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The 20th edition of the Tribeca Festival will open, fittingly enough, with a gala screening of the Gotham-centric musical In the Heights, with music and lyrics by hometown hero Lin-Manuel Miranda. But what many unfamiliar with the showcase might not realize is that feature documentaries have kicked off the Manhattan event for the past eight years — a testament to its rep as a key nonfiction showcase. “We definitely strive to platform docs in a way that’s unique among festivals that are not just doc festivals,” says Cara Cusumano, festival director and vp programming. “It’s often the place films and filmmakers pop and where sales happen.”
Cusumano cites 2011 as an inflection point. “That year we had in our documentary competition The Bully Project [directed by Lee Hirsch], Jiro Dreams of Sushi [David Gelb] and Bombay Beach [Alma Har’el],” she says. “All three of those broke out, and David Gelb and Alma Har’el had gone on to do a lot of incredible things and brought future projects back to the festival. And Bully was one of the bigger doc acquisitions out of the festival by The Weinstein Company at the time.”
This year’s Spotlight Documentary program is highlighted by films about the U.S. women’s national soccer team and its fight for equitable pay in LFG, and a deep dive into gun culture and the NRA in The Price of Freedom. It is also populated by a panoply of bio-docs centering on figures like Gordon Parks, Jackie Collins, Rick James and Wolfgang Puck, the latter from Jiro director Gelb.
The program will also train the spotlight on two quintessential New Yorkers, Leonard Bernstein and Anthony Bourdain — outsize personalities tortured by demons yet gifted beyond measure. The films offer penetrating insights into the psychologies of these troubled souls, but with different means. Bernstein’s Wall, directed by Douglas Tirola, is told almost entirely in the voice of its subject, who rose to fame as conductor of the New York Philharmonic and composer of West Side Story, later becoming a globally renowned educator and controversial activist. Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, directed by Oscar winner Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom), relies on the recollections of friends and colleagues of Bourdain, as well as the author-celebrity chef’s own remarkably candid comments.
That the two are so tied to the city that never sleeps makes them signature Tribeca offerings. “For somebody who is such a symbol of New York, it’s perfect,” says Neville of the festival berth. “[Bourdain’s] parents were from New York, he grew up in the suburbs but loved everything about the city — and the polyglot, 24/7 nature of it, the energy of it, the confrontational aspects. Virtually everybody in the film lives in New York. In my head, the city and the man are synonymous.”
Bernstein hailed from New England, but New York represented his artistic mecca. “I think the quintessential New Yorker is often someone not from New York who comes there,” says Tirola. “[Bernstein’s] story, in many ways, is the parallel story of what’s happening in New York City, from the boom after World War II to arguably becoming the cultural center of the world.”
Bernstein and Bourdain suffered from severe bouts of depression, and Neville’s film deals with Bourdain’s suicide head-on. “There was still a lot of unprocessed trauma in [Bourdain’s] world, and the interviews really became therapy sessions,” says Neville. “The film, if it does its job, helps people come to terms with that loss — not that there’s an easy answer, but at least it’s not ‘What the hell happened to Tony?'”
This story first appeared in the June 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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Sterling K. Brown