Tribeca Film Festival: Episode three - daring documentaries

Bombay Beach does documentary dance and The Bully Project aims to change lives.

by Amber Wilkinson

Tribeca Film Festival may be just 10 years old but sometimes youth can be an advantage. It's fair to say that there is a 'type' of film that gets shown at certain festivals. At Sundance, for example, there are certain relationship and coming-of-age themes that the programmers clearly like and which are always present in the line-up. Tribeca, however, is a broader church with its eclectic mix often featuring surprising gems - although sometimes the quality control, particularly in terms of American indies, can slip a bit. One particularly interesting minor trend, is their selection of documentaries that question the 'form' of factual film.

Last year, The Arbor mulled over issues of memory, biography and interpretation at the same time as telling the story of playwright Andrea Dunbar's life, and this year Bombay Beach invites surreality to the party.

Alma Har'el's film documents life on the shores of the Salton Sea. In the 1950s this inland sea in the middle of the desert became a symbol of the American dream. "The future is here," proclaimed adverts, urging the great and the good to lap up the joys of this surprising oasis. Sixty years later, much has changed. Fish lie dead on the grey shoreline, killed by the water's high salinity and flipped over occasionally by a stray, scum-topped wave, while the local community is largely comprised of the impoverished "misfits of the world".

But while this is a long, long way from the American dream, the picture is more complex than the simple nightmare you might expect. Har'el's camera tracks three main protagonists over the course of a year - young Benny, whose attention span and disorders are regulated by an, at times, worrying drug regimen; teenager CeeJay, who sees the "boredom" of Bombay Beach as an escape from the danger of his old life in LA; and old-timer Red, whose views are by turns scarily prejudiced and disarmingly poetic.

Each of these characters and their family and friends have a fascinating story to tell, but Har'el doesn't stop at mere documentary, intercutting scenes from their lives with carefully choreographed dance. The result catches you off-guard. Initially, it seems dance may just be happening by chance but as the film progresses you realise she has worked with her 'subjects' to create something more than just a snapshot of their lives. This surealist edge seems oddly fitting for a place so fundamentally weird as the Salton Sea, but also lends the film an elegiac and dreamy quality that makes you consider the reality that, of course, the lives and aspirations of those captured here run much more deeply than a documentary can ever show.

Much more straightforward in its documentary scope but no less enthralling is Lee Hirsch's The Bully Project (now renamed Bully by distributors). It's an emotional torrent of a film that immerses you in the experiences of the families and children whose lives are blighted by the age-old problem of school bullying. Sadly, two of the kids talked about here aren't able to voice their pain, as bullying drove both to suicide - one at age just 11. I watch a lot of documentary, but the sight of little Ty Field-Smalley's mum being propped up as she walks to his graveside to "Tuck him in one last time" is one of the most heartrending things I have ever seen committed to film and, sadly, it is just one of many moments that are sure to generate tears and fury in any audience that watches it.

It is not just the behaviour of the children who bully that is on trial here, but of the adults in positions of power who, not only do little or nothing about it but bully the parents for having the temerity to expect more for their children. These may be American kids who are having it tough, but bullying is a universal problem and this documentary is perfect for educational screenings and the sort of thing that all kids over the age of seven should be encouraged to watch and discuss.

The public screening I attended was a full house and the presence of several of the families and children in the film led to a standing ovation. It is remarkably brave of all of them not only to sit through what surely must be some very painful memories, but to be prepared to speak about it afterwards.

It was good to hear that already some good has come out of the film, with one of the worst bullied, Alex - complete with cool new haircut - saying things have turned around at school for him.

In yet another tissue-issue moment, he said: "At first I felt nervous but then I got kind of used to it. I had fun being filmed and being here just makes me happy."

Talking about obtaining permissions from many of the parents of the bullies, so that their faces could be seen on film, producer Cynthia Lowen said: "As you might expect we had a lot of hard conversations with a lot of parents. We showed the scenes that their children were in to their parents and they were, by and large, extraordinarily upset and disappointed and they wanted the kids to be in this film because they wanted them to take responsibility for what they had done."

Hirsch went on to say that change starts with anyone and everyone. He said: "Everyone who watches this film has the capacity to go out and make a difference."

On that positive note, families and filmmakers have started a movement to encourage better awareness from adults and more solidarity from children, you can read more about it here. We also had a longer chat to Hirsch about the film and his motivations and will be bringing you it in due course.

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