Big Men, directed by Rachel Boynton, screened at the Tribeca Film Festival (April 17-28, 2013).

My Tribeca Film Festival is off to a great start. I started my Friday with a screening of Big Men, followed by Flex is Kings. Luckily I was sitting, because both films would have knocked me off my feet.

There’s this overwhelming feeling one gets, the kind that puts your hair on end and tears welling in your eyes, when watching a documentary that puts you into another world, and screams, there’s something truly incredible happening here!

And to think that, while Big Men is set (mostly) in Africa, Flex plays out in my backyard, Brooklyn, NY.

Big Men is directed by Rachel Boynton, who managed to get incredible access to a small Texas oil company, Kosmos, just as it was discovering a muilt-billion dollar oil reserve off the coast of Ghana. Boynton traces the development of this discovery from the money guys in New York to the oil guys in Dallas, and through many of the players–from politicians to rebel fighters–in Africa.

What unfolds in Big Men is more than the discovery of oil, but a thorough examination of humanity and what motivates men who want to be big men. Who doesn’t act in their self interest? Who doesn’t try to do what’s best for their own? Those questions are asked equally of all the men in this documentary.

In other words, this hard-hitting political expose is filled with soul-searching metaphors. No wonder it sets the tone with opening quotes about selfish acts and gold-digging from economist Milton Friedman and from the Humphrey Bogart film, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. It’s a film the puts up a big target. And, yes, it hits it.

Finding oil proves to be both a blessing and a curse for many of the people involved, and Boynton manages to trace them from the jungle where we empathize for a gun-toting rebel to the New York stock exchange floor, where you can’t help love an oil tycoon who grunts, “this kind of sucks,” between glad-handing.

As good as Big Men is, Flex is Kings, directed by Deidre Schoo and Michael Beach Nichols, is more visceral, and therefore even more impactful. It follows the lives of several people involved in extreme street dancing; think break dancing, but on a whole new, athletic, level. I’ve seen flex dancing on the streets, in the subways, but never really got it. Flex is Kings gets it, and it effectively demonstrates that it is an art form, a cultural mode of expression that is as beautiful and honorable as any other. The difference is that it is very raw, and it’s blowing up right now.

We follow two flex dancers, Flizzo and Jay Donn, who are vivid subjects. When Jay gets picked to join a dance troupe, the meshing of the two dance forms, probably for the first time, turns this documentary into more than just discovery, it becomes a type of artistic creation.

I should note that neither film is perfect. Both would benefit from tightening and stronger editing (and Flex sounded like it was in mono–as moved as I was, with better sound, it would have been even more affecting).

As far as I’m concerned, Tribeca is firing on all cylinders.

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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