The Tribeca Film Festival started on April 13th and ends today with screenings taking place at 9:30 PM. The schedule has been packed, with sold out showings at various venues around lower Manhattan. The big kick off was director Andrew Rossi’s “The First Monday in May”, a documentary that goes behind the curtain of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute’s most attended fashion exhibition in history, China: Through The Looking Glass, and the fabulous Met Costume Gala, and its mastermind, the mistress of sangfroid herself, Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue. The red carpets at screenings are mobfests, with paparazzi teeming behind the ropes, and stars, producers, directors, and fringe players doing their thing for the cameras and the microphones. Originally conceived as a way to revive the area below 14th Street that was hardest hit by the devastation of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, The TFF is the creative offspring of the actor Robert De Niro, his production partner Jane Rosenthal and real estate developer Craig Hatkoff. The Festival attracts moviemaking brass at every level, albeit with a fine tuned focus on independent films. That doesn’t stop the big studios from sending emissaries to sniff out the next Tarantino or Von Trier, and having a film on the schedule is indeed a very big deal. Many of the films and their creators receive major media attention during the Festival, but the Tribeca Film Fellows screening is an under-recognized diamond in the rough that bears mention.
Tribeca Film Fellows is a year round fellowship program for young filmmakers. The program includes development of a personal creative project, panel discussions, workshops, mentoring by Festival film directors, screenings, and special events. For the last four years, TFI has accepted and mentored 58 Film Fellows, aged 16-18 and from all five boroughs of NYC through an intensive year-long film training program focused on fostering extraordinary storytellers. For its fifth year, TFI is using their muscle to help support these classes and help their films become a reality. Eleven Film Fellow Alumni premiered their short films that were made either during their Film Fellows class or afterwards with the help of Tribeca Film Institute’s mentorship. Many of these students have left NYC and gone on to film schools around the country or are working on films in Hollywood.
The ten films that were screened at Regal Theaters in Battery Park on April 15th ranged in genre style from scripted narrative to documentary to experimental and even a clever blend of animation and live action fantasy storytelling, as with Maragret Corn’s Red, an updated retelling of Red Riding Hood and her run in with a wolf in grandma’s clothing. Kevin Ghaddi’s Doughboy told the story of two brothers navigating life in the city and at home with their dysfunctional parents and is a remarkably poignant and thoughtful exploration of what it means to discover the world without the guidance of rational parenting. With Suncatcher, Christine Carone tells the story of a young boy who solves his fear of the dark by bottling sunlight in Mason jars to take out at night to drive away the monsters that threaten to emerge from the inky sunlessness of his room. Like Corn’s film, animation is used to clever effect in symbolizing rays of sunshine. Riverkeeper from Sarah Ali, Jacquelyn Gutierrez, Frisly Soberanis, and Alejadra Arujo, is an unfinished documentary that takes a clear-eyed look at the work being done to restore the Hudson River to its former pristine state, or as close to that as is possible in the 21st century.
Joy Okon’s Vicariously Through Me is a moving and mature ode to her father’s journey from his home country of Nigeria to attend Columbia University and raise a family in New York City while still retaining the values and mores of his own upbringing. Okon reveals the anxieties and fears of her parents through dreamlike scenes wherein she reenacts possible nightmare scenarios such as the kind provincial parents fear their offspring will encounter when they leave the nest. By alternating these scenes with moments of joyful and curious interaction with friends and classmates, Okon seems to be telling her father, and us, that life is full of many possibilities, and our choices, embrace or shun, determines the outcome. Vicariously Through Me is a promising piece of work from a very focused young filmmaker who leaves little doubt in the viewer’s mind of her point of view, while at the same time inviting interpretation. Another of Okon’s short films, Beautiful Hair, is the story of a little girl’s illustration of beauty for a school project; a collage of photos of white models with long hair that she turns in to her teacher. The work avoids judgement, but makes very clear how society can work on a young mind in shaping self worth. It is a powerful short film that delivers in mere minutes as much of an impact as Chris Rock’s 2009 feature length documentary, Good Hair.
Talking about her inspiration for Vicariously Through Me before the screening, Okon spoke about how the process began when she started recorded her father for archival purposes. “I’ve just always wanted a record of his voice because he’s always wanted to write a book, but he’s never gotten around to it, so I wanted to record all of it and just keep it for him. It was his audiobook, I guess. So the opening part of the film, where the screen is black and the subtitles are projected on it, I wanted to introduce the film so that people would see my father’s charm and his sense of humor and not feel like the subject matter was too heavy.” Okon’s father attended the screening with members of her family, including her young nephew who also appears in the film. Traveling from their home in Staten Island, they were late due to traffic and serendipitously entered the darkened theater just at the beginning of the film as his voice filled the theater. Okon had made clear to her family that she wanted her arrival in NYC from California, where she attends college, to be a surprise for her father, as well as what he was going to the theater to see. After the screening, Okon’s father, Sunday Ulong Okon, talked about his surprise at hearing his voice when he walked into the cinema.
“I didn’t even know she was coming home. I walked into the house last night and saw a travelers bag, and I’m thinking, who is visiting us with the luggage?” Okon senior said that he was told it was his daughter and his first thought was concern as he expected her to be at school. “So I went to the kitchen and there she was, eating, and I said ‘why are you here’ and she said ‘it’s a surprise’, that’s why my brother told you to reserve the 15th”. His son is about to get engaged, so Okon senior assumed that was what the day was for. His daughter kept the secret right up to the moment when her father walked into the theater. “The film is great, she really got so much of what I told her, and I am so proud of her. I really admire the Tribeca Film Institute because they really encourage their young filmmakers, the students, and she has been very passionate about it, and I try to do my best to encourage her.” Okon senior said he tried to instill in his daughter the same level of confidence in herself that his father gave him and went on to say that much of what his daughter featured in her film was stories he shared to illustrate that obstacles should never prevent her from her focus on her goals. “Make sure you don’t lose your focus, no matter what.”
All of the student films that were screened reveal a depth of understanding and level of maturity belied by the directors relatively young ages. Many focus on matters of family and friendship, of loss, loneliness and estrangement. Stefanos Tai’s Étrangers is a startling evocation of love and loss that could easily have come from the imagination of a young Truffaut. “I wanted to make a film about love, and I think that’s sort of the elephant in the room for a lot of filmmakers, and I decided I wanted to tackle that because most of my prior films sort of avoided the subject of romantic love.” Tai said he was inspired by some events in his personal life and he was doing a lot of journal writing, which was then transferred to the narrator in his film. Tai is American and was working with his producer, Lukas Borovicka, via funding from Tribeca Film Institute. Tai and Borovicka cast their actors from local people who were non-actors. Borovicka, who is European, helped Tai navigate the location scouting, and both agree that the teamwork was essential to the production’s success.
The Tribeca Film Institute is a year-round nonprofit arts organization founded by Robert De Niro, Jane Rosenthal, and Craig Hatkoff in the wake of September 11, 2001. The TFI’s education programs empower students through hands-on training and exposure to socially relevant films, offering young people the media skills necessary to be creative and productive global citizens. To watch Vicariously Through Me and Étrangers, click on the titles to go to the link for each film.
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