Tribeca Film Festival features Cuban drama, Iraqi documentary

Now in its second decade, the Tribeca Film Festival founded by Robert De Niro has weathered the September 11 bruises of its downtown neighbourhood and the economic crash that wounded Wall Street in 2008.

Characters in a scene from the Spanish movie Grupo 7 (Unit 7) from left, Angel (played by Mario Casas), and Rafael (Antonio de la Torre).
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Now in its second decade, the Tribeca Film Festival founded by Robert De Niro has weathered the September 11 bruises of its downtown neighbourhood and the economic crash that wounded Wall Street in 2008.

Property values are at unprecedented levels in lower Manhattan. So are the expectations for crowds to see everything from the opening comedy, The Five-Year Engagement, directed by Nicholas Stoller and starring Jason Segel and Emily Blunt, to documentaries about sports to some of the oddest animation this side of Tim Burton.

Tribeca closes with The Avengers, directed by Joss Whedon, with Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth and Scarlett Johansson.

The festival kicks off its 2012 programme with new leadership. Taking over as the artistic director is the Frenchman Frederic Boyer, who went from founding a popular video store in Paris in 1984 to selecting films for the Directors' Fortnight series at the Cannes Film Festival.

As always, Tribeca, with 89 feature films, is an eclectic mix. The blend should be no surprise for an event that has built a general audience, but still shows a sizeable chunk of US independent films, which tend toward minimal budgets. One such film this year is The Giant Mechanical Man, directed and written by Lee Kirk, in which the quirky misfit Jenna Fischer (The Office) is drawn to a street mime on stilts (Chris Messina) who paints his skin a metallic grey.

Along with those indies are films from countries that wouldn't have a prayer in the commercial US box office.

Among the international premieres is Unit 7 (Grupo 7) from Spain, directed and co-written by Alberto Rodriguez. In this urban thriller, police and drug dealers battle in the picturesque historic city of Seville, with a cast led by the Spanish heartthrob Mario Casas. The mission is to stamp out the violent drug trade before the opening of Seville's international exposition of 1992.

Another drama in Spanish at Tribeca is Una Noche, the feature debut by the British director Lucy Mulloy, drawn from everyday life in Havana, Cuba (and funded in part by Tribeca). Three teenagers on the edge of the law finally embark on their dream to escape to Miami on a raft. They don't get far. On the margins of the Berlin Film Festival, in a section devoted to films about children and teenagers, Una Noche will be at the forefront of Tribeca, since political tensions can make anything dealing with Cuba a delicate matter in the US.

Closer to home is Baby Girl, filmed by an Irish transplant to New York, Macdara Vallely, in the Bronx. The world premiere at Tribeca of the local story of a teenage girl living and quarrelling with her mother will be a calling card for its young stars.

Tribeca's low-budget selections, says Boyer, should remind young filmmakers that they can make movies with the most minimal resources.

"Filmmakers here have shown that you can make films in one room - take a good script, good actors, you don't have to be rich - film your parents and your grandmother, film your dog and your cat," he said.

One of Boyer's favourites is the low-tech animated epic Consuming Spirits, which does just that. Shot frame by frame in 16mm by Chris Sullivan, this tale of murder and small-town horror, narrated by characters at a local newspaper in a depressed corner of Pennsylvania, is a bizarre collage of Americana - the antithesis of hi-tech projects from Pixar or Disney. Yet Consuming Spirits could earn cult status for the sheer audacity of its handmade approach to storytelling.

Just as baffling will be the US premiere of Francophrenia (or: Don't Kill Me, I Know Where the Baby Is), an experimental film by James Franco and the director Ian Olds. Franco brought a film crew along on his only appearance on the soap opera General Hospital, and the reconstitution of footage from that show tells a tale of a man overcome by paranoia.

The Arab world is present at Tribeca this year in The List, a documentary by Beth Murphy about Iraqis who worked for the US military, now marked for death by radical groups, who are struggling to enter the US. "America wants to put the Iraq War behind us. The war is done, we've moved on, we're in Afghanistan, we're thinking about Iran, we have a lot of other things to focus on," she said with regret. "Iraq is done. And so, therefore, we're done with the Iraqis as well."

• The Tribeca Film Festival begins Wednesday and continues until April 29


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