It's a general rule of film festivals, and one that has long applied to Tribeca: If you want to increase your chances of seeing good movies, go to the documentaries.
Last year, the Tribeca Film Festival presented a pair of docs that are now making waves in theaters, "Bully" (which TFF showed under the title "The Bully Project") and "Jiro Dreams of Sushi." Among the notable entries in this year's crop are "Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Story," "Searching for Sugar Man," "Booker's Place: A Mississippi Story" and "Don't Stop Believin': Everyman's Journey."
A jury that includes Oscar winning director Michael Moore and two-time nominee Lucy Walker is now at work judging the dozen entries in the official doc competition, which includes Scott Hamilton Kennedy's "Fame High" (below), Christian Bonke's and Andres Koefoed's "Ballroom Dancer" and Beth Murphy's "The List."
But it'll be tough for any of those films to be as unsettling and provocative as "The Revisionaries," a film by Scott Thurman about the battles on the Texas State Board of Education over textbook standards.
The subject may seem dry, but Thurman's doc spotlights a hugely important battleground: Because it orders so many textbooks, Texas has an enormous impact on how those books are written, meaning that the 15 civilians can impact the teaching of tens of millions of students.
The board has in recent decades been stocked with conservatives and evangelical Christians looking to weaken the teaching of evolution, but Thurman goes further than that key fight to show its attempt to steer the teaching of social studies in more conservative directions as well.
One minor but illustrative example comes during a debate over social studies textbooks, when board member (and former chair) Don McLeroy proposes a little amendment: "On [item] 23B, I would like to remove hip-hop and replace it with country music [on a list of musical genres]."
"The Revisionaries" has been lauded by many as being an even-handed look at the debate; it doesn’t demonize conservatives like McLeroy and Cynthia Dunbar (photo above) as they push to introduce the "insufficencies" of evolution into textbooks, and it gives them plenty of time to lay out their positions on camera.
But for this viewer, at least, the film is damning and devastating as it lays out a system that puts, for example, science education under the oversight of McLeroy, who believes that the Earth is 6,000 years old and that dinosaurs lived alongside humans.
"Science is great, but it doesn't deserve the pedestal it's been put on," says McLeroy at one point; at another, he sums up his philosophy thusly: "Somebody's gotta stand up to experts."
Thurman never turns his film into an advocacy doc the way the way he easily could have done, but he has produced a frightening look at the politicalization of education, and at an arena too often dominated by what one SMU scientist calls "a flammable mixture of ignorance and arrogance."
Among the many amendments we see proposed (and passed) to the social studies textbooks is one that asks the books to discuss the positive impact of Ronald Reagan on American pride during his two presidential terms in the 1980s. The board members who proposed that addition would no doubt be appalled by another Tribeca doc, "Let Fury Have the Hour," which had its world premiere on Saturday night.
Director Antonino D'Ambrosio's film examines a generation of musicians, artists and writers who became politicized during the 1980s, and who used their art as an angry response to the politics and social policies of Reagan in the United States and his friend and counterpart, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the U.K.
For his film, D'Ambrosio featured interviews with some 50 artists, including Public Enemy's Chuck D, Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello, Fugazi's Ian MacKaye, "Vagina Monologues" playwright Eve Ensler, comic Lewis Black and filmmaker John Sayles.
The film focuses on the "hybrid culture" that sprang up in the intersection of punk rock, skateboarding and hip-hop, and on a variety of creative response to the Reagan and Thatcher policies that its participants say widened the gap between the haves and the have-nots – or, as D'Ambrosio said when he introduced the film at Tribeca, "the dark cloud that descended on America during the Reagan era."
The array of smart, passionate and angry artists talk at length about the birth of their political consciousness and about their philosophy of creative reaction; Eugene Hutz (right), the frontman of the gypsy punk band Gogol Bordello, sums it up as "you got a microphone – you better use it in a good way, man."
The film is dense and thought-provoking, though not as visceral as it could have been had its subjects spent more time playing their music and less time simply talking about it. Most of the music featured by D'Ambrosio plays in the background, which makes his film more of a cerebral journey than an emotional one; it seems a shame to have the gifted English singer-songwriter Billy Bragg talk about the roots and reasons for his work, and then to never hear any of that work.
Still, the film does a strong job of encompassing a multi-faceted global movement that has been thriving for more than 30 years. It's a movie, said D'Ambrosio on Saturday night, that is more about the present than the past.
"Creative response is a timeless movement," he said, "just as what it opposes is timeless. Reagan and Thatcher have had many different names throughout history."