This is my fourth year going to the Tribeca Film Festival and there are a few general tips I'd give people who are attending this time. First: bring earplugs! During both films I saw on Thursday, even though they were in different theaters, the volume was way too high. At "Elite Squad" my entire row (nearly the back row) had their hands over their ears during the shooting sequence, and we were a group of relatively young theater-goers. Second: they've blocked off the best seats in the house, not just for film-makers and their entourages, but also for "industry people" with special passes. These seats rarely fill,because, as I learned from pink-pass carrying acquaintance at the short program, people who have to go to films for work don't always want to see them. (Also, there are so many films playing that no one could actually attend all of them.) So, even if you didn't buy tickets in advance, you might actually have a chance to see the film you're curious about. One guy who came off the "rush tickets" line seemed to be sitting right next to the producers of "Elite Squad." Fun for him!
and now, onto the reviews...
Shorts Program....I chose to go to the international films this year. The program, which was generally good, started with a grim film and ended with a bleak one, with a few charming stops in between. The films were "Good Boy," "Angels Die in the Soil," "The New Yorkist," "New Boy," "In the Year of the Pig," "Ana's Way," and "Cargo." Both "Good Boy" and "Cargo," both memorable and concise, were about how bad situations can lead children to monstrous acts. The magical realist "In the Year of the Pig," with its voice-over narration was almost like an animated film, but was beautifully filmed on location in Havana's Chinatown with very expressive live-actors who barely spoke. New Boy," based on a Roddy Doyle short story was my favorite in the group. It managed to treat serious issues: racism, war, childhood trauma; without a heavy hand. Perhaps its resolution was a bit superficial, but it was winning. The standout performance was by Sinead Maguire as "Hazel O'Connor," but all the actors were excellent.
The film that had initially drawn me to this program, "Angels Die in the Soil," was disappointing. It did not look good - it's hard to make a film work on a snowy landscape, I guess, and this one wound up looking over-exposed. The composition of the individual shots was not especially interesting, and the characters' relationships were not clear. It was also the longest of the films. The weakest in this group was probably "Ana's Way," with the throw-away "New Yorkist" a close second-to-last. While "Angels" was frustrating because it was an interesting premise poorly executed - a girl digs up martyrs' bones near Halabja for sale to people in Iran; "The New Yorkist" was about nothing much and executed pretty well. It screamed "ironic white boy student film," and I think most of us have seen enough ironic white boys for a while.
Elite Squad: This fiction feature film has already shown in Brazil and Europe, where it won Berlin's golden bear prize, and has been reviewed in the New York Times, but it is not showing in US theaters until November. As one might expect from a film produced, directed and written by the people associated with Bus 174 and City of God the film is beautifully composed, well-written, and based on research. The structure of the film is a narration by an officer looking for his replacement on the the Brazilian police squad known as "BOPE" a kind of SWAT-team that specializes in raiding drug-dealers in the Favelas. Their methods include wholesale murder and frequent use of torture. On the way to seeing BOPE, we also get a taste of Brazil's incredibly corrupt regular police, who take protection money from merchants and even steal from each other. To a critical viewer, the police are one more criminal gang in a city that has descended into anarchy.
While the director, Jose Padilha, clearly intended his film to condemn BOPE and the police in general, the use of the voice of the BOPE officer as the narrator and the unsympathetic portrayal of NGO activists and student volunteers (who in one scene smoke dope while preparing a presentation on Foucault's Discipline and Punish for their sociology class)has also led some viewers to see the narrator, Officer Nascimento, as a hero. I wondered about whether this happened during the film myself - would it be possible to read this film as a "glorification" of these cops? I imagine that like some Brazilians, many Americans will do so, but that only shows the level of violence and illegality we have come to celebrate in law-enforcement, as evidenced by the show "24." To a more critical viewer, Elite Squad presents a complex picture of Brazilian society where there are no heroes. Paulo Lins, who co-wrote this film also wrote Quase Dois Irmaos,which was critical of the connections between the Brazilian far-left and the drug lords in the Favelas, and pointed to bourgeois liberals' failures. What was lacking in this film was a character presenting an alternative to the problem. Even if the efforts of that person were in vain, identifying almost ANY other attempted solution to the crime problems in Brazil would have made it harder for people to see the methods of BOPE as a "necessary evil" in the context of a lawless city. That the lead characters who start off sympathetic become so increasingly brutal may work to make those who initially sympathize question their beliefs more than the film would have if it had shown a caricature of the police as uber-villains without human motivations. However, the fact that the students - and their professor - were more caricatures than the police were was a major problem in this film and ultimately undermine the director's state goal of presenting an unqualified condemnation of the police.
Despite this problem, the film was provocative, well acted, and unsettling.
During the Q&A, Padilha, who was cheerful and unassuming talked about how members of his crew were kidnapped during shooting the film in the favela, and about how BOPE tried (unsuccessfully) to have it banned, and about the problems in Brazil today, where members of BOPE have displaced some drug-lords, and are the new gang leaders in some of the Favelas. Also, he appeared quite pleased and proud that millions saw the film on the internet before it premiered in theaters, giving the lie to the notion that film-makers are especially outraged by "internet piracy."