Issues

Tears in the Neighborhood

by Richard Beck

From Film Quarterly Fall 2010, Vol. 64, No. 1

The uncomfortable thing about the Tribeca Film Festival (April 21-May 2, 2010) is that nobody knows exactly what it is for. This may be a problem that it will never solve. It is not prestigious enough to woo any really good stuff away from Cannes, and in any case Venice and Berlin are always vigilant about picking up that festival’s scraps. In the U.S., Tribeca does not really pretend to compete with Sundance, and even in New York City, its hometown, the website of the Mayor’s Office of Theater, Film, and Broadcasting currently lists forty-six other festivals taking place within the city limits. It wasn’t this way at first, of course. Tribeca was founded in the winter of 2002 by Jane Rosenthal and Robert De Niro, who wanted to pump money into a lower Manhattan that had recently been devastated by having planes smashed into it. The founders were very explicit about the primacy of an economic justification for the festival’s existence. “The reason we started the film festival was really to help the economic redevelopment of Lower Manhattan very specifically,” Rosenthal said to a New York Times reporter in 2003.

By that metric, it’s hard to see the festival as anything other than an enormous success. In 2006, Tribeca placed twelfth on Forbes magazine’s list of the country’s most expensive zip codes (median home price: $1.9 million), and as I walked across lower Manhattan from screening to screening, it was easy to see that the neighborhood’s success had turned into a more general phenomenon. One Sunday afternoon, in a half-hour break between films, I hopped into something called a Milk Bar and spent sixteen dollars on a sandwich and a cookie. At the other end of the counter, a young man took digital photos of his own sandwich–for a blog, I assumed, or maybe a review on Yelp–and once or twice moved the plate in an effort to improve the lighting. None of this can be solely credited to the Tribeca Film Festival, but it is a fact that De Niro’s dream took shape in almost perfect synchronization with its neighborhood’s makeover. In the weeks leading up to Tribeca’s opening night, pre-festival screenings were held on the second floor of a building that also contained Locanda Verde, a new restaurant, owned by De Niro, that serves “family-style” Italian food on small plates, all of it in rigid keeping with New York’s current culinary fashions. I would like to complain about gentrification, but unfortunately I’m in my early twenties: I literally have no idea what an un-gentrified lower Manhattan is supposed to look or feel like. In any case, my sandwich at that milk place was delicious.

Even in the theaters, it was impossible to forget about the urban surroundings. In an ad for American Express that played before every single screening, movers loaded a truck with bubble-wrapped New York signifiers: to-go cups of coffee, pigeons, a pretty ditz with a BlackBerry glued to her ear, a profane meter maid. “Thanks for coming to this year’s festival,” read the text at the end. “Because bringing it to you would have been a real nightmare.” Consider the tone set. Through documentaries and features, experimental shorts, and Shrek 4 on the opening night, the vaguely sinister ambition of the festival’s slogan loomed always in the background: “Here comes the neighborhood.”

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Please Give. Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival.

In that spirit, I’ll begin with the film that best represented the festival as a whole. Nicole Holofcener’s Please Give is a small, subtle movie about liberal guilt that has enjoyed wide acclaim since its limited theatrical release on April 30. Its central characters, Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt), are a married couple waiting for their old neighbor Andra (Ann Guilbert) to die. This is because they have bought her apartment, which they plan to take over once Andra gets wheeled out for good. Kate, who happens to make her living from the recently deceased as well (she runs a vintage furniture shop, supplied mostly by estate sales, with Alex), feels guilty about this, and makes tentative stabs at assuaging her guilt through volunteering and feeding the homeless.

