"The docs are good," says one industry insider, on two separate occasions, as I pass them by during the Tribeca Fest over the past few days. Indeed, I saw a handful of the nonfiction competition films at the fest, and I can confidently say that six were strong. I saw two dramatic films that I thought were worth my time (more on those in another post), but based on the advice of others, the docs were far and away superior to the narrative films on display. Here's a rundown of my top 5. But I could also have mentioned "The Flat" and I heard great things about "Ballroom Dancer," as well.
"The World Before Her"
In juxtaposing a group of young women competing for Miss World India and a fundamentalist, nationalist Hindi camp for girls, filmmaker Nisha Pahuja yields some provocative and surprisingly revealing insights into being female in contemporary India. There's some shocking revelations about the way the beauty contestants are turned into inhuman "model" women—complete with Botox and skin-whitening sessions (one girl recalls the name of the cream: "Made in American")—and on other side of the spectrum, a strong-willed, charismatic and sympathetic young Nationalist, who would kill for a culture that she acknowledges represses her.
A culture war closer to home, "The Revisionaries" documents the infamous rewriting of the Texas Schoolboard standards, which effects textbooks distributed to schools around the country. A straight-forward talking-head doc, the film is nevertheless infuriating and engaging, chronicling not just the way conservatives on the board worked hard to discredit the science of evolution, but also the way they tried to Fox News-ify social studies and history texts. In one great clip, conservative schoolboard leader Don McLeroy, a "Young Earth Creationist" who believes dinosaurs and contemporary humans lived side by side, asks to cut "hip hop" from a lesson and replace it with "Country Western." McLeroy is a fascinating character. As a dentist, he preaches his views to patients strapped into his dental chair, while their mouths are stuffed with fingers and dental instruments. ("I have an audience every day," he says). As a kind of gentle, good-natured and totally naïve embodiment of the Christian Right, McLeroy reminds me of a far less macabre Fred J. Leuchter (from Errol Morris' "Mr. Death"), doing what he thinks is right, but blind to the consequences.
"The Planet of Snail"
Maybe the best film I saw at Tribeca this year, this unassuming portrait of a South Korean couple – he's deaf and blind; she's a dwarf – is a poetic, unsentimental look at love, loneliness and co-dependence that's far more transcendent than the above description suggests. With no voice-over or expositional titles, the film puts the viewer completely into the rhythms and perspectives of this congenial disabled pair. Changing a lightbulb allows for a triumph over adversity; going snow tubing and hugging trees is sheer bliss; walking down the street alone is a tense and fraught journey. Touching without being precious, The Planet of Snail is a place that's worth the trip.
Another lyrical journey, into a small island off the coast of Kenya, this captivating documentary follows an elderly fisherman—nicknamed "The Commander"—on his last chance to capture a giant shark. Already touted by the New York Times, I'm not the first person to highlight the film, and I probably won't be the last. While the film takes its time, and features some voiceover from the filmmaker that isn't always necessary, it's always engrossing, even taking on the narrative tension of a "Moby Dick," as you root for the old hero to fulfill his mission. While the doc adopts the mystical storytelling technique of an African griot, there is also some very down-to-the-earth realist humor, as the old man bosses and bickers with his grown-up grandson, who stands faithfully by his grandfather's side, as they root out sea snakes, poisonous fish, small octopi and giant manta rays together.
A complex and sympathetic portrait of America’s economic crisis, “Downeast” observes the financial struggles of Boston-based entrepreneur Antonio Bussone, a man "from away" who tries to purchase a shuttered cannery in coastal Maine, with plans to transform it into a lobster processing facility and rehire the laid-off workers. Everyone in the film is a great character: the amiable elderly unemployed, with their thick Maine accents and their willingness to work long hours, even though they can barely walk; the foreign-tongued Bussone, who tries to stay optimisic despite the sinking ship that surrounds him; and the wary local lobstermen and selectmen, a wily bunch who are quick to predict Bussone's downfall. With a delicate eye for detail and the beauty of the coastal environs, filmmakers David Redmon and Ashley Sabin ("Mardis Gras: Made in China," "Girl Model") continue to uncover universal truths about the sad state of our global economy with deeply intimate, local stories.