Tribeca '11: Documentaries

Film festivals are all about documentaries. This is where most docs are shown theatrically before winding up on television or a shelf somewhere.

At this year's Tribeca Film Festival, there was a panel about how activist groups can use documentaries as visual aids to promote their causes, and I was surprised as to how bitter they were at those who they were supporting as the charities involved thought that said films were a free donation and all that money spent on production was a gift to THEM!!

The question of how these things make money is an interesting one, and someone will have to discuss it in greater detail, but we’re not going to do it here, mainly because those aren’t the only genre of docs playing in Tribeca, and the others are the ones that dominate the festival.

Docs can be shelved into different genre, as are scripted films. There’s advocacy (propaganda), which highlights a particular political point of view, or is a plea for “justice”, then there’s pure entertainment, which is a concert film or following a diva around while using clips from his/her previous showbiz appearances.

Then there’s real journalism, which can be advocacy or it can be just documenting an event because it’s interesting. This year’s Tribeca has a fair complement of all of them, most of which I didn’t see…

Concerts and Entertainment:

Carol Channing: Larger Than Life: Director Dori Berinstein -- who has done some other docs on show business -- follows the 90-year-old diva as she goes around her daily grind with her second husband (and high school sweetheart) and intersperses this with clips from her extremely long career. She never hit the top of the top, and her two signature Broadway roles were given to others when the movie versions were made, but , even though her first husband was a royal shit, Bernstein shows that Channing has had a pretty much wonderful life, and the subject knows it.

This is fun for fun’s sake and fans are going to love it.

The Union: Rock star singer/songwriter Elton John decided to make an album with semi-retired rock hero Leon Russell. and asked director Cameron Crowe to document it. Since the recording process is mostly boring, there are lots of clips from both John and Russell in their glory days, and while almost no songs are seen done to completion, the music is pretty good.


Semper Fi: Always Faithful: Directors Tony Hardmon and Rachel Libert discovered a major scandal involving toxic waste, the Marine Corps, and Camp LeJune, so they decided to do something about it. So they found the leader of the movement to do so, retired Master Sergeant Jerry Ensminger, and got him and his associate to let them document their work. It’s quite compelling.

Give Up Tomorrow: Back in 1997, Paco Larrañaga was arrested for a double murder he didn’t commit, could prove he was nowhere near the crime scene, and was convicted anyway in an obvious travesty of a trial that was heavily publicized. Since this was the Philippines’ version of the OJ trial, there’s plenty of video footage lying around. An attack on the Filipino justice system and a call for this guy to be let out of jail, it doesn’t have a happy ending. But this cry for help should embarrass the right people -- at least I hope so.


Koran By Heart: Documentarian Greg Barker covers the World Koranic recitation competition in Cairo, Egypt. This is sort of like an Islamic spelling bee except far more rigorous. The kids highlighted are cute and they try not to keep it totally boring.

Gnarr: Face it, elections are sports, and Icelandic comedian Jon Gnarr decided to satirize local politics by forming his own party and running for Mayor of Reykjavík, But the joke was on him. He had to give up his job and actually become Mayor of Reykjavík. How this happened is an interesting story, and if it hadn’t actually happened, it would have seemed totally bogus. So it’s a fun flick.