Our Man in Tribeca: A Fish Out Of Water

Tribeca Film Festival: The Importance of Being Silent by


This is the first  dispatch from “Our Man in Tribeca” Ioannis Pappos, who is  covering the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival  (April 18-29).

In part, we owe the Tribeca Film Festival to Al Qaeda. After the 9/11 attacks, Robert De Niro co-founded the festival to raise the spirit and economy of Lower Manhattan. Ten years and five thousand screenings later, the festival’s Doha Tribeca spin-off is well established in Qatar. De Niro’s way of teaching fanatics a lesson in their own backyard? Or just another convenient symbiosis between super-rich Arabs and independent filmmakers?

I took my first stroll through Tribeca in the spring of 1993, soon after I moved to New York. I recall the neighborhood’s architecture resembling the trendy, then-gallery-packed Soho: the same textile cast-iron buildings. But the similarities stopped here. Once you crossed Canal Street, you relaxed. Tribeca was the quieter, less viable downtown. The conversion of buildings into condos had already begun, but the blocks retained an 80’s undiscovered artists-lofts feel. A sort of no-man’s land, where alienated walkers disappeared. Night-lights were few and far between. People went to Odeon, a restaurant as noir as its neighborhood, and to De Niro’s Tribeca Bar and Grill, a space as elusive as its famous owner, an actor notorious for his privacy. After two decades of hyper-invasive journalism, we still know very little about De Niro’s personal life.

Averse to interviews, and uncomfortable during those to which he concedes, De Niro remains tongue-tied when it comes to anything beyond work. But interestingly enough, his silence spills over into his craft. We know much more about De Niro’s physical body—his weight fluctuations and exercises he puts himself through before shoots—than about his psychology as a method actor. Even the dialogue in his movies is constrained. Watching him again in some of his most memorable roles—Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Jake La Motta in Raging Bull, Max Cady in Cape Fear—I was dazed by the extent to which silence factors into his acting. It is the body-movements, the one-liners, the faces and grimaces of a working class urban-loner that iconize his work. In a sense De Niro is a ‘Tribeca’ actor; he works starkly and stays silent about it.

I lived couple of miles away from the World Trade Center when 9/11 happened. After the sirens stopped, which took weeks, De Niro, Jane Rosenthal, and Craig Hatkoff founded the Tribeca Film Festival in 2002. Their mission was simple: expose a group of diverse movies and filmmakers to audiences in downtown Manhattan. They covered features (from independent to blockbusters), documentaries, shorts, international, and family movies. Their project was all about the community and became almost an instant success. It hosted panels and workshops, interactive games, concerts, sports, and even outdoor screenings on the Hudson River. By the mid 00’s, the number of submissions and screenings had grown exponentially. It was impossible to live in Manhattan and not have experienced Tribeca in some way. Mission accomplished. Over-accomplished; by the late 00’s my neighbors couldn’t get tickets. They declared the festival a victim of its own success. At the other end, friends who worked in the media had not seen a ‘Sex Lies and Videotape’ breakout movie – a movie that “made” Sundance. “Tribeca lacks focus, an identity. It’s not ‘industry’ yet,” a Sundance contender and Berlinale-awarded screenwriter shrugged.

 “What is an industry-festival?” I asked him.

“Sundance,” he spat back.

Whatever “industry” means, the gap between the De Niro-Tribeca and the Redford-Sundance paradigms is striking. In Utah, the quintessential American movie star (looks, waspy-“Everything came to easy to him”-roles) founded the American golden-boy festival. Sundance is casual Hollywood, a cabin where filmmaking wonder-boys party with stars in North Face outfits, the ultimate cool for media insiders. Sure, it’s sexy. But Sundance is more than that: it is the American dreams-happen festival. A place where movies and careers are made within a week. Reservoir Dogs, El Mariachi, and Clerks are on its long-list of  breakouts of the past twenty-five years. And with Berlin, Cannes, and Venice into the circuit, insiders question if there is room for one more “industry” festival.

They may have a point. Transamerica (2005), Tribeca’s flashiest discovery, didn’t get the festival where it is today. Rather, much like De Niro’s body and body of work, the festival’s physical evidence, the volume and breadth of its screenings made up Tribeca’s DNA. As a New Yorker of twelve years, hence as a New Yorker oversaturated by downtown’s casual coolness, I took the festival trotters’ second-class label on Tribeca personally. Why should Tribeca be more of an “industry” festival? Or, better put, why shouldn’t Tribeca’s subtler, less sexy, community-diversity purpose remain its identity?

“Because entertainment is changing,” West Villagers explained to me during video-on-demand recession nights at their brownstones home theaters. “The industry’s discovery process continues: staying cool means staying cutting-edge, means staying in business. It’s all about the technology, community is irrelevant. Community gets redefined through technology all the time,” they argued. I nodded. Still, I called the Bay Area friends I went to school with, engineers in Palo Alto who (unlike me) stuck it through after the dot.com crash.

