Entertainment

5 Fantastic Documentaries From The Tribeca Film Festival That You’ll Want To See

This year’s Tribeca Film Festival was home to the premieres of some terrific docs on gorilla warfare, a professional skeptic, and an American who fought in an Arab revolution. Watch out for these films.

1. Art and Craft

Sam Cullman/Oscilloscope Laboratories

Stoop-shouldered and powdery-voiced, Mark Landis, the subject of Art and Craft, is a genuine eccentric, a gifted forger who’s fooled countless art museum professionals. What saves him from maliciousness is that he makes no money off of this — he donates the works he’s made, posing as a philanthropist (and once, a priest), speaking of late relatives who wanted these pieces in good hands and hinting at generations of wealth. Delicate and with a childlike air, Landis turns out to have a history of mental illness, and what at first seems like uncontrollable trickery later starts to seem like a way of reaching out from the midst of a lonely existence. Even Landis’ nemesis, a Cincinnati-based registrar with his own compulsions named Matthew Leininger, develops an odd fondness for the man he’s been trying to stop for years.

The title of the film, which was directed by Sam Cullman and Jennifer Grausman, isn’t accidental — Landis creates his forgeries with hobby store materials off of catalogue prints, explaining to the camera how he stains things with instant coffee and admitting to only guessing at how the actual work was painted. He looks at what he does as crafting, but as the doc, which falls somewhere between Catch Me If You Can and Grey Gardens, makes wonderfully clear, what’s art — outsider or otherwise — is all a question of context.

Where can you see it? Art and Craft has been acquired by Oscilloscope Laboratories, which is planning to release the film in theaters in late summer/early fall.

2. Ballet 422

Jody Lee Lipes/Ballet 422

Twenty-six-year-old Justin Peck is a dancer at the New York City Ballet, and he’s also a choreographer, a singular position to be in that makes him both a creator and a piece of someone else’s vision. Directed by cinematographer and filmmaker Jody Lee Lipes (who’s helmed several episodes of Girls), Ballet 422 follows Peck as he choreographs a new ballet called Paz de la Jolla. There are no interviews in the film, which takes an entirely observational approach, following Peck through the process of creating a dance, from the steps to the costuming and lighting.

It’s a look at a creative process that’s intriguing even if you have no special interest in dance, because it emphasizes how ephemeral a medium it is. Paintings you can go see at museums, movies you can buy on DVD, but dance exists in the moment, its main elements the bodies of its performers as they move to the music. Nothing manages to capture it — the scrawled notation for the choreography on the page, the videos Peck makes and then watches, the inexact language he uses when talking to the dancers (“It’s not crispy enough”). Dance may be fleeting, but Ballet 422 shows that the process is anything but impulsive. It’s an exact, impressive art.

Where can you see it? Ballet 422 doesn’t have distribution yet.

3. An Honest Liar

James Randi

Tyler Measom and Justin Weinstein’s An Honest Liar is a portrait of James Randi, the Canadian-born magician and escape artist who performed under the name The Amazing Randi, and who’s become better known in recent decades as a debunker of claims of supernatural, paranormal, and religious powers. Most famously, he battled Uri Geller on various talk shows in the ’70s, showing that everything the self-proclaimed psychic did could be replicated with stage magic. He also helped expose televangelist and faith healer Peter Popoff in the ’80s.

An Honest Liar details both of these incidents and more, but it also pairs Randi’s insistence in exposing the truth with secrecy and deception in his own life. “It’s OK to fool people as long as you’re doing that to teach them a lesson which will better their knowledge of how the real world works. No matter how smart or well-educated you are, you can be fooled,” he says when the film opens, but as it goes on, what emerges is how little people want to be shown that they’ve been misled. There’s a deep-rooted desire to believe in something beyond the norm that leads to Randi, who comes across as a wise-cracking but crusty grandpa, being treated as a killjoy or someone who exposes others as suckers. The path of the professional skeptic is a tough one.

Where can you see it? An Honest Liar doesn’t have a distributor yet, but is screening on the festival circuit. You can also donate to receive the film on DVD later this year.

4. Point and Shoot

Nouri Fonas/Point and Shoot

Like Grizzly Man, Point and Shoot was primarily shot by its subject, Matthew VanDyke, a quiet, blue-eyed Baltimore man who ended up fighting as a revolutionary in the Libyan civil war. Unlike Timothy Treadwell, VanDyke is still alive and kicking and able to tell his story to director Marshall Curry (Street Fight), though he’s had plenty of close calls. VanDyke was an introverted kid who developed a desire for adventure through video games, Lawrence of Arabia, and the travel docs of Australian filmmaker Alby Mangels. Eventually, he set off on what he called a “crash course in manhood” that began with buying a motorcycle, led to his driving through Africa into the Middle East, becoming a freelance war correspondent, and befriending a Libyan man named Nouri, filming along the way. When war broke out, he returned to Libya to fight alongside Nouri and his companions and endured a stint in prison there made all the more harsh by his OCD.

VanDyke’s story is one of a normal guy willing himself into someone larger-that-life (at one point he even tries to go by the new name of “Max Hunter”), but as he points out, that’s true for everyone. The American soldiers he met wanted to be filmed kicking down doors, while the rebels learned many of their ideas about warfare from movies and TV, standing on a truck blasting a machine gun. Half the people on screen are shown holding up their camera phones along with their weapons. It’s a film that raises fascinating questions about the idea of performance, toughness, and belonging.

Where can you see it? Point and Shoot doesn’t have distribution yet.

5. Virunga

Virunga

Virunga isn’t just an advocacy film, it’s a thriller, and what’s at stake is the future of the Congo’s 3,000-square-mile Virunga National Park. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to the endangered mountain gorilla, but agreeing about how important the park is matters little when the reality is that there’s only a small group of dedicated rangers trying to deal with poachers and rebel armies. This is a job that can kill you — the film starts off with a ranger funeral, and one of its main characters, the park director and Belgian aristocrat Emmanuel de Merode, survived four gunshot wounds from an ambush earlier this month that happened too recently to even make it into the title cards at the end.

Directed by Orlando von Einsiedel, Virunga combines stunning footage of the park and its gorilla population with infuriating sequences involving SOCO International, the British oil company with its eye on the park’s reserves. Via the investigations of journalist Melanie Gouby and park warden Rodrigue Katembo Mugaruka, we see bribes offered up from SOCO supporters and a SOCO executive talk around the fact that the company pays money to security contractors who in turn fuel the rebels. It’s enough to make even the cynical professional mercenary who’s in his company bark out that it’s “fucking hypocritical! If you’re gonna do it, at least be fucking honest about it.” Virunga presents conservation as a life-and-death struggle, for the animals, but also for the future of a country with a history of being brutally exploited for its natural resources.

Where can you see it? Virunga doesn’t have distribution yet, but is on the festival circuit and may be screening at an event near you.

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