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Tribeca 2006 Preview!

Time out magazine opened their Tribeca coverage with the following intro – "last year, Subaru rolled out a sport-utility vehicle called the B9 Tribeca, named to capitalize on the lower Manhattan neighborhood’s perceived cachet. The new model has no direct connection to the Tribeca Film Festival, but the two entities have more in common than a moniker. Like an SUV, the event has been criticized for its jumbo size, haphazard performance and gross inefficiencies—but it’s undeniably a lot of fun."

So true. The festival's jumbo size is already visible as the huge marketing campaign was launched a few days ago. It's impossible to walk 2 blocks without seeing a TFF banner in lower Manhattan. In addition, complete subway trains have been redecorated with the festival's ads. Any New Yorker not aware of the festival is either blind or … out of town. Will they go to the festival then? Surely. Already a week before the festival, many of the screenings were already sold out and all the representations of some films (anywhere between 3 to 5) are sold out–already. Tickets for the TFF will definitely be a hot novelty this year as the festival will turn 5!

Although not all the other critics present at the press screenings would agree, so far the selection is very interesting compared to previous years, especially for documentaries. Most of them had a very interesting approach and a cool angle with which to approach their subject matter. There are a bazillion movies out there about the situation of Arab women, about remote villages lost in the middle of nowhere, about revolutions, etc. Once you've seen a few on each subject, you pretty much have seen them all. Many of the documentaries at the festival this year are about those subjects. However, each film found a specific and inventive approach to frame the subject. For instance, the 1956 Hungarian Uprisings are shown through the eyes of the Olympic water polo team of the time in Freedom's Fury. The result is a very interesting and lively film on what could otherwise be a very boring subject matter.

Since there are so many movies at the Tribeca Film Festival this year–see a glimpse of the crazy schedule below (image)–here is a quick list of some of the films to watch for at the festival. The following list is based on the films seen at the 3 weeks of press screenings before the festival and they represent a preliminary top 10 (in alphabetical order). Summaries are from the festival's catalog.

37 uses for a dead sheep (Documentary)
Although this ethnographic documentary about the migratory struggles of the Pamir Kirghiz people does briefly rattle off 37 uses for a dead sheep, the playful title deliberately underscores the serious geopolitical overtones of the film. Director Ben Hopkins tastefully blends reenactments shot on 16 mm and Super-8 film with interviews to tell the history of how these stoic people abandoned their seminomadic existence in the Pamir mountains of Tajikistan for a comfortable life in a Turkish town filled with fixed stone houses. In most cases, Communist oppression of both the Soviet and Maoist varieties was what forced the Pamir Kirghiz to migrate five times: first from Central Asia to China, then from Tajikistan to Pakistan, and finally to Turkey. In this collaboration between subject and filmmaker, Hopkins uses Kirghiz people, several of whom endured all five migrations, to reenact the dramatic journey from the freezing Tajikistan mountains-with altitudes of 4,000 meters-to Pakistan. After four years they were finally offered land in Ulupamir in eastern Turkey thanks to Rahman Qul, their last leader, whose efforts to keep his community together would have made even Moses proud. Now comfortably settled, the tribe's scars seem to be healing nicely, perhaps too nicely. For the most part, the tribe's younger generation is ready to move on and forget their heritage. One white-bearded man comments that all the young people do is sit in front of the television and go to Istanbul. But, as he shrugs and says, "that doesn't bother me." And given the many physical and emotional hardships that his generation had to endure, it is easy to see why it wouldn't.


Choking Man (Fiction)
If you think you know Steve Barron from his music videos ("Billie Jean," "Money for Nothing," "Take on Me"), think again. The director best known for his seminal work on MTV in the early 1980's (not to mention the glitzy 1984 feature Electric Dreams) brings an entirely new aesthetic to bear on Choking Man, an intense blend of psychological drama and magical realism that speaks eloquently of the contemporary immigrant experience in America. Jorgé (Octavio Gómez Berríos) is a morbidly shy Ecuadorian dishwasher toiling away in a shabby Jamaica, Queens diner run by Rick (a Greek-accented Mandy Patinkin). Tormented on the job by his coworker Jerry (Aaron Paul) and controlled at home by his older, domineering male "roommate," Jorgé gropes mutely for a bond with Amy, a newly hired Korean waitress (Mail Order Wife's Eugenia Yuan). She tries to reciprocate, but the gulf that separates them may be too large. Interstitial fantasy sequences featuring an animated rabbit gives us the impressions of life from Jorgé's point of view, while a poster instructing diner patrons on how to perform the Heimlich Maneuver looms over and ultimately catalyzes the action. Shot over 18 days in Harlem and at Queens' Olympia Diner, Choking Man effectively portrays the polyglot milieu of the area around John F. Kennedy Airport, capturing the feeling of claustrophobia and almost literal asphyxiation newcomers to America experience as they struggle to find a place and a purpose in this strange land.


Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus (Documentary)
With a personality that has been described as "a polite Michael Moore" and following in the path of Super Size Me, evolutionary ecologist-turned filmmaker Dr. Randy Olson examines and pokes fun at the current culture war with his two-ring entertainment Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus. Olson's home state, Kansas, is ground zero in the debate between the proponents of Darwin's theory of evolution and those of the more recent concept Intelligent Design, who want educators to "teach the controversy." The film tackles this conflict with wit and ingenuity, asking questions such as what kind of intelligent designer would create an animal like the rabbit that needs to eat its own poop in order to complete its digestive process? While admitting his biases, Olson talks to leading proponents on both sides, challenging Dr. Michael Behe, author of the Intelligent Design book Darwin's Black Box, while also painting an unflattering portrait of his colleagues who dismiss Intelligent Design as "Creationism in a cheap tuxedo." He marvels at Intelligent Design's rapid acceptance in the U.S. even in the face of spectacular misfires such as the recent Dover, Penn. case in which a Republican Bush-appointed judge labeled a local school board's efforts to teach Intelligent Design as, "breathtaking inanity." Yet many Americans are still open to learning about Intelligent Design, and 150 years of empirical data is seemingly not enough to convince them otherwise. Simply put, Intelligent Design has a better PR team than evolution. As this debate continues to draw national attention, this funny, quirky film asks which side can win this survival of the fittest battle? Plus, you'll never look at rabbits the same way again.

Freedom's Fury (Documentary)
The year 1956 is synonymous with triumph and heartbreak for most Hungarians. As a result of the 1956 Hungarian Uprisings, the now landlocked nation of Hungary became the first state in the eastern bloc to shrug off Soviet rule. But 12 days later, the Soviets returned and a bloody battle ensued. Nearly a quarter of the nation's population left the country as refugees. Given all that transpired, it is easy to forget that 1956 was also the year in which the legendary Hungarian water polo team defeated the Soviet Union in the semifinals of what many have called the bloodiest water polo match in Olympic history. In this triumphant documentary director Colin Keith Gray (The Sibs) carefully retells the story of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 through the eyes of freedom fighters as well as athletes from the Russian and Hungarian water polo teams. Gray juxtaposes images of Hungary's unrivaled water polo reign with powerful footage of the uprising, from a young nurse proudly waving a Hungarian flag with the red star cut out of the center to the brutal political executions by the Soviet regime. In the midst of the upheaval, both Hungary and the Soviet Union sent their water polo teams to the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, and the world watched as two teams with radically different points of view met in the same pool for the water polo semi-finals. The resulting bloodbath gave new meaning to the Russian saying: "Water polo is not ping-pong."


Hammer & Tickle – The Communist Joke Book (Documentary) Beginning with the tongue-in-cheek claim that jokes were the only good thing to come out of Communism, Hammer & Tickle recounts a humorous history of the Soviet Union and its satellite states through the jokes that flourished under the oppressive regimes in Russia and Eastern Europe. Jokes, the film contends, were a language of truth under Communism; a language that allowed people to navigate the disconnect between propaganda and reality and provided a means of resisting the system despite the absence of free speech. Using animated sequences, manipulated archival footage, and sketches to resurrect the jokes, the film offers an ironic take on the history of Communism while simultaneously investigating the social and political impact of jokes under Soviet rule. Interviews with Solidarity leader and former Polish president Lech Walesa, hard-line Polish leader General Jaroszelski, German actor Peter Sodann, German satirist and author Ernst Roehl, East German newspaper editor and Politburo member Guenter Schabowski, and academics Christie Davies and Roy Medvedev address the role that jokes played in challenging and weakening the Communist system from the inside even as joke-tellers faced censure or time in the Gulag for voicing their humor. Light and irreverent in its tone, Hammer & Tickle is really about the ultimate seriousness of joking and the use of the power of laughter to overcome hardship.


The Sci-Fi Boys (Documentary)
From Fritz Lang's Metropolis to Universal's B-horror films of the first half of the century to the digitally enhanced blockbusters of the last few decades, science-fiction and special-effects films have sparked the imaginations of countless moviegoers around the world. The Sci-Fi Boys is an entertaining and heartfelt homage to both the genre itself and the people who played a part in its development, from its humble beginnings in stop-motion animation to the multi-million dollar CGI projects. Special attention is paid to visual effects master Ray Harryhausen (Jason and the Argonauts, First Men on the Moon) and the inimitable Forrest J. Ackerman (creator of the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland), both of whom inspired a whole generation of sci-fi fans to make their own amateur monster movies as a precursor to creating the art and technology for films like Star Wars, Jurassic Park, and The Lord of the Rings. This documentary also features interviews with some of sci-fi's top producers, directors, writers, and special effects artists, including Peter Jackson, Ray Bradbury, Roger Corman, John Landis, Dennis Muren, Rick Baker, Leonard Maltin, and Steven Spielberg, as well as footage from several of their amateur films. The Sci-Fi Boys is a must-see for anyone who has screamed, gasped, or laughed at a movie monster.


