Tribeca Film Festival takes an international turn
Since it was founded a decade ago, the Tribeca Film Festival has tried on many identities. It’s attempted to become a hot spot for sports movies, narrative documentaries, music-themed films and genre flicks, to name just a few.
But this year’s confab, which kicks off Wednesday night in Manhattan and runs through April 29, is assuming a more unlikely role: as a prime venue to discover international films.
The most prominent world-cinema gathering, of course, takes place 4,000 miles (and four weeks) away in Cannes, France. But thanks to the hiring of Frederic Boyer, a longtime Cannes Film Festival programmer, and a renewed focus on foreign directors, Tribeca this year will showcase an especially wide range of internationally flavored titles.
Among the featured films are a Havana-set coming-of-age story, “Una Noche,” from first-time British director Lucy Mulloy; “Yossi,” Israeli auteur Eytan Fox’s sequel to his well-received 2002 gay-soldier drama “Yossi and Jagger”; an Indian beauty-pageant documentary “The World Before Her”; and “La Suerte en Tus Manos,” a romantic drama from Argentina about a poker player who meets an old flame.
“We've always tried to have a diverse international lineup,” said Jane Rosenthal, who founded Tribeca with her producing partner, Robert De Niro. “But the program this year is definitely stronger.”
Tribeca is attempting to pick up momentum that began in 2008, when the festival served as a launch pad for the Swedish vampire drama “Let the Right One In.” Unknown to American filmgoers when it premiered at the New York gathering, the movie went on to become a cult hit and yielded an American remake starring Chloe Moretz.
The following year, Tribeca continued the foreign theme with the North American premiere of “About Elly,” from Iranian director Asghar Farhadi (who won an Oscar this year for “A Separation”). “About Elly” won Tribeca’s narrative feature prize.
Mulloy, who took her independent movie to the Berlin Film Festival before bringing it to Tribeca, said she sees the New York festival as a good venue for internationally minded films. “The people who come see a movie at Tribeca are going to understand the complexities of life in faraway places, and that was important to me,” she said.
Mulloy’s film, which she says she made with the blessing of the Cuban government, centers on two teenage boys who covertly build a raft to escape to Miami, and the complications their plan creates in their relationship as well as their relationship with one of the boy’s sisters. With an eye for both Havana’s gritty and scenic spaces, Mulloy made her film largely with non-actors to capture the feel of the Cuban capital.
In fact, authenticity was such a priority that in one casting session she encountered an unusual problem: One man she considered for a part in the film likely would be unavailable by the time shooting began because he was building a raft of his own to escape the island.
Fox, meanwhile, is hoping to repeat his success here from nine years ago, when “Yossi and Jagger” won the festival’s best actor prize for its star, Ohad Knoller. “Yossi” begins about a decade after the title character (played again by Knoller) has finished his time in the army. He is leading a lonely existence as a Tel Aviv doctor until a chance encounter prompts him to take a life-changing road trip.
As the Sundance Film Festival has done, Tribeca is attempting to expand its reach with the use of digital platforms.
This year, Angelenos will be able to see nearly a dozen features via video-on-demand and tribecaonline.com both during and in the weeks after the festival. The titles include a Jenna Fischer romantic dramedy (“Giant Mechanical Man”); a documentary about musician John Forte, who played with the Fugees before being sent to prison on a drug conviction (“The Russian Winter”); and “Booker’s Place,” a documentary about a black waiter during the civil rights era from the director of “City Island,” which world-premiered at Tribeca three years ago.
The festival was founded shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and its original aim was to help revitalize lower Manhattan with foot traffic as well as some glitz. It has sometimes returned to that celebrity well, creating a somewhat discordant combination with the very small and indie films it also plays. Among the bigger titles this year are the Jason Segel comedy “The Five-Year Engagement” and the superhero tent pole “The Avengers,” which will serve as the opening- and closing-night films, respectively.
Tribeca shows its affinity for bold-faced names in other, sometimes odder, ways. It probably is the only film festival in the world to count “Twilight” star Kellan Lutz and the rapper K’Naan among its jury members.
The festival will also screen James Franco’s “Francophenia,” the actor’s experimental documentary about the behind-the-scenes goings-on at “General Hospital,” the TV soap in which the actor once starred. Tribeca director of programming Genna Terranova called the movie “a little enigmatic.”
Terranova is part of a team that includes executive director Nancy Schaefer and Geoffrey Gilmore; Gilmore is the previous director of the Sundance Film Festival who now serves as the larger Tribeca organization’s chief creative officer and has a strong hand in festival programming.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Tribeca features a number of titles you might find in Sundance.
Among the more notable ones this year are Tom O’Brien’s “Fairhaven,” a coming-home drama in the style of the 1990s Natalie Portman-Timothy Hutton hit “Beautiful Girls”; and “Lola Versus,” an offbeat romantic comedy starring Greta Gerwig that Fox Searchlight will world-premiere at the festival and then open commercially on June 8.
Until a few years ago, the sheer volume of titles — more than 150 — and a focus on world premieres meant the quality of films at Tribeca could vary widely. But organizers say the streamlined slate — this year it will show about 90 features — and a willingness to play movies that have debuted at other festivals has upped the quality level. Said artistic director Boyer: “We like it to be new, but we also like it to be good.”
-- Steven Zeitchik in New York
Photo: Top, Robert De Niro arrives at the Vanity Fair party for the Tribeca Film Festival on Tuesday. Credit: Peter Foley/EPA Bottom, a scene from "Yossi." Courtesy Tribeca Film Festival