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A look back to Tribeca 2008 Documentaries

As in earlier editions of the Tribeca Film Festival, the documentary sections presented outstanding productions, though, included some films that seemed to have been selected from a political perspective rather than from a strictly artistic one, meaning outstanding productions characterized by exquisite formal execution and original thematic concepts. Some of the films included in this year’s selections show that original thematic concepts are more difficult to develop than executing a theme in a skillful fashion. It sort of resonates what Michael J. Salomon former senior executive of Warner Bros. Television observed more than twenty years ago when queried about the biggest problem the film industry faced. Neither unions, rapidly rising costs of production and marketing, scarcity of stars, or new technologies, were the most burning problem issues. Rather the paucity of original concepts was the biggest problem.
Undoubtedly there were a number of well intentioned documentaries which had their place at Tribeca such as DONKEY IN LAHORE (Faramarz K-Raber, Australia) covering culture clash as it transpires from a Muslim women getting married to an Australian convert; the obvious ordeals of trying to producing a film in war torn Irquae WAR, LOVE, GOD & MADNESS (Mohammed AL-Daradji, UK, Iraq, Netherlands, Palestine, Sweden) and the touching story of a Mexican women caught up with the US criminal justice system MY LIFE INSIDE (Lucia Gaja, Mexico). To this you can add BAGHDAD HIGH (Ivan O’Manoney and Laura Winter) with video reports by four middle class high school kids about their every day life in Baghdad; the documentary of a women’s soccer team playing their Muslim counter parts in Iran; a portrait of a former child soldier from Sudan WAR CHILD (C. Karim Chrobog) overcoming his trauma through hip-hop music, and former child soldier from Uganda who does so through boxing, KASSIM THE DREAM (Kief Davidson).
Yet these good documentaries seemed to be outclassed by other productions: MILOSEVIC ON TRIAL (Michael Christoffersen, Denmark) a differentiated portrait of the mass executioner based on the distillation of 2000 hours of footage recorded during the trial, providing insights into Milosevic’s character and the socio-political context of his crimes. This film is a veritable editing tour de force but prompts to reflect, rather than just triggering emotional reactions to gruesome war crimes. FAUBOURG TREME (Dawn Logsdon, Lollis Eric Elie, USA) is a reconstruction of the history, culture and frequently violent discrimination of the residents of a black neighborhood in New Orleans finding its logical apex in the Katrina tragedy. Without degenerating into didactics, this documentary is an appealing introduction to a seemingly lost part of Afro-American history. The approach selected by HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT (Mark Street, USA) is radically different. Here the focus lies on urban spaces in cities as divergent as Hanoi, Santiago, Dakar, and Marseille where everyday life in the streets and plazas is recorded in brief sketches with outstanding photography, where the pictures tell the story and not a commentary and where the director’s minimalist approach keeps the audience attention. ZONED IN (Daniela Zanzotto, USA, UK) documents over nine years a young man’s survival of crime ridden and drug infested slum neighborhoods in North Caroline and the South Bronx, New York and eventual studies an Ivy League university. The film can be construed as biographical meditation of race and class in the US without, however, patronizing the audience. BIGGER STRONGER, FASTER (Christopher Bell, USA) documents how Americans are driven by the generally shared quest for victory, specifically in sports and how they engage in drug and steroid abuse to be number one. Going beyond sports the film successfully demonstrates that this performance abuse is a systemic culturally induced US American problem, including for example Tiger Wood going through eye surgery to have perfect long distance vision and students and professors who take drugs to enhance their cognitive functioning.
Two documentaries proved to be among the best: THEATRE OF WAR (John Walter, USA) is the superb mise en scene of the Mother Courage production by New York’s public theater, providing with documentary footage and interviews extraordinary insights into the author Berthold Brecht, his times and his dramaturgical approach. Meryl Streep’s performance in the play adds to the power of this production. The merit of Rosa von Praunheim’s documentary TWO MOTHERS resides not so much in the execution but rather in the conceptual grid framing the documentary. Praunheim, a prominent German film director learns from his mother before she passes away that he was adopted and proceeds to reconstruct his and his real mother’s history, traveling therefore through the German criminal past and complacent present. We learn as much about Praunheim as we do about the Germany of the forties, the murder of the Jews in Riga, exterminating a vibrant community in two days, Praunheim’s birth in a Riga prison, his adoption and the fate of his mother who died in an insane asylum.

Unfortunately, many of the documentaries selected are too long to be viable in the largest US market for such productions, the non-theatrical market. It may very well be that low cost production technologies and unrealistic expectations about theatrical revenues of feature length documentaries prompt this tendency.

Claus Mueller
New York Correspondent

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