“I’ve been to Sundance three times in the last five years,” an artist and digital entrepreneur from California told me.

“You used to go to the Burning Man[1],” I pointed out.

“Totally,” he laughed. “But who didn’t? In fact, most of my employees go to both. Now my daughter met some kids at Sundance and wants to go to Burning Man.”

I paused at this one, his daughter can’t be more than twelve. I thought of my friend’s early days, a kid with car-living roots and breakout hopes. He bet on the digital-cheap future of the industry, and he had a point: independent filmmaking has grown in unprecedented ways. “To put in perspective, the first year of Tribeca in 2002, we had 1,300 submissions and in this last year, we had 5,500,” Tribeca’s departing Program Director, David Kwok, told Indiewire. “So, in less than ten years, our submissions have quadrupled and I know that is the case with other festivals. We knew more films were being made, especially when digital [filmmaking] hit and more people could make films and more countries were making films than ten years ago.”

With the promise of cheaper movies, and the emotional birth of Tribeca, I can’t help but wonder about responses to disaster in my homeland: the financially- and morally-exhausted Greece. “I think it’s our duty to remind people that it’s not all depression, that life goes on, we can still believe in creativity,” Orestis Andreadakis, the artistic director of Athens International Film Festival, told the Guardian. It’s heartening to see culture holding up during Greece’s combat for survival. Maria Leonida, a Greek film producer and co-founder of Karpos, a nonprofit group that provides classes for people of all ages about film language, says, “We believe that all people should have a better understanding of the media language and that they can be more critical viewers and, if they want, become producers themselves. They can tell stories.” The ongoing Greek tragedy has stories to tell, you bet, but it’s unlikely that Athens will have Tribeca’s cultural and economic turnaround. Tribeca had an infusion of millions of dollars in federal funding, an army of movie stars that endorsed its festival, and a ubiquitous American Express sponsorship. See, Tribeca may not be the coolest or sexiest festival but there is nothing naïve about it. “Money,” De Niro answered when he was asked what drew him to Little Fockers, the third part of the Meet the Parents trilogy. “It is what it is and you have no control over that, other than to take advantage of it,” he added.

In 2006, when one of the daughters of Qatar’s emir worked as an intern for Tribeca, few could have imagined that three years later Doha Tribeca Film Festival would be launched under a multimillion extravaganza in Qatar. “Guiding vision comes from Her Excellency Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani” (got that?) Craig Hatkoff told The Huffington Post. The alliance raised eyebrows. With two film festivals already close together in the Middle East, one in Dubai and another in Abu Dhabi, the opportunity cost of Tribeca’s decision to expand to Doha came into question. Wouldn’t deprived regions and film industries, say in Greece or the Balkans, do more with such a license? And, the undying question, can billionaires rush their way into becoming the next cultural center by throwing in tons of cash? It’s hard to tell what De Niro was really thinking—remember, he doesn’t like to talk much. There may have been a political angle (in fact, Qatar has been WikiLeaks-linked to Al Qaeda) even an “are-you-terrorizing-me?“De Niroism. Maybe he is stocking up favors and cash before announcing his Balkan Tribeca Film Festival. Either way, the decision to go east coupled with a beyond-geographies expansion via Web streaming and video-on-demand (yes, Tribeca now distributes) calls to mind De Niro’s “it is what it is and you have no control over that, other than to take advantage of it.”

There is a feeling of inevitability comes with globalization. Whoever accepts the utilitarian principle (the greatest-benefit-to-the-most-people) should be willing to look beyond the resources and focus on the benefits. But community and globalization don’t always go hand-in-hand. The controversies of over-expansion need to be addressed even if in the name of incubating independent creativity. Tribeca seems to answer these difficult questions by insisting on highlighting its reach across geographies, genres, media, and a mix of nonprofit with for-profit ventures. By choosing Frederic Boyer as Artistic Director, a festival expert characterized as bohemian if not unconventional, to work with Geoff Gilmore (a 20-years Sundance veteran and head of for-profit Tribeca Enterprises) Tribeca sticks to its diverse leadership and offerings. Ten years after the sirens of 9/11, Tribeca’s multiple, often-competing offerings, the festival’s own “noise”, can silence sharper more independent sounds of creativity in Lower Manhattan.

[1] A week long pagan event in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada described as an experiment in community and extreme self-expression.

Ioannis Pappos
Writer, management consultant, and fisherman, Ioannis Pappos comes from Pelio, Greece. A graduate of Stanford University and INSEAD Business School, Ioannis has worked in the US and Western Europe. He recently finished his first novel “Hotel Living,” and contributes to blogs and magazines on both sides of the Atlantic. He lives in New York. You can read more of his work at www.ioannispappos.com or follow him @IoannisPappos on Twitter.

Facebook Comments

Leave a Reply