The Shutka Book of Records (Documentary)
In the Balkan town of Shutka, the Romani (Gypsy) population is thriving and everyone is considered a champion at something, be it boxing or grave robbing. Aleksander Manic's The Shutka Book of Records gives us a walking tour of this vibrant community, and along the way, we meet some of the colorful ""champions."" Although the Romani may not have an official national identity, this self-assured and playful documentary demonstrates that they nevertheless have a rich cultural one. Whimsically narrated by one of Shutka's local heros, the film introduces us to the local color, like Uncle Sulgo, an avuncular, champion vampire hunter who paces around town in a black Adidas tracksuit and is quick to dismiss popular vampire stereotypes. As he explains, vampires, which are highly feared in the town, are not of human flesh; rather, they are spirits whose great weakness is fire. We also meet Uncle Veso, champion love maker and clothing merchant, who has just fathered a child at the age of 75. The boisterous Veso has renamed the mother of his child after the South American television soap opera Kassandra, which the entire town of Shutka watches every week. Although the Roma are not impervious to the influence of Western entertainment, it certainly doesn't dominate their culture. Their rich musical history is still alive and ever-present. As the narrator tells us, ""When a child is born in Roma, it cries in melody."" Adults are liable to do the same after meeting all the strange and endearing characters in The Shutka Book of Records.


When I Came Home (Documentary)
When the boys came back from WWII they were greeted with the GI Bill and a host of other programs designed for returning vets. Today, 300,000 of the estimated 1.2 million homeless in the United States are veterans, and someday over 100,000 troops stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan will come home. With the way things are shaping up, the future of our troops will more closely resemble the Vietnam vets rather than "the greatest generation." In When I Came Home, Dan Lohaus turns his camera on several homeless Vietnam and Iraq veterans in New York City, and in the process he finds Herold Noel, a returning Iraq veteran with posttraumatic stress disorder. Noel and his family do not qualify for housing assistance because he has lost his Section 8 status, so Noel is forced to live in his car while his wife and child live only slightly better with his sister-in-law. Ironically, he points out, his wife could get housing if she was abused-begging the inappropriate question, should he start beating his wife to get his family some help? As he navigates unresponsive Army and city offices in search of help, his frustration mounts. Finally, Noel happens upon some people who teach him how to use the media to raise public awareness about himself and people like him. Through his newfound media sources, Noel is finally able to get his family the help they so desperately need. This empowering and unflinching documentary is a startling look at the men and women who return home after fighting our battles.


Windows (Fiction)
Shoja Azari weaves together a loosely constructed narrative based on 9 single-shot scenes in which windows play a central role in the storytelling. This dark, violent vision of American society presents scenes of office rage, rape, and gun violence. Using the image of a window as a unifying motif (and in one case, the mind's eye), Azari mediates between the internal and the external. In each sequence, he creates an elaborate visual choreography. As the camera pans, tilts, and tracks through the cinematographic space, the protagonists enact their own dramas across different planes of action. Throughout this process, Azari invokes the viewer's imagination by adroitly exploiting the tension between on-screen and off-screen action. This combination of controlled camera movements and narrative suspense recalls such disparate filmmakers as Michael Snow and Alfred Hitchcock.


The Yacoubian Building (Fiction)
The most expensive Egyptian film ever made, The Yacoubian Building is a sprawling, star-studded epic that spans all the social classes populating contemporary Cairo. In three fast-moving hours, it dramatizes topical issues like adultery, political corruption, Islamist terrorism, and the hitherto taboo subject of homosexuality. First-time director Marwan Hamed crafts a gripping drama out of Alaa Al Aswani's novel, an Arabic-language bestseller already in its 12th printing. The famous Yacoubian Building was constructed in downtown Cairo in 1937 to house the city's upper crust. Today the tenants of its spacious apartments are a bit down-in-the-dumps, while its rooftop laundry rooms have been converted into homes for the poor. The main characters include Zaki Pasha (Adel Imam), an aging playboy who represents a vanishing world of gentility; a French singer and his former love Christine (Yousra); and Bosnaina (Hind Sabry), a pretty, disillusioned girl who lives on the roof. The growing influence of Islam in Egypt is dramatized through two controversial storylines. The doorman's son Taha (Mohamed Imam), frustrated in his attempts to move up in society, turns to religious fanaticism and ends up training for jihad in a desert camp. Meanwhile, the religious piety of Haj Azzam (Nour El Sherif), who has risen from shoeshine boy to rich businessman, is exposed as a sham that hides only self-interest. The film's frank treatment of homosexuality in the relationship between a newspaper editor and a young soldier is revolutionary in the context of Egyptian cinema. These interwoven dramas are as satisfying and enjoyable as a good, long read.

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