Prairie Messenger Header

Screenings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz


Focus on documentary highlights from Tribeca festival

Gerald Schmitz


Some of the richest festival content can be found in the documentary programs. I have already reviewed the superlative Intent to Destroy (PM, May 31). Among the selections in competition, the Tribeca jury gave its top award and several others to Elvira Lind’s Bobbi Jene (Denmark/Israel/U.S.), an extremely intimate observation of the life and career of Iowa-born contemporary dancer Bobbi Jene Smith who, after a stellar decade with Israel’s renowned Batsheva dance company, left her lover, fellow dancer Or Schraiber, to return to the U.S. to embark on a solo venture in San Francisco. The movie will appeal most to modern dance enthusiasts and it’s certainly not for the morally uptight as the camera intrudes on private moments and follows Bobbi Jene’s sensual movements, sometimes performed in the nude.

Bobbi Jene stood out for its intensely personal approach to its artistic subject, although Tribeca also presented several engaging posthumous portraits — Shadowman about New York street artist Richard Hambleton, and I Am Heath Ledger about the rising Australian film star. Raising topical artistic challenges is When God Sleeps, a U.S.-Germany co-production that profiles exiled Iranian musician Shahin Najafi, who lives under the threat of a fatwa.

There were many compelling docs raising broader societal issues. Two of these, the feature-length Awake: A Dream From Standing Rock and short Water Warriors, address solidarity with indigenous peoples in struggles for environmental justice, about which more below.

Among others that impressed are the following:

Get Me Roger Stone (U.S.)

This Netflix production by writer-directors Dylan Bank, Daniel DiMauro and Morgan Pehme is the year’s essential political film. Stone is an incorrigible right-wing libertarian zealot who styles himself a Machiavellian “agent provocateur.” For decades from Nixon to Trump he has been a ruthless dirty-tricks operator. Stone has reason to blow his own horn on his controversial role in the latter’s road to the presidency.

The Farthest (Ireland)

Writer-director Emer Reynolds does a masterful job of relating the story of the Voyager probes into outer space first launched during a critical planetary alignment 40 year ago in August 1977. Despite a computational power that now seems primitive, their explorations sent back images that greatly expanded our knowledge of the solar system, and the human presence they carry will continue travelling into the interstellar beyond for an indefinite future.

Hell on Earth (U.S.)

Directed by Sebastian Junger and Nick Quested, this is the fifth feature documentary on the Syrian crisis I’ve seen this year. (Tribeca also showed City of Ghosts, which premiered at Sundance.) A National Geographic production with the subtitle “The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS,” it is arguably the most complete in offering a penetrating analysis of the conditions that created the ongoing civil war and promoted the spread of extremism, as well as critically assessing the contribution of outside interventions to the catastrophic consequences. Watch for a full review at a future date.

Hondros (U.S./Iraq/Liberia/Libya

Jake Gyllenhaal gave a passionate introduction to the world premiere of this moving tribute to the life and iconic work of renowned war photographer Chris Hondros who was killed alongside fellow photographer Tim Hetherington (a filmmaking partner of Sebastian Junger) during the Libyan civil war in April 2011. Helmed by Greg Campbell, a journalist companion and friend of Hondros since childhood, it is a worthy recipient of the audience award for best documentary.

A River Below (Colombia/U.S.)

Director Mark Grieco embarks on an investigation into the dangerous controversy over the killing of endangered Amazon pink river dolphins — used as bait in a subsistence fishery — that also probes the motives and ethics of those behind the camera. Digging deeper leads into murky waters as the questionable methods of a pro-conservation Brazilian TV star Richard Rasmussen stand in contrast to the efforts of Colombian marine biologist Fernando Trujillo. Do advocacy ends justify the means?

ELIÁN (Northern Ireland/Ireland/U.S.)

When five-year-old Elián González was rescued in 1999 after his mother drowned attempting a Cuba to Florida crossing, he became a pawn in a huge family fight and propaganda war. The eventual return of the boy to his father in Cuba may have affected the disputed 2000 presidential election result, but the story then disappeared. In recalling these heated events in light of warming U.S.-Cuba relations, directors Tim Golden and Ross McDonnell let father and now-adult son, both proud pro-Castro patriots, speak for themselves.

ACORN and the Firestorm (U.S./India)

Writer-directors Reuben Atlas and Sam Pollard recount how the progressive action group ACORN (The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), which played a role in the election of Barack Obama, was successfully targeted by the right using devious deceptive tactics, igniting a scandal exploited by the “alt-right” including Breitbart Media. ACORN was made a pariah but survived and, who knows, in the resistance to Trumpism it may rise again.

True Conviction (U.S.)

A special jury mention was awarded to director James Meltzer’s remarkable story of a trio of men, released after their wrongful convictions were overturned, who have formed a Dallas detective agency devoted to helping prisoners in similar circumstances. They still struggle with their own demons and experience the toll of unjust incarceration in taking on some heartbreaking cases. The film notes that a record 166 men were exonerated in the U.S. in 2016 after serving an average of 15 years.

Wasted! The Story of Food Waste (U.S.)

