First in a series of reports from the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival last month in New York.
NEW YORK – A trip to New York City is always an awesome cultural and political experience. There’s more going on in one city block than in some entire cities! Although I was only planning to attend the venerable Tribeca Film Festival, April 15-26, now in its 14th year, there were many diversions that occasionally pulled me away. For a city that offers at least three political rallies daily, I was able to participate in one – the giant Fight for $15 rally that took over several blocks of Central Park West and marched all the way to Grand Central Station with thousands of supporters. The spirited gathering brought attention to the need to raise the minimum wage so that even many full-time workers can rise above the poverty level. These issues were also raised in several films at the Tribeca Film Festival here this year. An empowering documentary that played at the Traverse City Film Festival last year, entitled The Hand That Feeds, is one of the finest and most militant statements about New York undocumented workers fighting to organize for better pay and working conditions.
Just prior to Tribeca each year, the Havana Film Festival of New York presents highlights from Cuba and the rest of Latin America, much like its famed parent event that takes place every December in Havana. Attending one festival is time-consuming enough, but missing this entire festival would have been a shame. I had to fit in the latest film from one of Cuba’s more venerated directors, Fernando Pérez (Havana Suite, Clandestinos). His first independent film, The Wall of Words, deals with mental health and how patients are treated in Cuban society. The heartwarming personal story of a mother (Isabel Santos) who dotes on her mentally disabled son, while often sacrificing the rest of her family members, features one of Cuba’s most famous actors as the mentally impaired son. Without uttering a single word in the entire film, Jorge Perugorría adds another bravado performance to his long list of varied roles, starting with the gay lead in the award winning Strawberry and Chocolate. And just recently both he and Santos starred in a film by revered French director Laurence Cantet, Return to Ithaca, which tells the homecoming story of a Cuban who has spent 16 years in exile in Madrid.
The Armenian genocide was addressed in a new film, 1915, released in theaters across the city, while running in tandem with Tribeca, which also featured The Cut, a film about the same subject. It’s the 100th anniversary of what many people, including most Armenians, consider the 20th century’s first act of genocide. Unfortunately both movies dealt more with emotions than substance, and the complex historic details of the end of the Ottoman Empire and World War I were slighted.
The Cut was directed by Turkish-born director Fatih Akin, who was praised for his sympathetic treatment of the Armenians, but the plot often seemed contrived, taking the protagonists to Cuba and then Minnesota, while the acting, along with the music score, at times seemed removed from reality. Rock guitars played in the score when there were no instruments of this type existing, and the main lead looked the same through the entire span of years covered in the story. By the end, after years of physical hardships and tragedies, he looked younger than his grown daughters. This is not to diminish the power and importance of one of the first films dealing with the Armenian genocide.
The 12 Annual Games for Change Festival, New York’s largest game event, celebrates programmers who choose to develop social impact games. Awards were given to games that taught about the Bill of Rights (That’s Your Right), that focused on innocent victims of war rather than the typical soldiers of fortune (This War of Mine), and that demonstrated how harmful choices can make a harmful world (Parable of the Polygons), just to name a few.
A trip to El Museo del Barrio Latin American Museum acquainted attendees with the fantastic work of cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, a longtime associate of the great Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel. Figueroa crafted his skill to such a high level, having worked on over 200 films, that when the Hollywood legendary cinematographer Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane) died, Hollywood came begging for Figueroa. He declined however, preferring to work in his own country Mexico, creating some of the most beautiful photo and film images of the period.
Despite these great diversions, Tribeca was calling me with an enticing list of films that any progressive film lover would die for. There were many panels, red carpets, parties, and special events, with guests such as Valerie Plame, Alex Gibney, Roseanne Barr, George Lucas, Stephen Colbert, among many in attendance. Highlights from the festival will be covered in the next few columns.
Photo: Scene from The Wall of Words. Havana Film Festival New York