Many people loved this movie for its intelligent writing and terrific acting–visually, it looks like any other mainstream New York romantic comedy–but ultimately I could not. First, greedily waiting for a neighbor to die isn’t monstrous, just petty, and because of this Kate’s guilt quickly curdles into little more than narcissism. As a liberal, I know as well as anyone how good it can feel to feel bad about something, but at a certain point it’s time to either change your life or accept your shortcomings. This raises the second major issue with Please Give, which is that the possibility of changing her life in a major way never occurs to Kate even once. Actually she doesn’t even make it to changing her life in a minor way, abandoning her volunteer efforts after the sadness of children with Down Syndrome becomes too much to bear. All the while, Kate and Alex are raising a teenage daughter, Abby (Sarah Steele), who through a mix of privilege and adolescent insecurity seems on her way to becoming a truly awful adult. In the film’s closing scene, Kate repairs her relationship with Abby by buying her a $250 pair of jeans.

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Into Eternity. Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival.

In the hands of a different filmmaker, I could have been willing to read this incredibly unhappy ending as a final, decisive critique of Kate’s all-too-vague dreams of less materialistic living. But in interviews Holofcener is up-front about identifying more or less completely with her protagonists, making Keener the director’s onscreen stand-in. “Obviously, I know too much about it,” Holofcener told the Seattle Times, referring to the kind of upscale secondhand furniture store that Kate owns. “I shop in those stores!” There is nothing inherently or necessarily wrong with buying expensive furniture; but if, as Kate does, you suspect that there might be something hollow about devoting so much of your life to the consumption of luxuries, it does not suffice to mistake awareness for action and call the problem solved. Holofcener’s vague feelings of guilt and even vaguer means of dispelling it turn Please Give into a symptom of the problem it was trying to solve, an appropriate (and somewhat sad) emblem of its time and place.

These depressing thoughts were countered by the energy and ambition of the festival’s documentary features. Two of them were particular highlights, though each for different reasons. Deborah Scranton’s Earth Made of Glass is a simple, almost literally unbelievable film about a Rwandan man’s efforts to find the remains of his father, who was murdered at a roadblock during the 1994 genocide. Scranton spends half the film with President Paul Kagame as he tries to stitch the country together, and while this is a very compelling story, it doesn’t translate to film with anything like the visceral power of Jean Pierre Sagahutu’s search. Sagahutu works for a media company in the booming city of Kigali. He lost three sisters, two brothers, and both his parents between April and July of 1994. Sagahutu owes his own survival to the friend who lowered food down into the working septic tank where he hid for two months and sixteen days. He is smart and articulate, also a devoted father, and he serves as a brilliant foil to President Kagame’s sloganeering. “You can’t let yourself be held hostage by the guilt of the past,” Kagame says in one interview, but Sagahutu is understandably pessimistic about his own capacities for forgiveness: “I don’t see any hope for me.” Incredibly, Sagahutu manages to track down one of the men who was present at his father’s murder. The results of their conversation are best left to the film itself. But in the United States, a country that remains simultaneously obsessed with genocides past and unable to acknowledge horrors of the present day, Earth Made of Glass is a revelatory look at the simple human mechanics of anger, evil, and (theoretically) forgiveness.

With Earth Made of Glass, Deborah Scranton had a story that more or less told itself, and so she made the intelligent decision to keep her filmmaking as simple as possible. Danish filmmaker Michael Madsen had a different approach. His documentary, Into Eternity, is an ingenious film that gets torpedoed by its director’s opinion that he is definitely a genius. The film is about Finland’s efforts to construct a storage facility for its nuclear waste that must last for 100,000 years–roughly fifty times the span between the present day and the construction of the Egyptian pyramids. There is no human construction that has lasted anywhere near this long, and Madsen’s interviews with the bureaucrats in charge of the task would make Kafka howl with laughter. Unfortunately, Kafka might have a similar response to Madsen himself, who seems unaware of the role he plays in making Into Eternity so unsettling. The film’s subtitle is A Film for the Future, and so of course Madsen appears onscreen (three times) to deliver monologues that are literally addressed to inhabitants of a world to come. These scenes are lit by a single match, which flickers attractively across Madsen’s thick black glasses as he speaks directly to the camera: “Man discovered fire, but he could not put the fire out . . .” It is, somewhat unintentionally, a perfect dramatization of our inability to deal with the consequences of technological progress.

