In preparation for talking with Tribeca Film Festival programmer Cara Cusumano, I began checking off the most intriguing documentaries I wanted to see at the festival, which kicks off today. But my list grew too long. That’s a tribute to the festival, and to documentary film. It’s a reflection of how documentary has increasingly grown to equal footing with narrative films at festivals. There has always been a sense of that at Sundance, but less so at Tribeca. But this year, you just have to look at the most hyped screenings at Tribeca — the ones that are considered major events, as it were — to see that it’s going to be true over the next week and a half.

Here’s a sampling:

Tonight’s opening night movie is Live From New York!, a documentary about NBC’s sketch comedy show, which will screen at the Beacon Theater.

The premiere of A Ballerina’s Tale, about Misty Copeland, the first African-American female soloist at the American Ballet Theatre in two decades, will feature a Q&A with Copeland as well as a ballet performance with two of her mentees.

Mary J Blige – The London Sessions will be followed by a live performance by the singer.

Monty Python: The Meaning of Live, about those beloved silly Brits, is premiering as part of a larger celebration of the group, who will be in attendance.

Montage of Heck, the deliriously good doc about Kurt Cobain, will be followed by a conversation between director Brett Morgen and Courtney Love.

At the heart of each of those glittering events is non-fiction film. Cusumano points out that last year, five documentaries that showed at Tribeca ended up on the Oscar short list, which has helped bolster its position as a go-to venue for documentaries to launch. Here are seven docs I hope to see:

A Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers Did

My mother is a Catholic from Germany; my father was a Jewish American who fought in World War II, so let’s just say I have an interest in this story about the children of Nazi perpetrators of heinous crimes. I am particularly excited that, according to Cusumano, director David Evans breaks the traditional role of the objective filmmaker.

Among the Believers

Any film that promises to get inside the madrassas in Pakistan, where young jihadists are raised to wreak havoc on the world, deserves attention. Cusumano promises that the film achieves amazing access, so I am eager for a meaningful dive into one of the most important issues facing our planet.

The Birth of Saké

First, saké is awesome. So, I would love to see how director Erik Shirai is going to create an “atmospheric ode” to the drink. Cusumano confirms that the film is, “really visual, lushly filmed and all about the process.” People looking forward to something akin to Jiro Dreams of Sushi should shake that notion. There are no interviews.

The Emperor’s New Clothes

Director Michael Winterbottom (24 Hour Party-People) paired with comedian Russell Brand to take on financial inequality sounds like a fun ride to me. “It’s platform for Brand’s political ideas and a place for him to talk about his beliefs,” says Cusumano. “He encourages you to think about things in a different way.”

In Transit

I’m not exactly sure what to make of Albert Maysles’ last film. I was initially excited because he told me a while back about this footage he shot of a woman on a train and how it was the foundation of his dream project. I had thought that that was going to be in this meditation on fate and life as experienced on a train. I’ve heard that that footage is not, in fact, in this film. Still, it should be interesting to see his last documentary, which he co-directed with Lynn True, Nelson Walker, David Usui and Ben Wu.

Thought Crimes

Probably the most uncomfortable doc to see at the festival this year will be this tale of New York City cop Gilberto Valle, the “cannibal cop” who wanted to rape, kill and eat women. But this will not be a mere salacious retelling of the case. Cusumano says although the film will “scratch that itch,” it is more of a theoretical inquiry into how a person can be implicated for a crime that was merely intended. (If he shows up, Valle is one subject that Cusumano is hoping to not spend much time with at the festival.)


A year ago, I saw a rough cut of this meditation on a small town in Texas, and adored its beautiful cinematography and rich characters. And there were deep themes about nature and the individual unearthed. I can’t wait to see what directors Anna Sandilands and Ewan McNicol have done with it.

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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