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Tribeca Film Festival Debuts with 9/11 Movie


The Fifth annual Tribeca Film Festival has opened in New York. For the first time, the massive festival will show films dealing with the event that led to its creation: the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Actor Robert DeNiro and two associates started the film festival just months after the attacks to reinvigorate the Tribeca neighborhood, just north of the World Trade Center. Mr. De Niro was born nearby and has business interests, including a restaurant, in the area.

The Festival opened Tuesday evening with United 93, a film that recounts the events aboard the airplane that crashed into a Pennsylvania field after passengers prevented the hijackers from hitting their target. It has been a controversial choice, but Robert De Niro thinks it was also an obvious choice."

"Flight 93, if it was not opening the festival, it would seem strange," he said. "You cannot not be touched by it. It is a very, very good movie and very direct, simple. I think it is important to see because it is kind of a playback of what happened."

The topic is still so sensitive that the debut of United 93 provoked front page stories in New York newspapers. Several other films at the festival also focus on the events of 9/11.

One, The Saint of 9/11, is a documentary about Father Mychal Judge, the chaplain of the New York City Fire Department, who died in the collapse of one of the towers. Another documentary, Heart of Steel, tells the story of the volunteers who banded together immediately after the attack to search for survivors and help clear the wreckage.

Festival co-founder Jane Rosenthal says it is time for filmmakers to deal with the subject.

"September 11th was the most photographed event in the world and I think that the media has shown the events and the stories have come out over and over again," she said. "I think it is time. After a number of years artists digest it, whether of not it is a novelist or a sculptor or filmmaker. I think it is very important to see a filmmaker's point of view. In terms of why now? Why not now?"

In five years, Tribeca has since grown into a major film festival with films for every taste. There will be outdoor films, movies for children, documentaries, foreign films, movies from major Hollywood studios and movies made by independent filmmakers. Every year, the festival also celebrates old films that are important to the history of cinema.

This year the festival is boasting 764 screenings of more than 270 films of every genre from more than two dozen nations, including China, the Czech Republic, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Russia, Sri Lanka and Turkey.

Executive director Peter Scarlett and his staff viewed 4,100 films before narrowing down to 270. But he says they all have a common thread.

"We use the criteria does the film change my life in any way? Does it change the way I look at the world? Does it amuse me or give me goose bumps or does it move me? Is it something I have not seen before," he said. "That is what the 270 films in this program have in common this year."

The festival has become a community event, as was intended, with street parties and family festivities throughout its two-week run.

Actor-director Ed Burns, a Tribeca resident, is debuting his latest film, The Groomsman. He says the film festival is a boon to the community and to independent filmmakers.

"In speaking with other New York-based filmmakers we all love that fact that we now have our film festival," he said. "As a resident of Tribeca from before the film festival, I have seen over the course of five years what the festival has meant to my neighborhood, especially the years immediately following 9/11. There was a lot of talk about 'people are going to start to move out of Tribeca, restaurants were going to close, retail shops were going to be vacant.' You walk around the neighborhood now and you see that the opposite is true. There is construction on every corner. You cannot get a reservation at restaurants. A big part of that has to do with this festival."

Much of the film festival's emphasis is on documentaries and films that deal with serious topics. But it is the red-carpet appearance of famous movie stars that has fans lining the streets. This year fans are sure to be on the lookout for Tom Cruise and John Travolta, who will attend the openings of their newest movies.