NEW YORK – This year’s Tribeca Film Festival has an incredible array of films, including many great documentaries. There have also been some stellar fictional pieces as well, including one from Alex Heller, talented young actress who wrote and directed her first feature-length film “The year between” and starred in it, too. The future looks bright for her.
Here is a brief roundup of some of Tribeca’s 2022 offerings.
“John Leguizamo Live at Rikers”
Director: Elena Francesca Engel
John Leguizamo has not forgotten his roots in Queens and his upbringing in his Puerto Rican family has provided the basis for his one-man shows, including “Ghetto Klown,” which ran on Broadway in the late aughts. Now the actor is bringing his show to Rikers Island, the notorious prison, to not only perform it for incarcerated men, but also to speak candidly with prisoners who have dreams and hopes for going legitimate and starting a new life. The documentary wisely doesn’t try to place too much blame on a system designed for failure, instead taking the optimistic approach that these jailed men, seeing someone from their own neighborhood who made a name for himself, can perhaps instead follow his path.
“Live” is inspirational and intriguing and stands as a reminder that the neighborhoods that shaped us can be in turn reshaped by us.
“Stranger at the Gates”
Director: Joshua Seftel
In the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction department, this short documentary introduces us to a man from Indiana named Mac, a former Marine whose time in Iraq and Afghanistan stoked within him a rather vicious hatred for Muslims. Retired from the service and back in the Heartland, Mac is horrified by what he sees as an encroachment on his small-town American life from those he considers not just dangerous but enemies. Mac tells Joshua Seftel’s camera of his plan to visit a local mosque intent on gaining their trust as a subterfuge to eventually plant a bomb.
What happens to Mac, and to those who welcome him in not with fear but with a smile, must be seen to be believed. It won’t end how you fear; “Stranger at the Gates” gives at least some token of hope for the rest of us.
“Kaepernick & America”
Directors: Tommy Walker and Ross Hockrow
Colin Kaepernick seemed to be enjoying a promising career quarterbacking for the San Francisco 49ers, and the future was his for the taking. But the football player, who is of mixed heritage, found he could no longer stand by as young Black men were continually shot by police in traffic stops and other encounters gone horribly wrong. Thus he started taking a knee during the national anthem, which earned first sideways glances that led to jeers, boos, the hatred of a certain president of the United States and drew the ire of the NFL. (Kaepernick freely admits he didn’t realize his protests would be seen as anti-military, a stance he says he never intended.) Kaepernick was soon cut by the squad and couldn’t get another job in the league.
Then came the videotaped police murder of George Floyd and so many others—leading some (cerainly not all) to look deep within themselves and say that perhaps the quarterback had a point all along.
Walker and Hockrow trace this most unique American story, from promising young athlete to the most divisive figure in sports. Had Floyd and others not been murdered on camera by police, perhaps Kaepernick would have merited barely a footnote in history, but his displays of kneeling were soon taken up by other players, coaches and even owners. It’s never easy being the first to do the right thing.
“Carol and Johnny”
Director: Colin Barnicle
Bonnie and Clyde built up quite a legend for themselves, but how many people have heard of Carol Marie Williams and Johnny Madison Williams Jr.? The married pair stuck up a number of banks over the years until they were finally caught, largely thanks to the work of a sharp FBI agent named Don Glasser. Glasser and the Williamses sit for modern-day interviews about their most intriguing cat-and-mouse game that not only resulted in the duo being caught, but effectively becoming estranged during and after prison. Even though still legally married, they haven’t seen one another in decades, and with the end of life rapidly approaching, will this be their opportunity to put things to rest?
A fascinating American story told from both sides of the law.
Directors: Ivete Lucas and Patrick Bresnan
The filmmakers of “Naked Gardens” waste no time on setup and drop us directly into a nudist commune in Florida. We are encouraged not to stare but rather to watch as these people go about their lives without a stitch of clothing. This is pure documentary-as-indexical-record filmmaking, with none of the traditional sit-down interviews or titles; the directors simply want us to observe rather than have us try to answer larger questions about this way of life. It’s fascinating to behold.
“Angelheaded Hipster: The Songs of Marc Bolan & T. Rex”
Director: Ethan Silverman
Punk rock emerged from the English scene, and not all of its music was easy to categorize. And then there was Marc Bolan, the impresario behind the act that came to eventually be called T. Rex. Many who came after them cite Bolan’s work as a profound influence, and they share their thoughts on this somewhat-forgotten band in contemporary interviews. But the star is Bolan, a strange, unique individual whose artistic madness somehow found a foothold, even if his life was too short to enjoy all its fruits.
