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."

The Tribeca Film Festival (which wrapped up its 16th edition yesterday) is a young festival – at least compared to such mainstays as Sundance, Toronto, and its crosstown cousin, the New York Film Festival – and as such, its narrative has been one of a struggle for identity, particularly since its position on the calendar can make its fiction films feel like leftovers and pass-overs from Sundance. But over the past few years, Tribeca has quietly emerged as one of the festival circuit’s foremost showcases of nonfiction film, a scene so bursting with great films these days, there’s more than enough to go around. I took in 24 non-fiction films over the course of the fest, and found plenty to recommend.


THE DONALD TRUMP FILM FESTIVAL

With such a divisive figure in the White House, you can expect plenty of documentary examinations of the rise of President Trump, the socio-political circumstances that hastened it, and (eventually) the wreckage he will leave. So it’s probably not a surprise that Trump was all but the star of the festival, dominating the documentary discourse (and even making cameo appearances in docs about New York in the ‘80s).

Get Me Roger Stone

Jeffrey Toobin calls Roger Stone “the sinister Forrest Gump of American politics,” and he’s right: this guy was, in some way or another, involved in Watergate, the rise of the Moral Majority, the election of Ronald Reagan, the 2000 Florida recount, RatherGate, the birther movement, and the political career of Donald Trump. In fact, it’s easy to trace back to him everything that’s wrong with American politics: PACs, lobbyist influence, anti-intellectualism, and the political career of Donald Trump. Dylan Bank, Daniel DiMauro, and Morgan Pehme’s documentary does best when it focuses on that rich and horrifying history, connecting the dots with lucidity and precision (with the help of some tight, funny editing), and the framework of their subject’s “Stone’s Rules” – cynical, immoral, and seemingly effective – is a smart one. But it fumbles badly in the back third, turning into a blow-by-blow of the Trump campaign, which is still pretty fresh (raw, some might even say!) in our minds; maybe it’ll play better down the road a bit. That said, this is still an engrossing portrait of a real bag of garbage, whose accumulation of power tells us much about how we’ve ended up where we are.

No Man’s Land

Director/cinematographer David Garrett Byars, a braver soul than I, embedded himself at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon to capture this inside look at its 41-day occupation by an armed group led by Amman Bundy. Byars looks this story in the eye and tells it straight, allowing all parties to have their say, providing clear context for the movement and its “anti-federal fury,” allowing that it gave its members a kind of safety-in-numbers camaraderie. But Byars’s fly-on-the-wall approach also lays bare the macho posturing at play here, and how it ratcheted up the tension in an already heightened situation. The stand-off’s conclusion was a cluster-fuck – but No Man’s Land wisely goes farther than that, and manages to place this episode within a much bigger picture with chilling clarity.

THE CLIVE DAVIS FILM FESTIVAL

This year’s opening night documentary-and-a-concert event was the premiere of “Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives,” a profile of legendary record label head Clive Davis – a known entity inside the recording industry but not exactly a household name outside of it, so it was sort of amusing that he became the festival’s Where’s Waldo, popping up in two other bio-docs later in the week.

Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives

Chris Perkel’s musical bio-doc may sound a bit inside baseball, but Davis was one degree of separation from most popular music of the past half-century, discovering and/or shepherding everyone from Janis Joplin to Whitney Huston to Kenny G to Notorious B.I.G. to success. He accumulated a lot of songs along the way – and a lot of good stories, which he tells here with relish. It’s a bit overlong and not exactly groundbreaking formally, but there’s a lot to learn hear about the way the music business works, both then and now, and the staying power of being a (seemingly) good guy in a slimy line of work. (Full review here.)

Whitney: Can I Be Me

It’s a little bit discombobulating to watch Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal’s painfully candid look at the life and death of Whitney Houston in a festival that opened, in such grand fashion, with such a soft-glow portrait of her label boss Mr. Davis; this film is almost like a counterpoint to that one, greatly minimizing Davis’s role in her life (aside from his insistence that she was marketed, and her records chosen, as a color-less performer). Instead, Can I Be Me marries previously unseen all-access footage from her 1999 world tour – a pivot point for her career, and her life – with current interviews with family, friends, and colleagues (including the people on that tour). Those cameras capture some sad and telling images – private moments, in which her struggle is apparent – to tell the story of a squandered gift, a toxic marriage, and an addiction that could not be conquered. Most heartbreakingly, the film finds a Rosebud in the form of Robyn Crawford, her lifelong friend, collaborator, and probable romantic partner, had the relationship been allowed by her stiflingly religious parents and the celebrity culture of the day. It’s a heartbreaking movie, transcending rubbernecker voyeurism and sensationalism to tell the story of a magnetic performer who never found the happiness and peace she deserved.

Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A Bad Boy Story

Daniel Kaufman’s profile of Bad Boy Records founder, recording artist, and general pop culture fixture Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, on the other hand, is much more in the Soundtrack mold – an affectionate, even hagiographic portrait, amping up the genius (and capitalism) and playing down the rest. That said, it’s a well-executed example of that specific, questionable thing; it moves fast, bounces to good beats, and is one of the most beautifully photographed movies at this festival, from the knockout black-and-white images behind the scenes of the Bad Boy reunion show last year to the sumptuous color photography of is performance. It’s an lively piece of work – few things on this earth are as entertaining as watching Puffy Combs refuse to suffer fools – but better the less you think about it. (Full review here.)

BIO-DOCS

Music industry figures weren’t the only ones getting the profile documentary treatment, of course, and these docs took on three fascinating figures with varying success.

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story

Hedy Lamarr led a thrilling, all-over-the-place life: an immigrant whose movie fame rose and fell even more than most, who suffered through many marriages and more than her share of tragedy. Oh, and during WWII, Lamarr invented “frequency hopping,” a defensive technology that found its way into wifi, Bluetooth, GPS, and cell phones. This American Masters-branded documentary profile gives full attention to all of her peaks and valleys, so it’s of interest to cinephiles, war buffs, and feminists alike. But its real heart is in its closing passages, in which director Alexandra Dean lays out the rediscovery of Lamarr’s invention, and her subsequent public reintroduction, in the 1990s; it’s moving and inspiring, and just the right closing note for this engaging profile.

Gilbert

Neil Berkeley’s documentary profile of Gilbert Gottfried is a funny movie about a funny person, which is more of a rarity than it should be. He offers up a peek at the real guy behind the screeching persona/character, a guy the comic has purposefully kept walled off (and still seem reluctant to reveal). So we get scenes of him interacting with wife Dara and their two kids (and not interacting; it’s not explicitly stated, but Gottfried definitely seems to fall somewhere on the spectrum), and plenty of life on the road, working clubs, giving interviews, even doing a “comedy cruise.” Serious subject matters reveals itself organically, as in life, but with Gottfried, a big laugh is never long in coming. An appealing, amusing look at a true original.

Frank Serpico

Frank Serpico was the New York cop who blew the whistle on corruption in the department during the Knapp Commission hearings back in 1971 – a story anyone who’d see this documentary already knows from the Al Pacino-fronted Sidney Lumet film about him two years later. And that familiarity is a handicap Antonino D’Ambrosio’s documentary can’t quite overcome. (It also leaves out some, um, troubling elements of Serpico’s current persona.) But those who liked that film will most likely enjoy this one, as Mr. Serpico wanders his old haunts, tells the story of his life and near-death, and shares some gossip about the making of the movie. Director D’Ambrosio even uses clips from Serpico as illustration – which helps, but can make this film feel, at times, like a DVD special feature for that one.

MY ART

One of the documentary highlights of my very first Tribeca, all the way back in 2009, was the Mark Kostabi bio-doc “Con Artist,” and – perhaps due to its geographic location, perhaps due to the wealth of material about it – the ‘80s downtown art scene has always had a presence on the non-fiction slate. This year was no exception

Julian Schnabel: A Private Portrait

Director Pappi Corsicato creates something of a hang-out documentary on the topic of painter, filmmaker, and general artiste Schnabel, in all his cockiness and controversy. The style is easy-going, but not half-hearted; Corsicato nicely captures the energy and impatience of the scene that both made and drove Schnabel, drills down intelligently on his transition to filmmaking and the idea of continuity between forms, and succinctly underscores the importance his subject places on continuing to grow as an artist, and challenging oneself. Even if you know of his work only passingly (guilty), you’ll come away inspired by Schnabel, and most likely reaching for a paintbrush, or camera, or keyboard yourself.

