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As the Tribeca film festival celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, the New York event is once again serving as a way to boost a city hard-hit by a calamity — this time, the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 2021 edition of what’s now known as simply the Tribeca Festival — it features not only films but also TV programming, immersive experiences, video games and podcasts — will take place in person across New York City’s five boroughs from June 9 through June 20. The fest, which is expanding the scope of its citywide events, is one of the first festivals to take place in person since the pandemic.
Kicking off with the premiere of In the Heights, Tribeca will screen films like 12 Mighty Orphans and False Positive and documentaries about Anthony Bourdain, the U.S. women’s soccer team and the NRA. There will also be star-studded anniversary screenings of Fargo and The Royal Tenenbaums, and talks with such Hollywood pros as M. Night Shyamalan, Tina Fey and Doug Liman. And with this year’s festival coinciding with Juneteenth, it will honor Stacey Abrams as it celebrates Black narratives and storytellers.
The return of a physical event as the country emerges from months of lockdown with increased vaccinations and loosened restrictions falls in line with the festival’s founding mission to revive lower Manhattan after the devastation of 9/11. Ahead of this year’s event, Tribeca co-founders Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal spoke to THR via video conference about the value of watching movies together and what virtual reality, video games, podcasts and superstar appearances — including by De Niro himself — have brought to the New York gathering.
Why was it important to have Tribeca be an in-person festival this year?
JANE ROSENTHAL Because we could do it. We looked at where we are in the schedule, our dates moved, it’s warmer weather. We had a feeling we would be coming out of COVID, to what extent we didn’t know, and we felt that we needed to get back to some of our routines and rituals that we had taken for granted [before] COVID. Gathering with people and watching movies is one of our great pastimes and joys.
ROBERT DE NIRO It seems like the right thing to do, with everything opening up and all the optimism. Jane and the team came up with a way to do it. And I’m feeling very optimistic and good about it, knock on wood.
ROSENTHAL Also, being in person changes our emotional mind-set. As long as we can follow public-safety health guidelines, then this is something joyous to look forward to. Plus, by being in all the boroughs, it allows us to help support small businesses throughout the city and give a little economic boost to some of those communities.
There are titles in the lineup that touch on things that happened during the pandemic, including the movement for racial justice. What do you hope people will take away from having these issues reflected in this year’s films?
ROSENTHAL I think the best thing about a film festival and being able to gather again is that there are certain issues that you can listen to and hear both sides of, and have some real dialogue around. But mostly we’ve tried to program films that are uplifting.
How much is this year’s fest a rebirth and how much is it a continuation of 2019 and even last year’s online version?
ROSENTHAL One doesn’t preclude the other. It’s very much a continuation of everything we have done for the past 19 years, in terms of having diverse programming, filmmakers globally telling diverse stories, whether it’s film or gaming or VR or short films or documentaries. In terms of rebirth, in coming out of this COVID world, it’s very much relevant to our founding mission and what films and storytelling can do to support the emotional and mental health of our community.
You mentioned VR. You’ve also added video games and, this year, a full podcast section. What does it bring to the festival to add non-film storytelling mediums?
ROSENTHAL We have always been curious about where creators are making interesting stories. You have some extraordinary storytellers working in the world of gaming, and podcasting has captured the imagination of so many people, so it’s really about curating some of the best new voices that are out there. But our first love is always film.
Bob, did you have any thoughts on the podcast, VR and games elements in the festival?
DE NIRO I conceived all that stuff. (Smiles.) I always applaud Jane and the team for coming up with those things, and some I get exposed to and some I don’t. I think it’s all valid and terrific. And I like to bring my kids, too, when I can, to expose them to it.
One of the things people have come to look forward to with Tribeca is the reunion screenings, and Bob, I know you were a part of a few of those with Goodfellas, Taxi Driver and The Godfather: Part II. What’s the experience been like participating in reunion screenings of some of your best-known work?
DE NIRO I like doing it. It’s a nice time to be had, and I’m glad I can do it for the festival so it has more — I wouldn’t say exposure — but in a way it does a certain [something] for the festival.
Jane, how much do you feel like the De Niro factor serves as an attraction for Tribeca, and how much is the festival its own thing beyond that?
ROSENTHAL Robert De Niro, the actor and star of Taxi Driver and Goodfellas and Raging Bull and all of these iconic movies, is without question a draw. But the festival has a lot of other things that it does. They’re both draws. Our gaming, our immersive [experiences], you have creators who are coming to that because of the festival and for the movies, too.
What are some of your most memorable experiences of past editions of the festival?
ROSENTHAL There was one year, 2008, [Abigail] Disney and Gini Reticker did this movie called Pray the Devil Back to Hell [about the women of Liberia peacefully working together to end the country’s civil war, culminating in the election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf]. When I started to introduce the movie and I said, “President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf,” she stood up. Here was the president of Liberia, who was just sitting in the audience. That was kind of a crazy night.
For our 10th anniversary, we screened this movie that Cameron Crowe did called The Union, about the friendship between Elton John and Leon Russell, and Elton came out to play afterward, and I’m an Elton John fan, so I was very, very excited about that. We did that at Brookfield Place, that had been really destroyed during 9/11. Also, so much of that area where the concert was had been used as fire and rescue workers’ unit relief, so it was emotional.
If you were to characterize the idea and philosophy behind the festival now and going forward, what would you say it is?
ROSENTHAL The first year, [Nelson] Mandela came to the festival, and he talked about the fact that when he was in Robben Island, the one thing he looked forward to with his jailers were movie nights, and it was a time where everybody could be together — they could laugh and cry at the same things. So I take those words of Mandela from that very first festival forward with both what we as filmmakers, producers, storytellers try to do in our lives and also as activists who want to keep telling stories. But I feel it’s incumbent on us to be part of the right side of history. We’ve all been through so much this year, whether it was the election, January 6th, a global health crisis. All of the things that you take for granted, just like having a meal with a group of friends at a restaurant, those simple pleasures in life can be taken away at any moment.
DE NIRO Ditto. Jane said it better than I could.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the June 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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