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Tribeca Festival Provides Showcase for Foreign Films - 2003-05-15


Last year, actor Robert De Niro and his business partner, Jane Rosenthal founded the Tribeca Film Festival to jumpstart the economy in the downtown area of Manhattan after the September 11 terrorist attacks. It was a great success. This year's program was twice as large as last year's, more than 200 films. And festival officials say they sold almost three times as many tickets. Nearly half of those films and virtually all of the Festival's prize winners were made outside of North America.

The Tribeca Film Festival's award for best narrative feature went to Chinese director Li Yang for Blind Shaft, a film about a pair of miners led by circumstance to the brink of murder. The best documentary award was given to the directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Hugo Berkeley for "a normal life," a look at a group of young Albanian Kosovars returning home. All of the festival's other major awards, best short film, best actor and best actress, went to non-American performers and directors.

Tribeca Film Festival Director Peter Scarlet ran the San Francisco International Film Festival for 19 years before coming to Tribeca. He says festivals should be international, and that his work in San Francisco acted as a blueprint for Tribeca.

"The biggest compliment anyone ever paid us while I was there was from someone who came to the festival there once, held in a multi-plex [multi-film cinema] like this one here in Tribeca, who said this festival is like an airport," says Mr. Scarlet. "Leaving aside the vaguely lost and desperate air of people in airports, I think what they meant was people of all races, ages, shapes, sizes, and classes were coming together and meeting together. I think we've taken a big step toward creating that here in Tribeca this year."

Of the 150 feature films at Tribeca this year, nearly 80 come from outside North America, from countries as disparate as Africa and Australia, France and Thailand.

Iraqi Saad Salman is the director of Baghdad On/Off, a document of his secret return to Iraq, after 30 years of exile, to find his gravely-ill mother in Baghdad. He says the trip, which took place two years ago, re-introduced him to the horrors of Iraq under Saddam Hussein.

But Mr. Salman says he was unable to find a place for his film in his current home, France. Mr. Salman says that, before the war in Iraq, French distributors were hesitant to show the film because of anti-war sentiment in France.

Mr. Salman, whose attendance at the festival also marked his first ever visit to New York, says he is grateful to the Tribeca Film Festival for showcasing both his film and his experience in Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

Canadian-based, Tunisian born film-maker Nawfel Saheb-Ettaba's film, El Kotbia, or The Bookstore, is another foreign film featured at Tribeca. Mr. Ettaba says he was impressed by the way festival director Peter Scarlet sought out international films like his. "Peter Scarlet came to Berlin. He saw the film. He came, he said I'm Peter Scarlet. He introduced himself, told me about the festival," he says. "It was so fast, so direct, that it touched me. Boom! I like your film, and I want it for the festival. He explained everything to me fast, New York style, and I like it."

For Peter Scarlet, the forthright approach is just part of putting together a stimulating package of films. "When I see a film and I like it a lot, I've never been very good or interested in hiding my reaction. Some films you have to think about more, and seek their proper place in the program, but El Kotbia, the Bookstore, is one of those films I fell in love with the minute I saw it, and that's true of many of the films here," he says. "I've always been a strong believer in the need for festivals to travel, see what's going on in the world, and go up to guys like Nawfel and say, I like your film. Let us show it."

The festival also included panel discussions with filmmakers, a weekend family film festival, and events like a re-created, 1950s-era drive-in movie theater.

Despite its success in attracting audiences and media attention, it does have some critics who say it is too large, and lacks a cohesive identity. The prestigious New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, for example, has only about 25 films each year. But Mr. Scarlet urges film lovers not to be daunted by Tribeca's large program. Just close your eyes, he says, and jump in.

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