Shadowman

Richard Hambleton was an integral part of scene as well, best known for his “black shadow figures” (a clear influence on Banksy, amongst others). And then, in the middle of the decade, he removed himself from that scene – and has spent the years since floating in and out of the public eye, productivity, and homelessness. “I wasn’t hiding,” he insists. “I was painting, I was working.” Oren Jacoby’s documentary portrait does its best to match the energy and electricity of it’s subject’s work, and to convey the wildness of his many rises and falls – from the desperation and chaos of his darkest hours to his rediscovery and revitalization in 2009, and then right back down again. It’s a harrowing movie (towards its end, it feels like we’re just watching him fall apart), but a captivating portrait of the modern art world, and the manner in which it repackages and resells its icons.

JOURNEYS

In which gifted documentary filmmakers contemplate life beyond our day-to-day.

The Farthest

When NASA launched the two Voyager probes in summer of 1977, most of the media attention was paid to the “Golden Record” of music, sounds, and multi-lingual greetings prepared for anyone or thing the craft might meet on its journey through interstellar space. Emer Reynolds’s giddily informative documentary gives that element its due, but clearly aims to give proper screen time to the remarkable journey of the craft itself – “the science project of the 20th century,” we’re told, traveling to the farthest planets of our solar system, and beyond. The film walks patiently and clearly through each discovery, then expands each to fit into larger themes regarding exploration and communications. There’s a real sense of wonder here, and of playfulness; this is an important story, but one told with a sense of humor and style. It’s a nerdy movie, in the best possible way – filled with arresting information, cool illustrations, and super-smart people.

The Departure

Director Lana Wilson (After Tiller) helms this intimate and casually beautiful character study of Buddhist priest Ittetus Nemoto, who has dedicated his life to conducting suicide prevention retreats in his native Japan– but must adopt his own teachings about the value of life when he finds his own health in peril. There’s something tremendously profound about his mission and how he approaches it, and Wilson’s sensitive approach honors it, following his example of listening, sympathizing, and respecting the complexity of human emotions. Would that we were all so kind, as filmmakers and as people.

WAR PHOTOGRAPHY

From the slums of Syria to the desert of Afghanistan to the streets of American inner cities, three portraits of the brave souls who pick up a camera to tell a story and make a difference.

City of Ghosts

Oscar-nominated director Matthew Heineman (Cartel Land) tells the story of how a group of courageous citizens in the Syrian city of Raqqa – the “capital of ISIS” – use hidden cameras, savvily manipulated satellites, and the power of the Internet to share stills and video of the barbarism that had taken over their hometown. They’re quite literally risking their lives to get this information and these images, and get them out of the city, and Ghosts becomes a portrait of true, and terrifying, heroism – but with a devastating personal and emotional price. This is, in its purest form, what real journalism is about; I’ll never complain about the stupid bullshit at my job again.

Hondros

War photographer Chris Hondros covered conflicts from Kosovo to Afghanistan to Iraq to Libya, until 2011, when he was killed in the line of duty by a blast in Benghazi that also took the life of Tim Hetherington. This personal profile comes from director and friend Greg Campbell, and his style is meat-and-potatoes, mostly talking heads and images. But what images – the thrilling work Hondros created in those terrifying war-torn countries, images so stunning you’re afraid to blink, complimented by memories from friends, colleagues (telling their literal war stories), and even the subjects of his most iconic photos. Campbell raises some astute questions, particularly to the point of objectivity in photography, and puts across some sense of process, not even directly but via observation. Yet it’s mostly the story of his friend, a celebration of a unique artist who died doing the only thing he could imagine doing.

Copwatch

The numerous high-profile cases of police brutality and murder haven’t exactly gone unnoticed in the world of documentary film, but Camilla Hall’s documentary isn’t a retread – it’s about steps forward, specifically in the form of We Copwatch, an advocacy group that trains citizens in the particulars of observing and videotaping arrests and police encounters. They get a fair amount of pushback from the boys in blue (“You guys are safe now, you’re welcome,” sneers one, as they finish an observed arrest), which could’ve made for a compelling documentary by itself. But director Hall is more interested in the people who carry the cameras, particularly in the cases of Eric Garner and Freddie Gray, and spends much of the film telling their stories. They’re stories of tragedy and pain, but this is film neither without humor nor hope; it’s uplifting and emotional, and there’s a glimmer of possibility in an interaction with an officer near its end that turns both thoughtful and productive. It’s the tiniest glimmer. But it’s something.

