The Best and Worst Documentaries of the Tribeca Film Festival

Capsule reviews of 24 non-fiction films from the fest, including "The Reagan Show," "Whitney: Can I Be Me," and "Gilbert."

DOMESTIC POLITICS

Narrative films often offer an escape; documentary asks us to look at the world around us, and consider it from another angle. These films did that, and how.

Elián

At last year’s TFF, O.J.: Made in America made this viewer care very deeply, and understand far more incisively, a story from the ‘90s that I mostly remembered for its grotesquely outsized coverage. Elián isn’t the film O.J. was, but it hits that same sweet spot, using its 18-year distance to reframe the story of a little Elián Gonzalez, a Cuban refugee discovered off the coast of Miami in an inner tube, into a hullabaloo that dominated the media for more than half a year. Directors Tim Golden and Ross McDonnell tap into the pathos of the discovery, the chaos of the media circus, and its place in the larger story of Cuban/American relations, pushing past the headlines to tell the story of what happened behind closed doors, in a series of back-channel communications and negotiations that sort of boggle the mind. There’s a lot here that you might not know, and a lot more that you probably forgot; this is a well-crafted and well-paced film, and a thankfully complicated one as well.

ACORN and the Firestorm

For 40 years, ACORN was an important group doing vital work – and powered by the people, rather than corporate interests. But when their voter registration efforts were slimed in the 2008 election (and there’s a nice, long history of the kind of trouble you can get into for trying to help poor people vote), two schmucks with a hidden video camera and an eye for selective edits managed to bring them down. Reuben Atlas and Sam Pollard’s documentary is informative and often infuriating, deep-diving into the history of the organization, the good they did, the embarrassment of those video tapes, and the deception at their core. Most of all, it’s a nimble analysis of the FOX echo chamber – and, ultimately, the impossibility of out-shouting it.

I Am Evidence

Over the past several years, investigators and prosecutors have discovered an upsetting trend in several major cities: rape kits, thousands of them, untested and all but forgotten in storage rooms and abandoned warehouses, rotting away while serial offenders (and possible DNA matches) roam free. Directors Trish Adlesic and Geeta Gandbhir look into the discovery and testing of those kits in Detroit, Cleveland, and Los Angeles, tracking down victims who receive calls and visits from police years, even decades after their assaults – and the promise of justice long after they’ve given the notion up. But most of all, Adlesic and Gandbhir’s cameras listen to their stories, and give them the attention they deserve. For once.