These and other documentaries–Clio Barnard’s experimental The Arbor, Jennilyn Merten’s Sons of Perdition, and especially Alex Gibney’s work-in-progress, Untitled Eliot Spitzer Film–seemed to generate most of the excitement at what was otherwise a pretty subdued festival. Anglo-American feature films, in particular, made a very modest showing. Of those I saw, only British director J. Blakeson’s The Disappearance of Alice Creed, a well-made, clever take on the perfect-plan-gone-wrong thriller, stuck in my memory. Even that film seemed less a full-bodied production than an audition for a studio contract and larger Hollywood budget. “Give me money,” seemed to be the message Blakeson’s film wanted to telegraph to Hollywood producers. “I’ll know what to do with it.”

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Lola and The White Meadows. Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival.

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Lola and The White Meadows. Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival.

The international features on view at Tribeca were another story. Viewers familiar with Kinatay, the disturbing film that won Filipino director Brillante Mendoza the Best Director award at Cannes in 2009–also the film that Roger Ebert, in a fit of offended decency, called the single worst in the festival’s history–will be shocked by his latest work, Lola. The film’s only killing takes place before the movie even begins, and in place of Kinatay’s existential urban horror, Lola displays a quiet, dignified humanism that recalls nobody so much as Jean Renoir: Mendoza is the rare director who can accept his characters’ shortcomings without endorsing or sentimentalizing them. The title is the Filipino word for “grandma,” and the film’s central concern is how two women, Lola Sepa (Anita Linda) and Lola Carpin (Rustica Carpio), try to negotiate the fact that one’s grandson has killed the other in a street robbery. Mendoza’s handheld camera occasionally comes dangerously close to making a joke out of its concern for realism, but it also does a wonderful job evoking the physical precariousness of old age. In the film’s opening sequence, Lola Sepa pauses in the pouring rain to catch her breath, and the camera looks up at the stairs she must ascend to get home. It seems completely impossible, but of course Lola Sepa puts her head down and starts to climb. Anita Linda’s performance was the festival’s best.

The only film I saw to equal Lola could not be more unlike it. Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof’s The White Meadows is a strange, absolutely gorgeous parable about the meaning of tradition in contemporary Iran. Its protagonist is Rahmat (Hasan Pourshirazi), who crisscrosses Lake Urmia in a tiny boat. His job is to collect tears. The villages he visits on Urmia’s shores hunker down in dazzling, salt-caked landscapes, each simultaneously sustained and oppressed by its own particular rituals. One sends a dwarf into a well with hundreds of jars, each one the container for somebody’s sorrows, and then cuts his rope when he fails to climb out before sunrise. Another marries off its most beautiful woman to the sea, and sends her sobbing into the distance on a floating platform. In this last example, the political subtext is obviously not difficult to make out, but Rasoulof does a wonderful job of varying the extent to which his set pieces indicate a specific political referent; sometimes they are allegories, but sometimes they are just independent mythological worlds. These vignettes are filmed in a style that reinforces the viewer’s impression that Rasoulof is speaking through parables. The almost completely stationary camera suggests the panels of a picture book, and with the color palette limited to white, black, and the brilliant azure sky, The White Meadows can look less filmed than illustrated. There is, furthermore, a feeling of physical improbability–a house on gratuitous stilts, the dwarf loaded down with mason jars–that keeps any sense of realism at a charming (and probably necessary) arm’s length. (Rasoulof is, after all, working in a country that doesn’t tolerate political critique. He was actually arrested a month before The White Meadows screened at Tribeca.) What’s most surprising, though–and this doesn’t become clear at all until the film’s conclusion–is the intense ambivalence that Rasoulof seems to feel toward his own project. What Rahmat ultimately does with the tears he’s collected is shocking, an indictment of Iran’s political regime that is simultaneously a gesture of bitter self-deprecation. If one film from Tribeca deserves a wider audience, The White Meadows is it.

Richard Beck is from Wallingford, Pennsylvania and a contributor to n+1 and Bookforum.

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