The D Goes Downtown: Tribeca features criminals and gymnasts

by Caroline McKenzie | 4/18/05 5:00am

Editor's note: This is the first of a three-part series in which the Dartmouth will report on the proceedings at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City, which will be running through the month of April.

I happen to think that Dartmouth is pretty "film-forward" in comparison to other schools. Perhaps I'm biased, perhaps not. But while Dartmouth doesn't have the "name brand cache" among film-types that Tisch or USC might carry, we're considered pretty cinema-savvy among those in the know (and those are the best sort of people anyway).

There is a full-fledged film and television major at Dartmouth; many other schools try to package the subject with either the English or Visual Arts departments. Furthermore, we can claim Budd Schulberg as an alumnus, the highly esteemed David Thompson as a professor, and Stan Brakhage (hell yeah) as a dropout. Thanks to the work of Bill Pence, we also get an annual film festival in the form of Telluride at Dartmouth.

So it only makes sense that the cognoscenti of the college film world (umm, us) should know about America's newest up-and-coming filmfest before it even starts. New York's Tribeca Film Festival was started four years ago by downtown-dweller Robert DeNiro as a way to revive the sub-Canal Street neighborhood in a post-9/11 economy. The festival has taken off since, and starting this Friday, it will showcase almost 250 films over the course of 11 days.

However, seeing as how press previews began last week, here is a look at a small selection of films that the festival has to offer. They just might be coming soon to a theater near you.

Several of the festival's "big name" entries (including Wong Kar Wai's "2046" and the film about krunking, "Rize") don't get an official run during "press week," so things started small and local. One of the first documentaries screened was a film called "Rikers High," about a place that every New Yorker is familiar with but apparently knows little about: Rikers Island. More specifically, the film is about Island Academy, the euphemistically-named high school that exists for the 2,000 inmates at Rikers who are under the age of 18.

The film follows three students in particular: William, Andre and Shawn. William is an aspiring young rapper who has been in and out of detention centers since the age of 12. He is released from Rikers halfway through the film and the crew documents his experiences in the real world as he struggles to get a job and put his life back on track. Andre and Shawn, on the other hand, are two of Island Academy's top pupils. Andre is a cartoonist who channels his appreciably deep emotional pain into his drawings. Meanwhile, Shawn is the valedictorian of the academy and hopes to become a philosopher. He seems like a quiet, intellectual poet, but he's actually doing time for armed robbery.

While the film often seems to lack in depth and direction, it does vividly depict a world that is at once familiar and totally jarring. In some ways, "Rikers High" shows us a high school experience that is akin to our own: kids slumping in never-ending math classes, a blacktop with boys playing everything from b-ball to chess and a graduation ceremony complete with a musical accompaniment of "Pomp and Circumstance." But then there are raids of the boys' private affects by police teams, English classes where Frankenstein's frightening outward appearance is related to the pupils' hip-hop fashion and a graduation ceremony that begins, "Ladies and gentlemen, students, parents, Department of Corrections." The filmmakers portray this world without including clunky interviews and voice-over narration, instead letting us see all sides of the issue and leaving the decisions up to us.

Another documentary from the festival took a similar concept but stepped far beyond the five boroughs. For the stunning "A State of Mind," the filmmakers received unprecedented access to the sealed society of North Korea and followed two young girls -- Song Yan, 11, and Hyon Sun, 13 -- as they trained for Mass Games, the world's largest choreographed gymnastic event. Putting the beauty of Mass Games into words is an almost Sisyphusian task. A collective effort of up to 80,000 rhythmic gymnasts that looks as if it sprung from the mind of Buzby Berkeley, it's both a multi-part celebration of the history of the Democratic Republic of Korea and a pronouncement of Communist ideology, attended by a crowd of four million, including General Kim Jong Il.

The film follows Song Yan and Hyon Sun for a year as they train for the games and attend to their everyday lives under the Kim regime. The fanatic strength and energy they put into their training is truly incredible. They practice year-round in temperatures that can reach "20 degrees Celsius, for as much as ten hours a day.

"State" effectively shows just how strongly the girls feel about the opportunity to perform for their revered and beloved general. Hyon Sun almost has tears in her eyes when she declares, "I long for the day when I perform for the general, so I train through the pain." And finally, when Jong Il neglects to show up for the games, her pain is so palpable the audience nearly cries for her.

While the extraordinary beauty of Mass Games occurs independently of the film, the documentary is spectacular because of the grace with which it captures both its subjects and the world around them. A refreshing break from the Michael Moore School of aesthetically negligent political docs or the standard mode of talking-head pictures, "A State of Mind" is beautifully edited and skillfully shot. The Mickey Mousing of the practice sessions to the soundtrack stuns the senses like a version of Fischinger's "Composition in Blue," with humans instead of clay shapes. This exquisite balance of imagery and sound accompaniment is sadly disrupted in one of the final sequences with the frightfully out-of-place use of English-language electronic dance music, but this slip aside, the film exudes a grace and lusciousness mirrored only by the spectacle of the Games themselves. The greatest achievement of the filmmakers is how they use a country the West sees as a hateful enemy, and manages to portray it in a fragile and beautiful light. It could make a communist out of me yet.

Aside from an array of documentaries, the Film Festival also played host to the world premieres of a few narrative films, including Vladan Nikolic's "Love." The film takes place entirely within the Five Boroughs, but most of its characters are immigrants from locations as varied as Serbia, Italy and the Middle East. Similar to "A State of Mind," "Love" also thrives because of its obviously skilled editors and cinematographers.

"Love" is the story of a hit man known as Uncle Vanya (cheekily referencing Chekhov), an orphan and soldier from Bosnia who turned into a hit man during the Serbian War and subsequently fled to the United States. He desperately wants to quit the profession, but his employer blackmails him into continuing his work.

During what he considers to be his last job, he fortuitously runs into his ex-wife Anna, with whom he is still obviously in love. This chance meeting not only joins together Vanya's and Anna's lives, but also entangles the two into the lives of Anna's boyfriend (a NYC cop named Dirk), Vanya's girlfriend (a French immigrant), Vanya's boss and two bumbling immigrant thugs that work for him. These various relationships end up directly motivating the actions of each character in the movie.

The film unravels in a non-linear narrative and shows the action multiple times from different characters' points of view, sometimes exposing a scene in triplicate and revealing a new fact with each revision of the sequence. Press junkets liken the film to "Pulp Fiction," but it's more accurate to compare the film to "Memento" in that we understand the narrative in a rather piecemeal fashion as the suspense builds and builds until the film finally reaches its fabulous ending.

The lenswork is gripping at times; the camera seems to come from impossible points of view. The film is also shot entirely in DV and accompanied by a semi-surreal deadpan narrator, adding an odd sense of grit to the feature. In short, it's a highly stylized and fascinating look at a bevy of well-crafted characters.

But while press week covered everything from criminals to gymnasts, Koreans to Serbians, documentaries to narratives, and every New York neighborhood from the West Village to Rikers Island, there's still much more to come from Tribeca. Three down, 247 more films to go.