Directors: Violet Du Feng and Qing Zhao
For generations, some women in China communicated with one another via a dialect known as Nushu, which came from remote areas and grew to become a language that utilized poetry and song to tell women’s stories. This fascinating documentary pulls back the curtain on modern-day Nushu speakers and singers, who keep alive this ancient tradition in a society where dissent is rarely tolerated. Beautiful, moving and instructive, “Hidden Letters” uncovers yet another piece of our world few knew even existed.
Directors: Mike Mintz and Irad Straus
New York has come a long way since the grit of the 1980s, but because the city has become so expensive, inevitably there will be those who live on the streets. This incredibly affecting slice-of-life documentary follows residents of Manhattan’s Bowery neighborhood who, day in and day out, struggle just to get through a day on the streets. Many of them are plagued by mental health issues and drug addiction, and the seemingly endless whirlpools that encircle those twin issues. Among the documentary film’s most fascinating characters is “Rubia,” a drug addict who alternates between hope and hopelessness, and “Dolla,” a homeless man without legs who works a dedicated corner daily earning change. And then there is “Fifty,” a hustler making money hand over fist in the drug trade, but who seems much more peaceful when working for a delivery app making pennies on the dollar.
All of these folks will see the pandemic set in during March 2020 up close and personal, viewing Manhattan streets all but empty as those living at street level have no choice but to continue on. Then come violent clashes with police over the murder of George Floyd, but no one seems to stop to ask what these people, with their lives hinging on the vagaries of tentativeness day by day, if the world even notices them.
“The Year Between”
Writer-Director: Alex Heller
Alex Heller is a young actress who, in the best tradition of upstart filmmakers, wrote and directed a film to showcase her own acting talents. In “The Year Between” she plays Clemence, who returns to her parents’ basement after a tiff with her college roommate. Quickly we realize that Clemence walks to the beat of her own drum, demonstrating a mixture of teen angst, chemical imbalance (unsurprisingly, doctors and shrinks will try to help) as well as a tendency toward spreading toxicity to those around her, whether it’s her siblings, her parents (J. Smith-Cameron and Steve Buscemi), coworkers or the friendly but slightly clueless boy (Rajeev Jacob) who becomes her erstwhile boyfriend.
A film like this might collapse in upon the malaise of its main character were it not for the fact that Heller makes Clemence not just three-dimensional but somehow sympathetic even as she makes the wrong decisions time and time again. The result is darkly funny and tender as it explores a young woman whose best bet, although she doesn’t yet realize it, might be to get out of her own way.
Director: Kristy Guevara-Flanagan
Movie sex scenes are endlessly fascinating: We know that what we are watching is simulated activity, yet that doesn’t make it any less awkward for the actors called upon to play pretend, often with their bodies exposed for all to see. “Body Parts” provides a quick primer on the history of sex in the movies, going all the way back to the pre-Hayes Code days and on up till now, and we discover that in the early days of cinema, more women than now were writing and directing movies, thus offering a female perspective on love and intimacy, such as could be shown at the time.
Flash forward to our day as working actors and more famous stars (including none other than Jane Fonda) discuss the business of simulating pleasure on screen. Unsurprisingly, more than a few have horror stories involving bullying directors seeking more than they agreed to; others relate being sexually assaulted by a scene partner who took advantage of the situation as cameras rolled.
“Body Parts” walks a line between condemning these offenses while simultaneously being sex-positive. Many films and shows have intimacy coaches who work with talent on choreographing love scenes to the mutual comfort of all concerned. Having more women being behind the camera as producers, writers and directors helps to keep the negative behavior in check in an often-misogynistic industry.
“Music Pictures: New Orleans”
Director: Ben Chace
The Big Easy is jazz’s most revered city, from the birth of the artform on into the 21st century. “Music Pictures” examines just a few of those stories, including that of Ellis Marsalis, an old jazzman and paterfamilias to many other musicians (his sons include none other than Wynton and Branford) who is seen in one of his final performances before covid-19 ended both his playing career and his life. Other legends seen in the documentary include Irma Thomas and Little Freddie King. The film celebrates not just the music and the city that gave it rise but the continued value of live performance serving as a vehicle for communal engagement, something we have all learned both during its absence amid the pandemic and since it has waned.