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Tribeca Film Festival: The importance of being silent

Tribeca Film Festival

In part, we owe the Tribeca Film Festival to Al Qaeda. After the 9/11 attacks, Robert De Niro co-founded the festival to raise the spirit and economy of Lower Manhattan. Ten years and five-thousand screenings later, the festival’s Doha Tribeca spin-off is well established in Qatar. Is this De Niro’s way of teaching fanatics a lesson in their own backyard? Or just a convenient symbiosis between super rich Arabs and independent filmmakers?

I took my first stroll through Tribeca in the spring of 1993, soon after I moved to New York. I recall the area’s textile cast-iron architecture resembling that of its neighbor, the trendy then-gallery-packed Soho. But the similarities stopped here. Once you crossed Canal Street, you relaxed. Tribeca was the quieter, less viable downtown. In the early 90’s, the conversion of buildings into condos had already begun, but the blocks retained that 80’s undiscovered artist’s-loft feel. Tribeca was a sort of no-man’s land, where walkers could disappear. Night-lights were few and far between. People went to Odeon, a restaurant as noir as its neighborhood, and to De Niro’s Tribeca Bar and Grill, a space as elusive as its famous owner, an actor notorious for his privacy.

After two decades of hyper-invasive journalism, we still know very little about De Niro’s personal life. Averse to interviews, and uncomfortable during those to which he concedes, De Niro remains tongue-tied when it comes to anything beyond work. But interestingly enough, his silence spills over into his craft. We know much more about De Niro’s physical body—his weight fluctuations and the exercises he puts himself through before shoots—than about his psychology as a method actor. Even the dialogues in his movies are constrained. Watching him again in some of his most memorable roles—Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver), Jake La Motta (Raging Bull), Max Cady (Cape Fear)—I was dazed by the extent to which silence factors into his acting. The body movements, the one-liners, and the faces and grimaces of the working class urban loner iconize De Niro’s work. In a sense, he is a ‘Tribeca’ actor: he works starkly and prefers to stay silent about his ways.

I lived a couple miles away from the World Trade Center when 9/11 happened. After the sirens stopped, which took weeks, De Niro, Jane Rosenthal, and Craig Hatkoff founded the Tribeca Film Festival. The year was 2002, and their mission was simple: expose a group of diverse movies and filmmakers to audiences in downtown Manhattan. Covering documentaries, shorts, international, family movies, and features ranging from independent to blockbuster, Tribeca was all about the community. It became almost an instant success. By the mid 00’s, the number of submissions and screenings had grown exponentially. It was impossible to live in Manhattan and not have experienced Tribeca in some way. It hosted panels and workshops, interactive games, concerts, sports, and even outdoor screenings on the Hudson River. Mission accomplished—actually, over-accomplished: by the late 00’s, my neighbors couldn’t get tickets. They declared Tribeca a victim of its own success. At the other end of the spectrum, friends who worked in media couldn’t take the festival seriously. They hadn’t seen a ‘Sex Lies and Videotape’ breakout movie yet, they complained—a movie that “made” Sundance.

“Tribeca lacks focus, an identity. I’m sorry, it’s not industry,” a Sundance contender and Berlinale-winning screenwriter told me.

“What is an industry-festival?” I asked him.

“Sundance!” He spat back.

Whatever “industry” means, the gap between De Niro’s Tribeca and the Redford’s Sundance paradigms is striking. In Utah, the quintessential American movie star (good looks, waspy everything-came-too-easy-to-him roles) epitomizes the American golden-boy festival. Sundance is casual Hollywood, a cabin where wonder-boys party with stars in North Face outfits, the ultimate cool for insiders. Sure, it’s sexy. But Sundance is more than that: it is the American dreams-happen festival. A place where movies and careers are made within a week. Reservoir Dogs, El Mariachi, and Clerks are on the long-list of Sundance breakouts of the past twenty-five years. And with Berlin, Cannes, and Venice thrown into the circuit, insiders question if there is room for one more “industry” festival.

They may have a point. Transamerica (2005), Tribeca’s flashiest discovery, didn’t get the festival where it is today. Rather, much like De Niro’s body and body of work, the festival’s physical evidence, the volume and breadth of its screenings make up Tribeca’s DNA. As a New Yorker of twelve years—hence as a New Yorker oversaturated by downtown’s casual coolness—I took this second-class ranking of Tribeca personally. Why should Tribeca be one more “industry”? Or, better put, why shouldn’t Tribeca’s subtler, less sexy, diversity/community focus continue to form its identity?

