Running April 15th-26th the Tribeca Film Festival, NYC’s own Hollywood on the Hudson, has become a borderline unwieldy affair over the past few years. In addition to the usual film festival talks, panels and parties – and, uh, screenings – there are now mini festivals within the festival. For example, Storyscapes, sponsored by Bombay Sapphire, is dedicated to immersive projects, while the Tribeca/ESPN Sports Film Festival features mostly (stellar) sports docs. Indeed, there’s a corporate-branded something for everyone – including, thankfully, me. So as a certified documentary junkie I decided to stay away from the glitz, and survey several nonfiction films in this 2015 lineup. The following are just three of my top picks – which cover ground from southern Africa, to Castro’s Cuba, to the South Side of Chicago – all enthralling slices of life that prove that this 13-year-old fest still knows how to mix deep substance with glammy chic.
Camilla Nielsson’s “Democrats” spotlights the unlikely duo of Paul Mangwana and Douglas Mwonzora, two Zimbabweans tasked with overseeing a bipartisan constitutional committee created in the wake of a fraught power-sharing agreement between longtime strongman Robert Mugabe and his political rival Morgan Tsvangirai. And this odd couple serves as surrogates for their respective parties in every way. Mangwana, a product of the Mugabe dictatorship, is cocky and brash, steamrolling his way through the process. Mwonzora, on the other hand, is soft-spoken and cerebral, a man fully aware that overcoming Mugabe’s massive web of corruption necessitates a chess-player’s mentality.
Over three years Nielsson patiently follows the men on their dangerous journey, as together they tread untested political territory with the care of navigating land mines. What emerges is a subtle yet stunningly sad revelation: regardless of outcome, these polar opposites in party and personality will still both be at the mercy of that same evil, off-screen authoritarian force pulling invisible strings.
HAVANA MOTOR CLUB
“The hardest thing about living here is that there’s no life for an honest man,” a drag racer allows in “Havana Motor Club,” the latest from director Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt (“Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel”). This beautifully shot, high-octane doc follows a group of underground drivers in the Cuban capital as they piece together car parts (or in one case, the engine of a refugees’ raft that has sunk), tinker with their unlikely autos (from sleek Porsche to weathered Chevy), and compete fiercely yet with a strong sense of solidarity. “They must keep fighting. They are warriors of time,” a journalist says about the men’s struggle to legalize a sport beloved by the public before ultimately being banned by the Castro regime as “elitist.”
When word comes that Raúl’s reforms will bring an officially sanctioned race, Perlmutt’s film quickly shifts into anticipatory high gear. Though as a driver laments, “Here nothing is for sure.” The grand planned race gets suspended – supposedly because the barricades to protect spectators are being used for the Pope’s visit instead. (When the frustrated drivers decide to go ahead anyway they must first clear the track of a straying cow.) “Sometimes you have to move history along and force it to get results,” another auto enthusiast reflects after a series of trials and tribulations refreshingly results in shared victory. In the end, Perlmutt has crafted a unique study into a populace’s resourcefulness and rebellion in the face of a tightly controlled bureaucracy averse to any risk. Ironically, that same spirit that brought the Castros to power in the first place seems alive and well in these post-Revolutionary racers – and is shown deftly through the lens of one hardscrabble motor club.
IN MY FATHER’S HOUSE
“What do you hope to accomplish today?” an off-screen filmmaker asks her subject, the Chicago hip-hop artist Che Smith (better known as “Rhymefest,” co-writer of Kanye West’s Grammy-winning “Jesus Walks,” and more recently, the Academy Award-winning “Glory”). Smith sits in his car, preparing to meet his homeless alcoholic father Brian for the first time since his dad walked out of his life over 20 years before. “Seeing what I could be,” the famous rapper, and dedicated husband and father, tentatively replies. “I’m a piece of him…Maybe a part of why I’m here is to maybe even turn that around for him. Maybe that means something for me in the future.”
And within such a simple and profound admission rests the heart of “In My Father’s House,” the latest flick from critically acclaimed documentarians Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg. Through terrific use of home movie footage – and present-day shots rendered to evoke home movie footage – Stern and Sundberg have crafted an artistic and smartly complicated portrait of fatherhood and legacy told through the tale of an everyday hero (albeit one who grew up with Kanye). Following the strong and sensitive Smith on his powerful emotional journey, which begins when he buys his childhood home on Chicago’s South Side, the co-directors always remain unobtrusive. Smith both gives back to his community – helming a local radio show along with a safe space for kids – as well as learns from it. “75% of black children are born into single-parent homes,” he laments. His impetus to reconnect with the man who abandoned him is equal parts personal and universal.
Not to mention full of surprises. There’s a wonderful scene where Smith and his newly sobered up dad sit down for a game of chess. Smith’s father notes that chess is like life, the pieces “like your family. They can help you or they can kill you.” He then goes on to discuss protecting himself “at all costs.” Another scene, in which Smith invites both his father and son to the studio of his call-in radio show, is downright difficult to watch. One after another the callers uniformly chastise deadbeat dads. The elderly Brian listens patiently, seeming to absorb the pain of every fatherless child in Chicago into his now fragile and small frame.
Yet through this and more – including a predictable relapse and an unpredictable DNA test (Smith searches for the truth about a possible third child he’s fathered) – the idealistic rapper continues to strive to be everything to his kids that his dad wasn’t to him. Even as the frail Brian fights just to not fail his son once again. By the end Smith has grown up – as has his dad. “In My Father’s House” is a rare gem indeed – a beautiful love story, and a stunning study in letting go of romanticized expectations, and of learning how to forgive.