It’s become something of a cliche that the best of the Tribeca Film Festival can always be found among the documentaries. It’s true, of course, yet it’s hardly the most interesting thing to say. Unfortunately, sometimes it’s a struggle to say something else. For example, the New York Times published a preview that characterizes this year’s crop of documentaries as niche-focused projects in which “content is king, sentimentality is rife” and there’s no real inclination towards experimenting with nonfiction art. It’s a fascinating claim, despite the fact that it’s misguided and essentially untrue.
Now, I didn’t see every documentary feature at the festival. I saw 24. Yet the trend across that sample is one of artistically inclined storytelling. The NYT article uses the misconception that artfully made documentaries are never interested in narrative, which is a particularly frustrating canard. Many of Tribeca’s 2015 documentaries are smoothly directed verite projects that look to emulate the intuitive style of Albert Maysles rather than the expository style of Alex Gibney. A documentary doesn’t have to be a “hybrid” to be artful, as many of the festival’s most intriguing works attest.
Here are the eight best, all of them films that use cinematic technique to bring out the artistic truth of their subjects.
1. In Transit
It’s appropriate, then, that the best film in the festival was Maysles’s last. He directed In Transit along with Nelson Walker, Lynn True, David Usui and Ben Wu. This plural authorship underlines the beauty of the film, a compilation of passengers and stories from Amtrak’s Empire Builder line. A wide variety of people ride the train across the Rocky Mountains and the oil-rich plains of North Dakota, from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest. All of the characters are given just the right amount of screen-time, some of their arcs lasting the whole film while others say their piece and move on. It’s a testament to the manifold spirit of America and a perfect farewell film from Maysles. Read my full review here.
Cosima Spender’s Palio is an exhilarating experience, a sports documentary with a real sense of style. Covering Siena, Italy’s centuries-old horse race is no easy feat, given the prevalence of hidden dealings, bribery and legal corruption. Yet this cloak-and-dagger atmosphere quickly becomes Spender’s biggest strength. Palio feels made on the fly, as if Spender had to constantly gallop in order to catch the best practice run, the shadiest meeting of suited men in the public square, the right angle over the Piazza del Campo. She flamboyantly uses music and slow motion to imitate both Italian crime drama and American, Spielbergian thrill rides. The result is one of the best sports documentaries in years, as well as a brilliantly executed portrait of a city and its madness.
Ewan McNicol and Anna Sandilands went to the tiny town of Uncertain, Texas, to make a film. They found a lake in dire peril, a wide variety of charismatic wildlife and a few men with truly inspiring tales of redemption. With some of the best cinematography in the festival and almost certainly the best musical score, Uncertain is the product of real immersion. McNicol and Sandilands use the environmental character of the community, a stressed beauty, to create a cinematic ecosystem with great emotional power. Read my full review here.
On the surface a documentary about legislation and collaborative government, Democrats is really a film about raw power. Director Camilla Nielsson went to Zimbabwe after the 2008 shared power deal between dictator Robert Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. International pressure forced the agreement, which included plans for a new constitution. Nielsson was able to get access to the meetings where the documented was drafted, as well as to the two men running them. The representative of the opposition, Douglas Mwonzora, understands that sometimes the only way to get corrupt men to be fair is to pretend they’re honest. Mugabe’s man in the room, Paul Mangwana, is the ultimate spoiled beneficiary of a closed system. Democrats is equal parts fascinating and horrifying, and Nielsson’s camera captures the most visceral symbols of ill-begotten power.
5. Thank You for Playing
More than just a tearjerker, David Osit and Malika Zouhali-Worrall’s Thank You for Playing is a complex meditation on nonfiction art. The subjects are Ryan and Amy Green, a married couple in the process of making a video game based on their experience taking care of a child with terminal cancer. Their youngest son, Joel, is both protagonist and documentary subject for the game and the documentary around it. Ryan and Amy have long talks deciding how much of him to include, as well as how much of themselves. Their work dovetails nicely with that of Osit and Zouhali-Worrall’s, both teams endeavoring to turn this family’s story into nonfiction art. Read my full review here.
6. Toto and His Sisters
Toto (10 years old) lives with his older sister Andreea (14 years old) in a rough part of Bucharest. There’s also Ana (17 years old), but her problems with drug addiction mean that she’s not around all that often. Moreover, their mother is in prison. This is the family into which director Alexander Nanau steps, immersing himself in their lives and building a film that treats them with the respect they don’t always have for themselves. Much too intimate, honest and restrained to be poverty porn, Toto and His Sisters is a film about the capacity of kids to rise to the challenge of their own lives even as their elders have fallen apart. Andreea develops an instinctual, extraordinary ability to take care of herself and her brother, which comes through not only in Nanau’s camera work but also in the video diary she makes herself. This film is visceral both in style and content, a triumph of small-scale documentary filmmaking that often treats its subjects as equal partners.
(T)error is a slow burn of a film. Directors Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe take their time following the story of Saeed Torres, an FBI informant on assignment in Pittsburgh. As he tries to lure a local Muslim man into a sting operation, the directors interview him about his past and gradually lay out the life of a man in the pay of the Bureau. Then, almost exactly halfway through the film, everything is turned sideways with a dramatic perspective shift. The second half of (T)error mirrors the style of its first half, a rough evocation of spy film tension in a mundane world, while also expanding the project into a remarkably daring feat of journalism. It’s all too believe and entirely damning. Read my full review here.
8. Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict
Likely the best documentary in the American Masters style since Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil le Clercq, Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict contains the best-used archival footage and images of the festival. Director Lisa Immordino Vreeland crafts the life of art dealer and patron Peggy Guggenheim as if she were an artist herself. And of course she was, or at the very least she lived like one. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that there are countless striking photographic portraits of Guggenheim, which sit in juxtaposition with the many paintings and sculptures she helped promote. These are matched by a great deal of evocative footage taken from the works of her many friends, who included the Dadaists, Surrealists, and Abstract Expressionists. Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict is a beautifully articulated argument that Guggenheim was more than simply the woman who discovered Jackson Pollock, but rather one of the most significant and intriguing figures in the art history of the 20th century.