FOR TWO DECADES, the Tribeca Film Festival has preserved more than a trace of its improvisational origins. Conceived in 2002 as a response to flagging creative energy and property values in zip codes 10007 and 10013 in the aftermath of 9/11, the festival projected an image of New York as a filmmaking hub where moviegoers could mingle with and size up the products of directors and actors like festival founder Robert De Niro, whose offices were and still are in TriBeCa. It was kind of homey, even if you lived forty-five minutes away by subway. The lineups were eclectic—a smattering of big-star vehicles, prestigious revivals, low-budget American indies, foreign-language features, and even avant-garde works by downtown artists. Which is another way of saying that TriBeCa took what it could get, and some of the get was very good. Within a few years, the festival expanded beyond the neighborhood, with special events landing regularly at the Beacon on the Upper West Side, occasionally further uptown at the Apollo, and this year in Washington Heights for the opening night film, Halftime, Amanda Micheli’s Jennifer Lopez documentary (currently on Netflix). Over the years, there have been TriBeCa screenings and events in every borough, and, since the pandemic, online. As the festival announced this year, “You can experience TriBeCa in your own home.” It was, for the most part, the option I chose.
And streaming works for most of the films. It’s a nonstarter, however, if you wanted to get a glimpse of Lopez on the red carpet, or much better, attend live performances by musicians who were the subjects of two of the festival’s most thrilling films, Ben Chace’s Music Pictures: New Orleans and God Said Give ’Em Drum Machines, directed by Kristian R. Hill and produced by Jennifer Washington. Chace’s documentary comprises four portraits of storied elders of New Orleans music scene: soul queen Irma Thomas; Treme Brass Band leader Benny Jones; flamboyant dresser and impeccably raunchy bluesman Little Freddie King; and Marsalis family patriarch Ellis Marsalis Jr., rehearsing for what would be his final performance. (He died of Covid at the beginning of the pandemic.) What an amazing piano player he was. In God Said Give ’Em Drum Machines, about a half-dozen Detroit musicians lay claim to the origins of techno in the mid-1980s when they discovered the primitive TR-909 percussion synthesizer, combined it with turntables, and DJ’d and played in dance clubs “gay, straight, Black, and very beautiful.” It’s a terrific story convincingly told by guys who are still dedicated to the music and for the most part to one another. No one who sees this movie will mistake house for techno or believe that the genre originated with a bunch of German white guys after the Berlin Wall fell. But there’s too much history to process in ninety minutes, and lots of threads—Prince, Miles Davis, the Paradise Garage, Chicago—left hanging. The birth of techno deserves a six-part series.
These two films, plus live music events, took place in Spring Studios, which is also TriBeCa’s center for VR and immersive works. TriBeCa’s involvement in new visual and narrative forms has grown to the point where they decided this year to drop “film” from the name. It’s now simply “The Tribeca Festival,” which is fitting because the conversation, as far as I could tell, was not around films per se, but around social and political issues for which movies were a jumping-off point. Rebellion, directed by Maia Kenworthy and Elena Sánchez Bellot and produced by Kat Mansoor, follows the founders of the Extinction Rebellion movement as they organize the wildly successful 2019 demonstration that shut down the center of London. Burnout and internal conflicts then derail Extinction Rebellion. What makes the doc exceptional is that it doesn’t turn away from what happens when a promising movement nearly falls apart. A more pleasurable documentary about struggle, Alison Klayman’s Unfinished Business focuses on the New York Liberty’s 2021 season while bringing in the entire history of the WNBA through testimonies by the league’s great women players—taking up the story where Gina Prince Bythewood’s 2000 cult favorite Love & Basketball leaves off.
Of the fiction films I saw, the only one that didn’t narratively collapse after the first act was Polish director Anna Jadowska’s Woman on the Roof. Dorota Pomykała, winner of a much-deserved best acting award, plays a generous middle-aged woman treated with contempt by her sister, husband, and children, just because they can. As a study of misogyny in capitalist Poland, it is a devastating follow-up to Agnieszka Holland’s 1981 A Woman Alone, in which an exhausted postal delivery worker is betrayed in every way and driven to desperate acts by a communist regime that turns a blind eye to her abject servitude. What an unbearable double bill these films would make. Perhaps the Criterion Channel could show the courage of their convictions and stream it.
For the record, Andrew Bujalski’s There There—a series of interlocking two-handers in which none of the characters are comfortable with their place in the world, literally and figuratively—deserves a special award for its ingenious production method during pandemic. The first three scenes are brilliantly performed and very funny, but the self-imposed limitations eventually wear out their welcome, or perhaps Bujalski’s women characters are better written than his men, or maybe it was hot in theater, someone next to me was coughing into his mask, and I just gave up. Such are the vagaries of festival viewing.
The 2022 Tribeca Festival takes place from June 9 to July 3 in New York.