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Claus Mueller

Claus Mueller is a Film Festival Ambassador to

He is based in New York where he covers the festival scene.


New York: Tribeca Film Festival 2018 Documentaries

The Tribeca Film Festival has a well established reputation for presenting outstanding documentaries in its program and excelled again in this year’s edition.  43 feature length documentaries were shown in four sections, the Documentary Competition, Spotlight Documentary, Viewpoints, and Special Screening. Close to half of the documentaries were produced by women film makers and first-time directors, a proportion that also held for narrative, international and U.S. films.  The continued focus of Tribeca’s programmers on the quality of the documentaries makes the festival a must for those interested in docs. It is probably no accident that the godmother of US documentaries, Sheila Nevins, former President of HBO Documentary Films, was honored this year by the festival with the Disruptive Innovation Award for her decisive impact on shifting documentary films to critical and enlightening issues   while enhancing technical and story telling quality.

Her criteria of excellence were certainty met by numerous Tribeca 2018 documentaries.  Among the well received productions were those with superb cinematography, innovative storytelling, and use of elements crossing the border of linear narration. The context of story was personalized, enhancing our access to the themes and adopting a bottom up rather than top down story telling approach. It is noteworthy that several of these documentaries received well deserved awards.

 Phantom Cowboys, Daniel Patrick Carbone, USA, 2018   Covering eight years in the life of three teenage boys and their transition to adulthood in three seemingly lost in time locations in the deserts of California, West Virginia valleys and sugarcane fields of Florida, Carbone moves back and forth investigating what happens to these boys. The story is told by them and the viewer encounters their perspectives, broken hopes, uncertain aspirations for their future, and their urge to make it in spite of obstacles faced. They share a rather realistic view of the limitations confining their lives and introduce a new world strange to most of us.

 When Lambs Become Lions,   Jon Kasbe, USA, 2018   Introducing the audience to the rarely shown private lives and the problems faced by poachers and game keepers a new dimension is introduced in the problem of the ivory trade and threat to Kenya’s East African elephant populations.  Kasbe does not take a position when he introduces us to the game keeper Asan and the poacher “X” but poses the moral dilemma of whether the life of elephants has more value than that of the poachers killing them or of game keepers protecting them.  Both must make a living supporting their families and face survival problems if they cannot sell to the ivory dealer or do not receive their ranger’s salaries. Bother are connected through family ties and the poaching background of relatives.  Kasbe has been filming his protagonists over three years and provides unbiased access to their motivation and life perspective but also to the strategies employed by poachers and rangers fighting them. As in other African countries with similar wildlife problems pervasive poverty undermines the efforts of preservation unless the government is strongly committed to fighting poaching, as it is happening in Chad.   Kasbe’s film is very persuasive given his cinema verite and story telling approach. He does not moralize the problems depicted.

Tanzania Transit, Jeroen Van Velzen, Netherlands, 2018   Van Velzen portrays in a non-directive manner like an anthropologist passengers on a train undertaking a long journey through Tanzania. He takes a record through the lens of the camera and the windows of the train and does not miss the divisions created by  class, ethnicity, gender, and age of the passengers. We are faced with a microcosm of tradition and modernity on this rambling train which frequently breaks down passing settlements and train wrecks. Among the passengers there are individuals who want to start a new life, a teacher hustling for the faithful whom he can sell advice and an elder Maasai who wants to return to his village a prospect alien to his city bound  grandson who is accompanying him.

Island of the Hungry Ghosts, Gabrielle Brady, Germany, UK, Australia, 2018   Brady’s  documentary is her first feature film and the most striking production I have come across among the documentaries I have seen thus far this year. She crosses all boundaries with her narrative approach which is far away from traditional linear story telling.  Millions of migratory crabs travel from the jungle of Christmas Island to the ocean and provide a startling visual spectacle with the car traffic blocked to protect their passage. In some segments of the documentary an elderly Chinese couple is looking in the overgrown jungle for tombstones of workers who were brought to the island many decades ago but were not allowed to leave. There are ceremonies with offerings for those who passed away without a proper burial. Magnificent large root formations reinforce the somber setting of the film. Poh Lin Lee, a trauma specialist who lives with her family on this island, is our guide through this microcosm of a seemingly hostile and wild environment.  She works for an Australian agency which runs a closed detention center for asylum seekers on Christmas Island. Creating small scenes in a little sandbox while they speak with Poh Lin Lee some asylum seekers share their devastating experiences of their flight and captivity. Separated from their families and often displaced to other asylum centers they cannot benefit from Lee’s therapy.  The failure to help them forces her to quit her job.   Brady leaves it up to the viewer to discern the meaning of what is presented, the misery of detention on Christmas Island.

 Claus Mueller,