The Tribeca Film Festival provides one of the most wide-ranging menus of new documentaries that New Yorkers can catch all in one place. There are biographies of musicians ranging from Sinéad O’Connor to Lil Baby to The DOC. Sports figures like Colin Kaepernick, John McEnroe, Derek Jeter, and Jeremy Lin have their own profiles. Activists and politicians including Al Sharpton, Rosa Parks, and Rudy Giuliani (in the form of a musical, of all things) are also represented. Dreaming Walls, a document of the torturous renovation of the Chelsea Hotel which we previously profiled out of Berlin, makes its NYC debut at the festival as well. Beyond such immediately and easily pitchable titles, there are a few others one should not overlook at Tribeca.
During the 2018 midterm elections, Rachel Lears and her crew followed several women challenging the political establishment and running for office. The resulting film, Knock Down the House (2019), ended up capturing the successful campaigns of future “Squad” members Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Cori Bush. Now Lears has directed a sequel of sorts, To the End, which again follows Ocasio-Cortez, joined here by a trio of young activists, as they fight for the Green New Deal and “Build Back Better” plans. As the title suggests, it’s a portrait of the increasing desperation we face in efforts to enact some kind of legislation on climate change as the window of remaining time in which we can take meaningful action closes.
While Tribeca tends to favor traditional documentaries, there are a few more experimental and impressionistic films in the mix. With After Sherman, Jon Sesrie Goff employs a panoply of techniques, including sporadic animation and archival materials, to explore his hometown and the land that his family has owned since they purchased it over a century ago, shortly after the emancipation of enslaved people in the US. Goff contrasts the transformation his family and their community have wrought on the land with the evolution of a historic plantation right next door, which has become a trendy wedding venue. The film’s “oppositional gaze” studies what has and hasn’t changed over the painfully long arc of history.
One ambitious project takes a step back to survey the documentary field as a whole. Subject tracks down the one-time main characters of high-profile nonfiction films, seeing how the experience of being scrutinized in such a way has impacted their lives. They range from the leads of more recent films like 2015’s The Wolfpack or 2013’s The Square to older works like 2003’s Capturing the Friedmans and even 1994’s pivotal Hoop Dreams. Revisiting these films with new considerations around the ethics of nonfiction storytelling and the responsibility that directors have to their subjects, the documentary offers challenging questions to filmmakers and audiences alike.
Kristy Guevara-Flanagan’s Body Parts is a deep dive into how sex scenes are shot for film and television, providing a critical, firsthand view of the literal construction of the “male gaze” (and of attempts to avoid it). In Liquor Store Dreams, So Yun Um explores the milieu of Southern California Korean immigrant liquor store proprietors, primarily through the story of her own family’s store. Shot against the backdrop of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, it looks at tensions between different POC groups and how these times stress an even greater need for solidarity and cooperation than ever before. With The Wild One, Tessa Louise-Salomé tells the life story of Jack Garfein, who survived the Nazi concentration camps and went on to become an influential Hollywood director and co-founder of the Actors Studio. There’s a ton to see at the festival, no matter what your interest is.
The Tribeca Film Festival runs June 8-19 at various venues in New York, with select programs online.