadet who’s equally as passionate about delving into the mysteries of the universe as he is about jumping out of planes – and making the Oxford “blue” squad as their welterweight contender.

Also atypical of “Blue Blood” is its unpredictable, near brilliant use of music. You don’t get driving macho beats here or even yes-you-can-do-it inspiration; instead, tracks like the “Damn It Feels Good to Be a Gangsta” blast onto the soundtrack, offering a kind of aural counterpunch, if you will, that invites a relationship with the violence on the screen that’s so surprising you might forget you’re watching guys beat the crap out of each other. For Riley, each track serves to reinforce the separate myths each character imagined about fighting: “Justin’s Christian zeal is foretold in the Rolling Stones’ “Shine a Light” and Charlie’s cavalier showmanship in a Verdi operetta. The characters differ wildly from one another and it was fun to support that by giving each a firm musical signature.”

“Blue Blood” will air on BBC’s Storyville during the 2006/2007 season. With the 100th Varsity match upcoming, and with London’s Royal Albert Hall touted as a venue, Riley says there’s talk about ‘Blue Blood II’: “Now that girls have been admitted for the first time in the contest’s history, I may indeed be coaxed to dust off the camera.”

The War Tapes

timthumb-phpIn February 2004, filmmaker Deborah Scranton got a call from the US National Guard. They wanted to know if she was interested in “embedding” herself as a journalist with the troops headed for Iraq. But she had another idea in mind: why not, instead, give the soldiers cameras, and let them tell their own stories? Within six weeks, ten national guardsmen were outfitted with digital video cameras as they made their way to Iraq. One year and about 800 hours of footage later, “The War Tapes” was born.

Called “the first war movie filmed by soldiers themselves”, “The War Tapes” exposes the goings-on of war, like the explosions in the field, but also lays bare the inner terrain of the soldiers – their hopes, fears, questions, and passions. This is not Reality TV. It’s life at war, with all its complications and contradictions, all its barbarism and, yes, even humanity.

Scranton’s goal was to remain as true to the soldier’s stories as possible. As such, neither she nor her producers ever travelled to Iraq. “If any of us went, it would immediately diminish what the soldiers were doing and creating. It would become about us and our interpretative framework, when what I was interested in was their interpretive framework, to get as close to the experience of war as possible, to climb inside and feel it all around.”

Scranton communicated with her soldiers via email and instant messaging, effectively directing over the web. The soldiers, who sent tapes back to Scranton roughly every two weeks, were not trained filmmakers. Their footage, though, is chosen well, framed well – there are no amateur shaky cameras here. Sergeant Steve Pink, 24, recalls, with the brand of humour and candour that’s peppered throughout the film, “When the idea for the cameras came around, I said ‘Yeah, sure, I’ll take one.’ Like anything else in the Army, when something new comes along, everyone wants one, doesn’t matter whether it’s socks or ammunition.”

For Sergeant Mike Moriarty, working with the cameras while in the field was “quite a task” while trying to stay focused on his mission as a gunner: “But I always made the mission my absolute focus. That being said, to say it never risked my life would be a lie.”

“The War Tapes” is powerful. But it deserves the best doc award for no other reason than its attempt to give authentic voice to its subjects, the reason we make documentaries to begin with.

Voices of Bam

It’s not everyday that an earthquake levels a city, killing over 43,000 people, injuring 20,000 and leaving 60,000 homeless. Yet this is what happened on 26 December 2003 in Bam, Iran. It would be easy for a documentary to wax tragic about such devastation. But in “Voices of Bam”, Dutch filmmakers Aliona Van Der Horst and Maasja Ooms take a different approach, mixing found photos of the now-departed with patient observations of daily Bam existence, to offer a snapshot of life being pieced back together, made sense of, survived. At times the film feels like fiction, the Andre Tarkovsky poetic type, as slow tracking shots survey demolished dwellings now turned to stone piles as a voiceover fades in – recalling lost loves, hopes, dreams – revealing, almost mystically, the intangible force of life that propels all of us forward, even in the face of “losing everything”.

MAQUILAPOLIS: City of factories

Films about globalization often stress victimization, foregoing the possibility that change, or at least dignity, could exist alongside corporate greed and exploitation. In “MAQUILAPOLIS: City of Factories”, directors Vicky Funari and Sergio Se La Torre take us to Tijuana, Mexico – also known as Maquilapolis, City of Maquiladoras (sweatshops) – where we meet Lourdes, Yesenia, and Carmen, sweatshop workers who give us entrée – in part through video diaries – into the world of cheap labour and inhumane working conditions that many like to keep at arm’s length. But these women have decided to change some things: Lourdes and Yesenia work to clean up toxic water and Carmen chases down severance pay owed to her by a multinational company that skipped town. It’s still not a pretty picture – and to make matters worse, corporations are taking jobs to places like Indonesia where labour’s even cheaper – but it’s one of empowerment, leaving us with a seed of hope amidst the depressing backdrop.

Awards

Best New Documentary Filmmaker
Pelin Esmer for “The Play” (Turkey)

Best International Documentary
“The War Tapes” by Deborah Scranton (USA)

Special Documentary Jury Prize
“Voices of Bam” by Aliona Van Der Horst & Maasja Ooms (The Netherlands)
Outstanding Achievement in Documentary
“Jesus Camp” by Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady (USA)
“Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple” by Stanley Nelson (USA)
“MAQUILAPOLIS: City of Factories” by Vicky Funari & Sergio de la Torre (USA/Mexico).


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