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Foreign Films Impress Critics at NY Film Festival

The Tribeca Film Festival was created to promote New York artists following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, but critics say many of the most compelling entries during the event's eight year-history have been foreign documentaries and dramas. Organizers believe a strong slate of foreign films each year echoes the multi-cultural spirit of the city.

The Tribeca Film Festival was trimmed down this year as a result of the economic downturn, showing 86 features instead of the 120 last year. Films from 36 countries are among the works being screened, with many of those movies competing in Tribeca's two main categories, World Narrative and World Competition.

Hollywood actor Robert DeNiro and his partner Jane Rosenthal launched the festival shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks. The pair wanted to bring both money and people back to lower Manhattan, and established the Tribeca Film Festival as a way of promoting local and foreign artists. Tribeca is a trendy neighborhood, located just blocks from the site of the World Trade Center attacks.

The festival grew in leaps and bounds, and Rosenthal said each year takes on a theme. This year, the festival sought more comedies as the world struggles through an economic recession.

"We've got Woody Allen and we've go Spike Lee's movies. We've got a lot of filmmakers that you haven't heard of and a lighter fair of entertainment than you've ever heard of before. I think we all need a laugh this year," Rosenthal said.

Even with a scaled-back festival, organizers said it's essential to keep the event's mix of homegrown artists and foreign newcomers. Genna Terranova is the festival's senior programmer.

"New York is a melting pot, as we know, so it's very easy to represent and have all different types of movies from all different countries. We automatically have a built in audience being such an eclectic mix of people here," Terranova said.

Some of this year's most anticipated films include About Elly, an Iranian drama about a group of old college friends who reunite for a weekend adventure on the sea, but lies and deception quickly lead to a catastrophe. Asghar Farhadi took the Best Director prize at the Berlin Film Festival this year.

"This is just such a beautiful film, it's superbly acted. We are really proud to have such a strong Iranian film in competition," Terranova said.

Another film earning critical acclaim is Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi. The documentary examines the 2007 kidnapping and beheading by the Taliban of the 24-year-old translator and intermediary hired by foreign journalists in Afghanistan. Directed by an American, Ian Olds, the movie is being shown in English, Dari, Pashto and Italian subtitles.

As in previous years, Latin American films are making a strong showing at the festival. Terranova said one highlight was the Brazilian movie, Garapa, directed by Jose Padilha.

"It's a documentary about hunger in Brazil. He follows three families, with a 16mm black and white camera. He sort of lives with this family. It's a tough film," Terranova said.

It's not just critics who flock to Tribeca's independent and foreign offerings. Outside the box office, audience members said they were excited about seeing a variety of films from different countries. Filmgoer Ann Jones said the festival atmosphere adds to the experience.

"I really like the fact that you see a film and the people that have made the film, most often the director, is present afterwards for questions and answers," Jones said.

Because many foreign, small budget and independent films often have a hard time finding large audiences or a distributor in the United States, the festival's programmers say that promoting those works is part of what makes Tribeca a special outlet for artists from all around the world.