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I Am an American Soldier

Promising Developments: The Sixth Annual Tribeca Film Festival

(6 May 2007: — New York, NY)

The Tribeca Film Festival has lost its youthful glow. There were warning signs last year, when screenings were farmed out to far-flung Manhattan multiplexes. This year the street advertising was barely noticeable, and not until after the Festival had started. The pre-Festival press screenings were limited and during the Festival, screenings were sporadically scheduled and spread out from Madison Square Garden to below Canal Street.


Worse, the price of tickets escalated, to $18 and $25. It’s been bitched about already, but one can’t overemphasize the disregard this bonehead decision showed for the Festival audience and the filmmakers. How many people are going to take a $20 risk on an unknown movie by an unknown director in a crapshoot catalog?


There were a couple of promising developments. The Family Festival’s street fair is now one of the most exuberant events on the New York kiddie cultural calendar. The Festival slate consisted of 157 features and 88 shorts, down from last year’s numbers. And the “NY NY” competition, well-intentioned but underwhelming, was axed and international selection seemed more evenly spread out. The strongest films I saw came from overseas: Jia Zhang-ke’s Still Life, Shane Meadows’ This is England, David Volach’s My Father My Lord, and Li Yu’s Lost in Beijing.


Even from a filmmaker whose recurring theme is alienation following China’s shift to capitalism, Still Life (Sanxia Haoren) is grim. Sanming (Han Sanming) discovers that his village has been flooded, looks for his missing bride, gets work with a demolition crew, and befriends a boy who imitates Chow Yun Fat. Shen Hong (Zhao Tao) finds that her absent husband has turned into a ruthless businessman, owner of the wrecking crew that employs Sanming. Zhang-ke extracts abstract beauty from the everyday, as when characters grow melancholy over ring-tones or images of their homeland on paper money. Their very environment, weighed down by dull yellows and browns, makes for a bitter criticism of China’s ambitious public work projects, which ignore individual devastation to highlight nationalistic pride.


Zhang-ke’s previous feature, The World, explored the lives of lonely youths flooding into cities from the countryside. Li Yu picks up this theme with Lost in Beijing a bizarre mash-up of screwball comedy and Broken Blossoms-style melodrama. Raped first by her masseuse parlor boss Mr. Lin (Tony Leung Ka Fei) and then by her angry husband An (Tong Da Wei), Liu Pingguo (Fan Bingbing) turns up pregnant. Mr. Lin is thrilled (his wife can’t conceive), offering the young couple money if the child is his. When the baby is born, An bribes the doctor to change the blood type to get the money. Pingguo moves in with the Lins, forming an awkward emotional triangle. A sleazebag who believes he’s benevolent, Mr. Lin embodies exasperating, sometimes comedic hypocrisies. Pingguo becomes a headstrong heroine, representing a kind of strength and renewal for the fractured family units of Beijing.


In This is England, 12-year-old Shaun (Thomas Turgoose) is pulled between two surrogate families, a reggae-loving skinhead group led by Woody (Joe Gilgun) and a racist National Front-supporting offshoot formed by Combo (Stephen Graham). His neck flexed like a coiled hooligan ready to explode, Combo exudes enough compassion to earn loyalty from Shaun, looking for a replacement for his father, who died in the Falklands War. Actors’ improvisations build the shifting group dynamics, though Turgoose, wonderfully convincing when Shaun flirts with his girlfriend Smell (Rosamund Hanson), is at last bogged down by the trite ending. Meadows based the story on his own youth as a skinhead, affectionately recreating an impoverished, early ‘80s Britain without glossing over the decay.


My Father My Lord (Hofshat Kaits) is another familiar story elevated by its execution, using the parable of Abraham and Isaac to spin a modern fable about religious devotion. (It won the Festival’s Best Narrative Feature Award.) Rabbi Abraham (Assi Dayan) strictly enforces the Haredic doctrine in his household, stifling his young, inquisitive son Meinehem (Eilan Grif) while his wife Esther (Sharon Hacohen Bar) says nothing. A loving and happy family, their lives consist of daily rituals. A trip to the Dead Sea reveals the tragic limits of Abraham’s trust in an abstract God, though he is never unsympathetic. The film’s subtle strength emerges in its simplicity.


Tribeca usually showcases well-made, unassuming documentaries. I thought I never wanted to see another one about Andy Warhol, but Esther B. Robinson’s A Walk Into the Sea: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory probes the ways that talented and desperate people were drugged up and spit out by Factory system. It’s also an artistic portrait of Williams, Robinson’s uncle, and is worth seeing just to view the recently rediscovered experimental films he created with Warhol’s camera. Another artistic biography, Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist, directed by Andrew D. Cooke, similarly tracks over Eisner’s comic panels to illustrate his brilliance as an artist.


I Am an American Soldier: One Year in Iraq with the 101st Airborne opens with the usual sight of a troops jogging in formation at their training camp. After you realize they’re chanting about shooting “turban-heads,” they appear one by one on camera, introducing themselves, tired and vulnerable. One soldier complains, “A platoon is like a pack of wolves,” then he appears being pushed to the ground and ridiculed. The suspicion that I was being set up for The War Tapes by way of Full Metal Jacket was reinforced by Colonel Michael Steele’s invocation of September 11, encouraging his men to shoot first and ask questions later: “Any time you fight, you always kill the other son of a bitch.”


Once the men deploy to Iraq, the documentary turns into a salute to their heroism. Though this doesn’t make for an especially intimate or insightful film, two compelling subjects come to the foreground: Sergeant Luke Murphy, on his second tour of duty (due to stop-loss), and Sgt. Mario Terenas, who has conflicted feelings towards Iraq. When heading home, he says, “My final act of defiance was to turn around and flip off Iraq. I actually wanted to drop my pants and piss on Iraq.” For all their commitment to the Army and their “brothers,” some men are plainly frustrated with their mission and affected by combat stress.


While the foreign films and documentaries were impressive, Tribeca still serves as a dumping ground for high profile turkeys like Suburban Girl, Rise: Blood Hunter, and to a lesser extent, The Grand. I only hope that next year, founders Jane Rosenthal and Craig Hatkoff refocus the Festival so that the needs of filmmakers and viewers come before those of advertisers. This year featured a few too many promotions for Spider-Man 3 and American Express.

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