More highlights of progressive cinema from Tribeca

NEW YORK – This is our third in a series of reports from the Tribeca Film Festival. Over 101 feature films were chosen from over 3000 submissions! Including shorts, 161 films were shown on 23 screens. This is a massive undertaking. And like most major film festivals there’s always a generous selection of films with progressive content.

Two films, (T)ERROR and Newburgh Sting, question the morality and legality of the so-called “war on terror.” They both deal with the government’s questionable and often ineffective method of finding terrorists on home soil. By using former convicts as informers who plea bargain or even accept bribes to shorten their term, the government relies heavily on findings from men who are compromised. In Newburgh Sting, four African American Muslims are offered greater sums of money until eventually they are enticed into conspiring to commit a crime. In (T)ERROR a young white American Muslim is harassed over statements he made on his website supporting the Taliban. The filmmakers cross the line in a daring attempt to not only follow the FBI and their informer but also the subject of their investigation. Sympathy is built for the young man who eventually is charged, sent to trial and found guilty, while his new wife and young child are deported to the UK.

Being charged for writing about doing illegal things is similar to the theme of Thought Crimes, which is about a New York cop who is charged with thinking about doing illegal things. Gilberto Valle became a media star when he was charged with planning to kidnap, rape, kill and eat several women. Gruesome thoughts are not rare on the Internet, and the cop, for whatever reasons – some explained in the movie – found escape in the sexual and inhuman websites that promote discussion around those themes. Ultimately, the question is whether a person is guilty for what he thinks, or even for what he says. How far should the Internet go in allowing extreme websites, and how should these “thought crimes” be dealt with in court? These three films are compelling documentaries that raise serious questions about the criminal justice system and the laws of our country.

A couple of docs dealt intriguingly with electioneering. One of them was Roseanne for President. The well-known comedienne Roseanne Barr ran for president in 2012, and although she didn’t even come close to winning was granted the stage to express her progressive points of view quite often, and in a humorous manner. She challenged the two-party system by running on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket after losing her bid for the Green Party candidacy. Accused by many on the left of taking votes from Obama, Roseanne reminded this reviewer of Jim Hightower’s classic line: “Some people say we need a third party. I say we need a second one!” We can all debate how similar the two capitalist parties are, but currently Bernie Sanders is attempting to gain access to the debate to express his progressive views – this time within the Democrat Party. But he’s not quite as funny as Roseanne.

Another “election” film is actually called Democrats. It deals with the period just after Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe is re-elected to another term in 2008. To stave off charges of corruption, the government convenes a bipartisan constitutional committee to rewrite the constitution. Representatives from the two opposing parties are enlisted to educate and inform the electorate about the “democratic” process. Privileged access to the process is granted the filmmakers who create a dramatic documentary from three years of filming. But once again the term “democracy” gains sinister connotations, seen by many Mugabe supporters as another word for Western “regime change.” Progressive viewers will have to read between the lines since it’s obvious where the filmmakers stand by their choice of scenes, but the film is compelling and holds the viewer’s attention to the end.

There were many political docs at Tribeca this year, ranging from such topics as nuclear energy, taser guns, and even car racing in Havana. With the proliferation of camcorders, and endless documentaries about every imaginable subject under the sun, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to offer a fresh, artistic and effective film that can both illuminate and activate the viewer. Recently in the news, the nuclear power plant just north of Manhattan receives a thorough investigation in the didactic doc, Indian Point. Presenting a wide range of views, from CEOs to community activists, the film ultimately focuses on the regulatory agencies that have failed to establish acceptable standards in a growingly contentious form of energy, considering the Fukushima disaster.

Tom Swift and his Electric Rifle (TASER) is mostly filled with company execs wiggling like jelly to deny any wrongful deaths from their creative invention, the taser gun, used by many police departments across the country. The original intent of the taser was to replace lethal guns and prevent unnecessary deaths. But statistics show that over 500 taser-related deaths occurred between 2001 and 2012. The CEOs are shown trying to stave off a growing number of lawsuits. As in Indian Point, the director did extensive research and presents the facts in a very cinematic manner. Amazing clips of victims, of company propaganda videos and inside interviews with proponents on both sides of the battle, make this film feel like a compelling video that should be shown in the courtroom to determine if the taser gun is an effective method for law enforcement.

Although films from Cuba are becoming rare at festivals, Tribeca did offer Havana Motor Club, a relatively innocuous but highly entertaining doc about car racing. Any film from the now not quite so forbidden island off the Florida coast is worth viewing, and this one entertains without being didactic. Car racing has been forbidden in revolutionary Cuba, considered a bourgeois gambling sport and highly dangerous. This of course did not stop the diehards who chose public streets to express their drive for speed. Now with things changing in the country, aficionados see the possibility of the sport returning, and plot their race tracks around Havana. As car mechanics from different families hone their speed machines, some benefit from relatives overseas who send them needed parts. Havana Motor Club shows Cuban people in a good light. Although there are surely large corporations drooling in the wings for potential profits once the barriers are removed for official racing, the men (and some women) involved in the thrilling sport are shown in their humble surroundings, enjoying the simple things in life, all the while preparing for the first sanctioned drag race in Cuba since 1960. It’s a nail-biter.

Photo: Havana Motor Club still.



Bill Meyer
Bill Meyer

Bill Meyer frequently writes movie reviews for People’s World, often from film festivals. He is a keyboardist at Bill Meyer Music and a current member of the Detroit Federation of Musicians. He lives in Hamtramck, Michigan.