The first weekend of the Tribeca Film Festival made a pretty good case for the wisdom of a strategy used by some frequent festivalgoers: When in doubt, see a documentary.
That's not to denigrate the quality of the narrative features that screened during the first four days of the festival – it's just a way of pointing out that the rich lineup of docs nicely illustrated the vital and varied state of contemporary non-fiction filmmaking. Highlights ranged from the music films “Time Is Illmatic” and “Keep on Keepin’ On” to the fascinating character studies in “Garnet's Gold” and “An Honest Liar” to the pointed political statements of “Silenced” and “1971” to the joyous fun of “Beyond the Brick.”
But of the 12 docs I saw between Friday and Sunday, two particularly stood out in the way they combined the personal and political, uncovered vivid worlds and packed a huge emotional punch. Both “Virunga” and “Tomorrow We Disappear” are beautiful, shattering works, at times hard to watch but in the end impossible to shake.
“Virunga,” which premiered on Thursday night and screened again on Sunday (with two additional showings later this week), takes its name from the national park in eastern Congo that is home to some of the last mountain gorillas in the world. For decades, the region has been ravaged by outside companies eager for its natural resources, and more recently Congo has been the site of bloody conflicts between government troops and armed rebels.
Virunga itself is now imperiled because it may contain oil reserves, with the British company Soco International involved in explorations that could have a profound impact on the ecology.
Director Orlando von Einsiedel's film focuses on the rangers in Virunga, who try to protect the gorillas and other wildlife from poachers, but also from Soco's intrusion and from rebel attacks.
(While damning scenes in the film show people who say they're representing Soco offering bribes to gain access to the park, the company has a lengthy disclaimer at the end of the film in which it claims that it is environmentally responsible and that no one who worked for Soco engaged in illegal activity.)
The first part of the film contains astonishing scenes of the bonds between one ranger and four young gorillas orphaned by poachers – but as the movie goes on, the threats from poachers pale in comparison to the escalating conflict and the potential ecological devastation.
The heroes of the film, from park director Emmanuel de Merode to French journalist Melanie Gouby to gorilla keeper Andre Bauma (really, he's a constant companion and surrogate parent to the orphaned apes), put their lives on the line to protect the park and expose what's going on. And von Einseidel's cameras are on hand to capture both the spectacular vistas and the appalling violence.
The result is gorgeous and wrenching, the indelible chronicle of a impossible but essential fight.
In the Q&A that followed Sunday's Tribeca screening, von Einseidel brought the news that de Merode was ambushed and shot last week, apparently by unidentified rebels. (In the film, the rebels admit they want a cut of the oil revenues, while de Merode had fought against allowing Soco in at all.)
But de Merode is apparently on the road to recovery. And at Tribeca, Bauma – who was greeted with a standing ovation when he and Gouby were introduced – said that with the Congo's civil war apparently over, a lot of the population around Virunga is “hopeful that we can move forward.”
“Tomorrow We Disappear” (right) is less violent – there are no scenes of gunfire, at least – but it also chronicles the devastation that can be wrought as the modern world marches on. Directors Jimmy Goldblum and Adam Weber take viewers inside the Kathputli colony in the Indian city of Delhi, a large slum populated by thousands of puppeteers, street magicians, acrobats and artists of all kinds.
The performers’ families have lived in Kathputli for generations, on government land – but after the government sells the land to a developer who is planning to erect Delhi's first skyscraper, the performers are offered free housing in what turns out to be cheap, barracks-style dwellings.
Beautiful, sad and stunning, the film lovingly but unflinchingly documents the destructive collision between tradition and modernization, between ramshackle artistry and regimented bureaucracy. At times it has the vibrant spirit of a real-life “Beasts of the Southern Wild”; at other times it is imbued with a profound sense of loss summed up by the words of gifted puppeteer Puran Bhat: “I wish I could stop the world for a moment.”
Bhat was brought to New York by Tribeca organizers, where he and the filmmakers received a standing ovation on Saturday from an audience that also included author Salman Rushdie. (Rushdie's book “Midnight's Children” has a scene about an earlier attempt to destroy the Kathputli colony.)
Both “Tomorrow We Disappear” and “Virunga” are vital in the way the best documentaries – and the best of Tribeca – can be. They're inspiring, they're infuriating (in a good way), and they're why it pays to look for the docs on a film-festival schedule.
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