“Because entertainment is changing,” West Villagers explained to me during video-on-demand recession nights in their brownstone home theaters. “The industry’s discovery process continues. Staying cool means staying cutting-edge, means staying in business. It’s all about the technology, community is irrelevant. Community gets redefined through technology all the time,” they argued.

I nodded. Still, to test their theory, I called up Bay Area engineers I went to school with who, unlike me, stuck it out after the dot.com crash.

“I’ve been to Sundance three times in the last five years,” an artist and digital entrepreneur from California told me.

“You used to go to the Burning Man[1],” I pointed out.

“Totally,” he said with a laugh. “But who didn’t? In fact most of my employees go to both. Now my daughter met some kids at Sundance and wants to go to Burning Man.”

I paused at this one: his daughter couldn’t be more than twelve. I thought of my friend’s early days, a kid with car-living roots and breakout hopes. He bet on the digital-cheap future of the industry and scored: independent filmmaking has grown in unprecedented ways.

“To put in perspective, the first year of Tribeca in 2002, we had 1,300 submissions, and in this last year, we had 5,500,” Tribeca’s departing Program Director, David Kwok, told Indiewire. “So, in less than ten years, our submissions have quadrupled and I know that is the case with other festivals. We knew more films were being made, especially when digital [filmmaking] hit and more people could make films and more countries were making films than ten years ago.”

With the promise of cheaper movies coupled with the emotional birth of Tribeca, I can’t help but wonder about responses to disaster in my homeland: the financially and morally exhausted Greece. “I think it’s our duty to remind people that it’s not all depression, that life goes on; we can still believe in creativity,” Orestis Andreadakis, the artistic director of Athens International Film Festival, told the Guardian. It’s heartening to see culture holding up during Greece’s combat for survival. Maria Leonida, a Greek film producer and co-founder of Karpos, a nonprofit group that provides classes about film language to people of all ages, said, “We believe that all people should have a better understanding of the media language and that they can be more critical viewers and, if they want, become producers themselves. They can tell stories.”

You bet the ongoing Greek tragedy has stories, but it’s unlikely that Athens will have Tribeca’s cultural and economic turnaround. Tribeca had an infusion of millions of dollars in federal funding, an army of movie stars for endorsement, and a ubiquitous American Express sponsorship. See, Tribeca may not be the coolest or sexiest festival, but there is nothing naïve about it. “Money,” De Niro answered when he was asked what drew him to Little Fockers, the third part of the Meet the Parents trilogy. “It is what it is, and you have no control over that, other than to take advantage of it,” he added.

In 2006, when one of the daughters of Qatar’s emir worked as an intern for Tribeca, few could have imagined that three years later Doha Tribeca Film Festival would be launched under a multimillion extravaganza in Qatar. “Guiding vision comes from Her Excellency Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani” (got that?) Craig Hatkoff told The Huffington Post. The alliance raised eyebrows. With two film festivals already close together in the Middle East, one in Dubai and another in Abu Dhabi, the opportunity cost of Tribeca’s decision to expand to Doha came into question. Wouldn’t deprived regions and film industries, say in Greece or the Balkans, do more with such a license? Plus, the undying question: can billionaires rush their way into becoming the next cultural center by throwing in tons of cash?

It’s hard to tell what De Niro was really thinking—remember, he doesn’t like to talk much. There may have been a political angle (in fact, Qatar has been WikiLeaks-linked to Al Qaeda). Even an “are-you-terrorizing-me?” De Niroism. Maybe he is stocking up favors and cash before announcing his Balkan Tribeca Film Festival. Either way, the decision to go east, coupled with a beyond-geographies expansion via Web streaming and video-on-demand system (yes, Tribeca now distributes), calls to mind De Niro’s “it is what it is and you have no control over that, other than to take advantage of it.”

Whoever accepts the utilitarian principle (the greatest benefit to the most people) should be willing to look beyond resources and focus on benefits. But community and globalization don’t always go hand-in-hand. Controversies of over-expansion need to be addressed even if in the name of incubating independent creativity. Tribeca seems to answer these difficult questions by insisting on highlighting its reach across geographies, genres, media, and a mix of nonprofit with for-profit ventures. By choosing Frederic Boyer as Artistic Director (a festival expert characterized as bohemian if not unconventional) to work with Geoff Gilmore (a 20-years Sundance veteran and head of for-profit Tribeca Enterprises) Tribeca sticks to its diverse leadership and projects. Ten years after the sirens of 9/11, Tribeca’s numerous and often contradicting offerings, the festival’s own “noise,” can silence the sharper more independent sounds of creativity in Lower Manhattan.

[1] A weeklong pagan event in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada described as an experiment in community and extreme self-expression.