A still from The Director

I’d like to clear the air on something.

The 2013 Tribeca Film Festival, which is being held April 17-28, announced its impressive film slate last week. I know at least three of the documentaries are top-notch and well worth seeing: Let the Fire Burn, about the disastrous battle between Philadelphia police and the group MOVE, Cutie and the Boxer, about a Japanese artist couple who relocated to Manhattan, and Kill Team, about an allegedly rogue squad of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. There are also a number of others that pique my interest, including Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic, Bending Steel, about Coney Island strong men, and Teenage, about, yes, teenagers.

But the inclusion of one documentary, The Director, about how Gucci’s creative director, Frida Giannini, has steered the fashion label to new heights, caused me a moment’s pause. Isn’t Gucci a major sponsor of the festival? Wouldn’t that be a conflict of interest?

It turns out I was wrong in my thinking, but let’s get the facts straight.

Gucci is indeed a very generous sponsor of docs through the Gucci Tribeca Documentary Fund and the Gucci Tribeca Documentary Fund for the Spotlighting Women Documentary Award. Together, the funds gave out $200,000 for docs last year via the non-profit Tribeca Film Institute, an organization that Robert De Niro, Jane Rosenthal and Craig Hatkoff started in the wake of 9/11, in an attempt to revitalize downtown New York. They also started the Tribeca Film Festival at the same time with the similar mission. I am assured that the two entities are run entirely separately: Their only overlap is that Rosenthal and De Niro remain co-chairs of both boards of directors.

“The Film Festival’s selection of this film has nothing to do with the relationship the Tribeca Film Institute has with Gucci,” Genna Terranova, the director of programming for the festival told me. “From a programming perspective, we just care about the filmmaking and the story.”

I am not yelling, “Guccigate!” or suggesting that there’s something terribly underhanded going on here. But let’s keep things honest by allowing ourselves to ask questions.

To me, this is just the latest example of the changing world of documentaries. On one side, there’s the financing: No longer does the money come from grants and (seemingly objective) government funds for the arts. Filmmakers need progressive-thinking corporations like Gucci for financing. On the creative side, more and more documentaries aren’t just about injustice or turning up stones in the Bayou. They’re about beauty, style and entertainment. And they’re also not necessarily critical.

The Director, directed by Christina Voros (and produced by her creative partner James Franco, who used to be the “face” of Gucci), fits snugly within the budding subgenre of fashion docs that includes Unzipped, The September Issue, Valentino: The Last Emperor, Marc Jacobs & Louis Vuitton, and Seamless. It may be convenient that these documentaries manage to burnish, rather than burn, their subjects, but that doesn’t make them wrong. (I have not seen The Director, and I am assuming it says more good of Gucci than not.)

It reminds me that when I recently spoke with lo-fi Missouri festival True/False’s Paul Sturtz, he mentioned that he felt relieved he doesn’t have major sponsors so that he won’t have to worry about corporate entanglements. But let’s check in with him if Anheuser-Busch ever promises him a zillion dollars so Budweiser can replace Schlafly as its beer sponsor.

Alas, a non-profit organization — and a festival in New York City — don’t have such freedoms. It costs major money to make it in this town. (Chanel happens to be the fashion sponsor of the festival.) And, when money is involved, everyone ought to work extra hard to keep clean.

“Frida’s story is compelling and humble and Christina’s filmmaking is confident and beautiful,” Tribeca’s Terranova said. “It is exciting to see two very talented women so assured in their work.”

I look forward to seeing the film and judging it on its merits.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen