Harlan Jacobson Reports from the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival

Having closed down in 2020, along with the rest of the world, the Tribeca Film Festival is the first American festival to come back, or most of the way back from all virtual to mostly theatrical. And come back it did, with 192 features, including 90 narrative and 102 documentaries, plus sections devoted to episodic TV, games and new media, sit-down chats, and a special mixed program selection of Juneteenth programming. You can see many of the films in theatres or streaming over the coming months.

The first Tribeca FF in 2002 was in response to Sept. 11, the year before. Robert DeNiro who’d set up shop in Tribeca, wanted to help rebuild not just the neighborhood but confidence in New York and the US through the one engine he knew, film. 

Tribeca has more than done its part to restore downtown. But it has struggled to find high profile programming over the two decades, for reasons that are partly a function of the world festival calendar.  It’s still what it has always been -- an interesting grab bag of films at varying levels of quality, well marketed to the public as an event, spreading its footprint out to theatres all over town in the ensuing years, and making downtown the growth area of Manhattan. 

Civilization reasserts itself through art, and there’s been a river of films at Tribeca this year about the pathfinders, door breakers and troublemakers otherwise engaged in art as artists.

Bernstein’s Wall by Douglas Tirola is a doc about Leonard Bernstein, using archival footage, home movies, interviews and testaments to paint a picture of this most magnetic of symphony conductors and composers, who made his way from Boston—at 10, Bernstein daydreamed regularly about killing his tyrannical Russian Jewish father—to smash through to one of the most public and protean careers in serious music of the 20thcentury. Pair that with director and Johns Hopkins media studies professor Bernadette Wegenstein’s The Conductor, a doc about Marin Alsop, who at 9 went to one of Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts, which set her compass to smash through as the first music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. 

My favorite doc this year is Tribeca’s premiere of The Lost Leonardo, Andreas Koefoed’s doc about the strange journey of the Salvator Mundi, a painting of indeterminate provenance, restored, retouched and purporting to be a found Leonardo Da Vinci bought as a sleeper for less than $1200 ($1175) at auction in New Orleans in 2005. It then passes through the funhouse mirror that’s the art business until sold at Christie’s in 2017 for $450 million to Mohammed Bin Salman, the emergent Sultan of Swat in Saudi Arabia. Koefoed’s brilliant orchestration of the painting’s strange path then combines it with Bin Salman’s other escapades –a $450 million yacht, a $300 million French chateau, the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Bin Salman’s warm reception by French President Emmanuel Macron, because business is business. Which culminates in the Salvator Mundi’s no-show appearance at the Louvre, after the Saudi Crown Prince tries to leverage whatever-it-is, as the Male Mona Lisa pin-up, next to the original. The Louvre balked at that, though it jeopardizes a huge French contract to design a $20 billion Saudi art and tourist complex at Mada ‘in Saleh. Meanwhile, the FBI and CIA are hot on the trail of the painting for Saudi money laundering and terrorist funding, which got its own front page NY Times story over the weekend. 

The Lost Leonardo plays like that car at the circus releasing a stream of hustlers instead of clowns, all characters taken from Georges Simenon, the Ealing comedies of Alec Guinness, and Quentin Tarantino’s band of petty criminals in high places. It’s set for an August release. And I wouldn’t miss it to save the world. 


Having stumbled over a young Buddy Guy when he was working the college circuit, I loved a doc about Buddy Guy, The Blues Chase the Blues Away, by a trio of directors, with a wealth of footage starting with home movies in Lettsworth, LA where the now nearly 85-year-old Guy was born the son of sharecroppers. “The first music that touched my heart came from the birds," the legendary guitarist relates” that caught my ear when I was in the fields wondering about all the creatures made by God.”  Then he hears John Lee Hooker play “Boogie Chillun,” and his career path was set.  

Also, at Tribeca is Mariem Perez Riera’s doc, Rita Moreno: Just A Girl Who Decided To Go For It, which underlines what determination and luck mean to a Hollywood career, now see in theatres, and Jamila Wignot’s riveting portrait of Alvin Ailey, Ailey, set for theatres July 23, with both docs getting their start at this year’s Sundance in January. There were features on Wolfgang Puck, Anthony Bourdain, Stanley Kubrick, Larry Flynt, Ben Fong Torres, Rick James, Dick Gregory, and Gordon Parks. You can see how easy it is to get lost at Tribeca on this one trajectory through the festival. The festival closed Saturday night by reopening Radio City Music Hall for the first time in over a year with Dave Chappelle: This Time This Place by Julia Reichert and Steve Bognar (American Factory). That’s about 6000 mask-free folks bearing vaccination cards who dropped in to see footage from Chappelle’s stand-up comedy and commentary shows, also featuring Jon Stewart, Chris Rock, David Letterman, Tiffany Haddish, Sarah Silverman and more, in a cornfield near his home in Yellow Springs, Ohio during the pandemic summer of 2020. 

Artistic wildcards were everywhere in fiction films, too. Pan Nalin’s The Last Film Show, a France-India coproduction, alights in the city of Chalala, in the Indian state of Gujarat up near the Pakistani border, It tells the story of Samay (Bhavin Rabari), a 10- or 12-year-old scamp who has precisely the gift for disobedience that a good storyteller – say, like Nalin himself -- needs when backing his way into the future as an art renegade. Samay wants to make movies. His chai pushcart father tries to beat it out of him, as does the rest of India. There’s a bit of the Cinema Paradiso memoir in The Last Film Show, but without the sugar high. 

Finally, there was Brighton 4th, a Georgian fiction film by Levan Koguashvili, that won best foreign film at the festival.  It is a Georgian shaggy dog story, written by Boris Frumin, that starts in Tbilisi in a dreary bar full of Georgian men all facing the screen watching a soccer match on the lone TV, some of them, maybe all of them, with rent money on the game. It moves on to Brighton Beach, New York, where an old Georgian wrestler, Kakhi – the artist of the piece-- arrives and challenges a transplanted Georgian gangster – your worst nightmare kinda guy  -- to a wrestling match on the beach, double or nothing on his son’s poker debt. His green card money, what else? Levan Tedaishvili’s Kakhi is like Coop or Clint, doesn’t say much, just gets the necessary information. After that, there’s no doubt the bad guy oughtta just leave Brooklyn, while the leaving is good. This is a wonderful movie, please God, somebody buy it for the US market.