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.

PERSONAL POLITICS

And then there are these stories, positioned at the intersection of the world around us and the soul that compels us.

A Gray State

On Christmas Day in 2014, an independent filmmaker named David Crowley killed his wife, his five-year-old daughter, and himself. But because of cryptic clues he left behind, and the fact that he was making a Libertarian fringe thriller for the Alex Jones set, this horrible tragedy became fodder for conspiracy theorists, who believe he was silenced for his anti-government leanings. Erik Nelson’s sad and often chilling documentary argues that it was far less dramatic, or extraordinary, than that – theirs was the sad story of a couple succumbing to despair, and to the same kind of paranoia that infused his work. It’s a hard movie to watch, as his private audio and video recordings serve as journals of a descent into madness, but this is a harrowing portrait how easily our own darkness can take us over, if we let it.

True Conviction

This Independent Lens production has a hell of a story to tell, about the “Growing fraternity” of exonerated men in Dallas County, Texas, and the trio of them – Chris Scott, Johnnie Lindsey, and Steven Phillips – who’ve formed an investigative team to clear more falsely imprisoned men. And it has its moments, some indelible (the potent combo of joy and pain during a fellow inmate’s first day out), some poignant (the cycle of crime in his family that Scott’s absence perpetuated). But it never quite clicks; some of the photography and conversations seem strangely staged, and one of the investigations, one of only two big threads, is oddly left hanging. It’s an inspiring yet imperfect film – but the fictionalized version would make a helluva TV procedural.

BEST OF THE FEST (RUNNERS-UP)

The Reagan Show

This subject of Sierra Pettengill and Pacho Velez’s semi-experimental documentary is President Ronald Reagan, but it’s not the story of his campaign, reelection, governorship, etc. It’s a look at the lenses through which we did and did not see that office for eight years, dismissing talking heads and summarizing narration for a brilliantly edited multi-media montage of newscasts, TV addresses, and official White House videos. But “official” doesn’t tell the whole story – more often than not, we’re seeing pre-roll and outtakes, making this the political documentary counterpart to bootleg records, where the most telling moments are often the studio chatter. Peering at the Reagan years through that specific prism underscores the degree to which this administration manipulated images to stage their message, to an extent unprecedented at that time, but S.O.P. these days. Or, to put it another way, shudder along with Peter Jennings as he contemplates how “politicians who come after him are going to have to succeed first on television.” Uh huh.

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson

Johnson was a beloved trans activist – “Queen of the Village,” she’s called – best remembered as one of the women who started the Stonewall uprising. But in 1992, she died under mysterious circumstances; David France’s documentary follows fellow activist Victoria Cruz as she re-examines that 25-year-old cold case. In investigating her death, the film opens up her life, serving as a primer of the gay liberation and modern LGBT movements, but with a personal angle – and an eye on the struggle of trans people, within the movement, for visibility then and now. France also follows strands of Cruz’s own history, as well as her advocacy for current victims of anti-trans violence, so it’s an ambitious film, but never overwhelmed. It masterfully weaves together past and present, not only telling the story we’ve come to see, but the larger one besides.

BEST OF THE FEST

The Family I Had

God, this movie is unbearably sad. Directors Katie Green and Carlye Rubin tell the story of a horrible, unthinkable, inexplicable crime: the 2007 murder of four-year-old Ella Bennett, by her 13-year-old brother Paris. It’s the most unimaginable trauma for their mother Charity, and it presents her with a jaw-dropping dilemma: whether she provides parental support for one child, when he’s responsible for the loss of her other. Or, as she puts it, “To be a good mom to Paris, I felt like I was betraying Ella.” The Family I Had sensitively and emotionally engages with the enormity and complexity of this situation, which transcends true crime and approaches Greek tragedy, and it just plain knocks the wind out of you.

LA 92

This powder keg from Oscar winners Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin (Undefeated) is one of many documentaries timed to the 25th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots following the Rodney King verdict, and all are good, but none pulse with this one’s immediacy – the filmmakers place their film firmly in the present tense, using not retrospective interviews or narration, merely pulling from media and home video footage of the story as it was happening. The results are visceral, scary, and infuriating all over again, a true miscarriage of justice that turned into a civil uprising that asked more questions than it answered.