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Shout Out for Quiet Documentaries at Tribeca '13

 Shout Out for Quiet Documentaries at Tribeca '13

The 12th Annual Tribeca Film Festival, April 17 – 28, 2013 in New York City, is usually judged by the film industry as to how many of its 89 features get picked up for theatrical or other mechanisms for public viewing, though over two dozen either came in with or had distribution by the end. But among the 53 world premieres, six international premieres, 15 North American premieres, five U.S. premieres, and nine New York premieres, with 24 in competition and the rest spread through categories of “Spotlight”, “Viewpoints”, “Midnight”, and various special events, were unheralded gems that you may only get to see at other film festivals, in the U.S. and abroad. Keep a look out for these recommendations:

Shout Out for Quiet Documentariesreporting times

Yes, Virginia, there really are wild reindeers near the North Pole, and families have been herding them in Lapland, Finland for over six generations. Aatsinki: The Story Of Arctic Cowboys closely observes two rugged brothers, their supportive wives, children, and cooperative community throughout a year as they continue the tradition with some modern communications and vehicles. (Over a five hour drive from Helsinki, one of the project’s sponsors is a local resort that boasts it’s in “the middle of nowhere”.) In a verité style like visual anthropology, director Jessica Oreck grounds her point-of-view in ethnobiology – exploring how human cultures interact with the natural world, and this world is (literally) breathtaking as you can practically feel the sub-zero cold hurt your lungs. One of many films in the Festival made possible by a Kickstarter campaign, Oreck had the special budget-busting problem of equipment breaking and batteries draining. Though what’s happening in the tough seasonal herding work and practical utilization of every part of the reindeer (besides warm fur and sleigh rides for foreign tourists) isn’t always clear for urban audiences, let alone may disillusion younger ones who don’t think of reindeer as livestock. When Arctic cowboy Aarne Aatsinki and his wife Raisa made their first trip to a big city for the New York City premiere, were they surprised not to see reindeer meat sold at the nearby Farmer’s Market here?

Tradition and tourism are also informative and charming themes in Bending Steel at another surprisingly exotic corner of the world right here in New York City – the Coney Island boardwalk's century-long heritage of olde time strongmen. Debut director Dave Carroll found a shy guide right in his own apartment basement where Chris Schoeck was earnestly twisting horseshoes and bending nails in preparation for the annual vaudeville-redux Strongman Spectacular with training, let alone personality transformation, that entertainingly turns out to be about far more than just building strength. Schoeck works up the nerve to get a gregarious mentor and learns showmanship through oral history from living legends of amazing feats (like Slim The Hammerman) and colorful heroes who pass on distinctive shticks and audience-wowing tricks from generation to generation. You will be irresistibly drawn into cheering him on (and heading down to Coney Island).

Paatsinkiowerless makes a crackling good story out of the very complicated subject of stymied Third World infrastructure development. Turn off your automatic MEGO (My-Eyes-Glaze-Over) because instead of the usual talking head experts producing crisis numbers (and this was filmed before the world’s largest power outage across India in July 2012), director Fahad Mustafa plunges us into his dense, steaming, industrial home city of Kanpur in north India that is plagued by intermittent blackouts, dangerous tangles of illegal wires, and stifling pollution from back-up diesel generators. The conflicts between opposing forces are meaningfully personified over suspenseful months when progress seems possible. On the big business side, Ritu, the first female chief of the Kanpur Electricity Supply Company, energizes her demoralized staff by promising a new day of expanding electricity through the radical plan of getting customers to pay their bills. Out on the streets, daring electrical thieves, like fast-talking Loha Singh, say they are Robin Hood-like entrepreneurs getting power to the people. You get an earful and eyeful of who wins and how everybody ends up losing in the continuing chaos.  

powerlessFor Documentary Shorts, the change in Oscar rules that made Tribeca award winners eligible to qualify for the Academy Award heightened interest in the selection, two notables that didn’t make that cut, but should get post-Festival attention as effective teaching tools lushly contemporizes 1950’s pioneer ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax’s folklore collecting in Scotland. In When The Song Dies, misty images of the rolling hills and lochs of the southwestern Machars peninsula match the supernatural in song and story, by expressive tellers both renowned (such as Norman Maclean) and of local repute, who preserve Gaelic traditions. I look forward to seeing more of the entries in The Strange Home Project by director Jamie Chambers with the Transgressive North community of multi-media Scottish artists.

Reporting on The Times: The New York Times and The Holocaust was cited for Special Jury Mention in the Student Short Competition. That director Emily Harrold was a college junior when she developed this thoughtful and fair consideration of what America’s most prominent Jewish-owned newspaper knew about the NazisFinal Solution and why, when, and how the editors let their influential readers know is already impressive. Starting off from Laurel Leff's book Buried by The Times, the different perspectives of a survivor and knowledgeable historians of American Jewry and journalism are presented within the context of well-researched audio and visual support of articles, photographs, speeches, and archival footage. Most usefully, this should be a continuing reference source as an educational case study for discussions on the media’s responsibility in bringing genocides around the world to public notice, whatever their corporate concerns or self-interest.

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