Not only are our industrial agri-food systems wasteful and polluting, contributing to environmental problems, but it is estimated that globally one-third of what is produced is discarded, a large portion of which ends up in landfills rather than being composted. Directors Anna Chai and Nari Kye go beyond surveying this waste and its ramifications to presenting palatable solutions from around the world with executive producer, author and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain as an engaging guide.

The Last Animals (U.S.

Director Kate Brooks is a war photographer who decided to turn her camera’s attention to the ongoing slaughter of African wild animals, observing that 100,000 elephants and 5,000 rhinos were killed during the making of her film. Documenting the efforts of park rangers, conservationists and biologists, it’s dedicated to those who have died combatting the poaching crisis that (in addition to the big game hunting for profit shown in the Sundance film Trophy) is driving iconic species to the verge of extinction.

A Gray State (U.S.)

“Gray State” was the name of a libertarian anti-government film that was the project of Iraq war veteran David Crowley who became increasingly disturbed and paranoid even as his initiative went viral, attracting fanatical followers on the “alt-right” alleging conspiracies by the sinister state and global order.

Director Erik Nelson, who had access to Crowley’s enormous archive, shows the bizarre journey that ended at Christmastime 2015 in a suburban Minnesota home with a murder-suicide as supportive wife Komel and five-year-old daughter Raniya paid the price of his madness.

No Man’s Land (U.S.)

Right-wing militants and militias raging against a “tyrannical government” were also attracted to the 41-day 2016 occupation of the aptly named Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon led by out-of-state Mormon rancher Ammon Bundy. These gun-toting God-fearing “patriots” disputed federal control of public land and regarded federal agents as the enemy. By getting close to them director David Byers obtained remarkable footage of the armed standoff that divided the community. Many residents felt threatened and a county judge described the protesters as publicity-seeking “thugs.” When the FBI moved in, one vocal gunslinger from Arizona was fatally shot. Arrests were made and the Bundys convicted of damaging property but acquitted on the more serious charge of conspiracy. (The PBS Frontline program “American Patriot,” first broadcast May 16, includes other details including the history of the Bundy family’s confrontation with federal authorities in Nevada.)


Considering that the above case of blatant illegality was tantamount to an armed insurrection, or at the very least an incitement to violence — one Oregon protester is heard yelling “Don’t be afraid to shoot the FBI” — the response of the security forces might be said to have been very patient. It is interesting to compare and contrast it to the aggressive tactics deployed against indigenous peoples and supporters in peaceful protests aimed at protecting the land, water, and environment from intrusive resource development megaprojects.

None has had a higher profile in recent months than that of North Dakota Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s efforts to stop the route of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) — carrying fracked oil from the Bakken fields — going under the Missouri River. Their cause attracted unprecedented solidarity from indigenous nations (see as well as many thousands of others who came to join a large protest camp. As part of its N.O.W. (New Online Work) program, Tribeca presented the world premiere of Awake: A Dream From Standing Rock (, a collaboration by three directors — Josh Fox, James Spione, and Myron Dewey. For a limited time the film has been available to watch online for a small donation, and check the website for more information about its continuing activist campaign.

Awake shows the remarkable support network that developed over a number of months during 2016 as protesters mobilized to block the pipeline’s progress to defend against the threats to indigenous territory, sacred sites, and the potential contamination of water sources. These protest actions were both resolute and resolutely non-violent. As one organizer insists, “We must remain peaceful and prayerful in everything we do.” Yet the police response was both massive and militarized. Protesters, including indigenous elders in prayer, were shot at with rubber bullets and hosed with water cannons in sub-zero conditions as winter set in. Yet in the face of these heavy-handed tactics serving the interests of the powerful, the dream of a respectful sustainable future is undaunted. Narrated in the voice of a young indigenous woman, it closes with an appeal to “join our dream.”

A short-lived reprieve in December 2016, when the Army Corps of Engineers held up a permit, was quickly overturned by the Trump administration, which bulldozed through the DAPL’s completion. Still, Standing Rock demonstrates a solidarity of resistance that is crucial to maintain as these struggles continue.

The Tribeca shorts program also presented an important 22-minute film, Water Warriors (, directed and produced by Michael Premo, co-founder of Storyline Media. Three years in the making, Premo and his team gained the trust of the Mi’kmaq First Nation and local New Brunswick community who formed a common front of water protectors determined to stop the plans of a Texas-based company for natural gas fracking in unceded indigenous territory. As at Standing Rock, the protesters were unarmed and peaceful and sometimes faced strong-arm tactics by security forces. They were not deterred by this, or the divide and rule tactics of state-corporate promoters promising jobs and revenue to an economically depressed area.

I had the privilege of interviewing Premo and Mi’kmaq activist Debbie Cyr in New York during the festival. They emphasized the impressive solidarity that was forged between the indigenous and non-indigenous communities, its collective decision-making and creation of social capital. This broad resistance was ultimately successful in prevailing on the provincial government to put in place a moratorium on fracking activity. As Ms. Cyr observed, “People are hungry for success stories,” adding that “They (the filmmakers) did such a wonderful job of sharing our truth.” Sometimes that truth can make power listen.