Tribeca Film Festival Co-Founders Highlight Inclusive Programming at Kick-Off Luncheon

Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal_Split - Getty - H 2019
Dominique Charriau/Getty Images; Theo Wargo/Getty Images

Vocal Trump critic Robert De Niro defended the press against "fake news" attacks, saying that both filmmakers and journalists are in "the truth-telling business."

Tribeca Film Festival co-founders Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal kicked off the 2019 edition of the annual New York event Wednesday with a two-hour luncheon that showcased the festival's efforts to diversify its programming and increase representation among its featured artists.

Festival programmers and press came together for the intimate event, which highlighted new, inclusive additions to this year's slate, such as a day dedicated to the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots and both globally and locally focused stories within the more than 200 films selected out of this year's 9,000 entries.

Both of the film fest's founders spoke at the event, with De Niro opening the gathering with a brief speech that was equal parts political and celebratory. After calling the festival press "rock stars," the actor drew a line between both filmmakers and journalists, whom he described as all being in "the truth-telling business."

"It’s always been the press’ function to report the news and we’re very grateful you’re doing it here at the Tribeca Film Festival, where we’re building a community to celebrate storytelling and shine a light on the discovery of new voices," said De Niro. "Independent and critical reporting is critical to making that happen."

A vocal critic of President Donald Trump, the actor directly criticized the former reality star turned U.S. leader during last year's festival. While De Niro made no direct mention of the president at Wednesday's event, he used the remainder of his speech to underscore his support for the media.

"These days, your proud profession is always on the front line of finding the truth our political leaders try to obscure," De Niro told the crowd. "They call you 'fake news,' 'enemies of the people' and encourage violence against you — and you’re not intimidated."

After being introduced by De Niro, Rosenthal recounted Tribeca's origins as a way "to breathe new life into downtown Manhattan" following 9/11 before describing the international film festival as an endeavor to build a community in response to that. Echoing De Niro, she said the festival is now not only about showcasing new works from established storytellers, but it also serves as means of bringing attention to emerging voices.

"We live in a world with every image at our fingertips and even [as] stories seem just a click away," Rosenthal said. "There's a lot of noise, as Bob mentioned, that's out there. It's hard to actually hear each other. It's hard to actually listen to each other. Our festival brings new and exciting voices together and creates a dialogue, so I do hope you'll listen."

Rosenthal spotlighted two of the fest's offerings — the premiere of 18-year-old NYU student Phillip Youmans' Burning Cane and a new, special cut of Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 classic Apocalypse Now, which features a Dolby low-frequency sound remix — as examples of programming that embody the festival's mission.

She also championed talent like Little Woods director Nia DaCosta and Ryan Coogler, who have had work showcased at Tribeca in previous years and represent the diversity of filmmakers that Tribeca Enterprises executive vp Paula Weinstein said proudly grew for the festival's 18th iteration.

Fifty percent of this year's competition films at the fest were directed by women, according to Weinstein. When it comes to feature films, 29 percent were helmed by people of color, 40 percent were directed by women and 13 were helmed by people who identify as LGBTQ.

"All these numbers are great — 50 percent of films in competition is extraordinary — but it's not enough. It's just the beginning, and we are not resting on our laurels," Weinstein told the audience. 

Closing out the day, Tribeca's programming director Cara Cusumano took Weinstein's discussion of a more inclusive slate in a slightly different direction, focusing on Tribeca's efforts to showcase more films that highlight the diverse past and present of New York.

That includes the addition of two new sections, "This Used to Be New York" and Tribeca's Critics Week, along with the opening night film The Apollo and films focused on everything from Woodstock to Wigstock, the city's annual outdoor drag festival.

"What's it mean to be an international festival for a local audience in a global city?" Cusumano asked. "For us, the answer came in a return to our roots; a celebration of the power of art and film in particular to unite communities, in every way community means, in the most diverse, dynamic, international and innovative city in the world."