The documentary slate of the Tribeca Film Festival, which kicks off this week on April 19th, just keeps getting stronger and stronger. Time and strong curation has solidified the festival’s place in the doc firmament. To get the low-down, I emailed with Cara Cusumano, the festival’s Director of Programming, about this year’s docs that, as she says below, “depicted moments in the recent or distant past that seemed to speak to our current climate allegorically or in microcosm.”

The films do indeed feel immediate and imperative, even though they are steeped in the long view. My exchange with Cusumano follows.

Tom Roston: What are the dominant themes for this year’s doc slate?

Cusumano: Our programming process takes place in the fall so we couldn’t help but be aware of the political climate of the country, both before and after the election. We wanted to be sure that our slate reflected the moment we find ourselves in and felt urgent and timely in how it spoke to current issues and concerns. Of course it was challenging to find films that explicitly take on the most current of topics since the films addressing them are often just now beginning to be made, so we looked to films that depicted moments in the recent or distant past that seemed to speak to our current climate allegorically or in microcosm. We also chose to spotlight stories of activists and individuals using their voices and having an impact on the world around them, which felt like an essential message for us to be reminded of right now. This activist message that runs through this year’s festival is particularly encapsulated in our special Earth Day programming, where we chose to shine a particular spotlight on environmental issues through a full day or programming on April 22nd that looks at climate, water, endangered species, and more.

Roston: Based on the entries, what’s the vibe you’re getting about documentarians’ current interests?

Cusumano: We responded this year to the amount of character-driven docs we saw. Whether those were urgent contemporary pieces like Copwatch or When God Sleeps, which speak to power of the individual to effect change, or surprising character studies like Gilbert or ELIÁN, which present familiar faces in surprising ways. The unique opportunity for empathy and connection that a film affords seems to be really on display this year, with docs that take viewers outside their world. We admire filmmakers opening these doors and lines of communication and want to support film that can help us understand each other and the world around us in meaningful new ways.

Roston: I’d love to know which are the hidden gems you’d recommend on the slate.

Cusumano: The Sensitives, Dumb: The Story of Big Brother Magazine, A River Below, Blues Planet: Triptych (with live music performance by Taj Mahal).

The following are Cusumano’s quick insights into some of the films that I told her I am most excited to see at the festival this year.

Get Me Roger Stone
“This is our most explicitly political entry, and Stone’s complete candor about his own underhanded tactics exposes the entire political machinery in shocking ways.”

ACORN and The Firestorm
“This scandal is not even that distant history and yet already feels like the origin story of today’s fake news phenomenon. It’s fascinating to revisit now – along with those who participated in it originally – and see how much this moment forecasted so much of what was to come.”

Dare to Be Different
“This is a super fun nostalgia trip that we are pairing wth a concert of fantastic bands from the era when Long Island Radio defined cool new music.”

A Gray State
A Gray State is a riveting true crime story, that in the process of unpacking a single crime, exposes deeper flaws and traumas in our country itself. I really responded to the way it lent insight into the culture of the extreme right though a compelling murder mystery.”

Gilbert is a genuinely surprising, enjoyable portrait of a character that we all think we know but will still be surprised by. Charming and hilarious, with disarming depth.”

The Departure
“A cinematic, intimate character study about a fascinating person [a Japanese former punk rocker-turned-Buddhist-priest] at an essential crossroads in his life.”

LA 92
“This film is a purely archival reconstruction of the Los Angeles riots, the 25th anniversary of which is during the festival this year. These Oscar-winning filmmakers [Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin] do a phenomenal job expressing the escalation and on-the-ground terror of these events using footage captured on the scene. This is another film we programmed with an eye towards historical moments that we can revisit from the perspective of today.”

A River Below
“This is a really surprising doc about environmentalists working in the Amazon to save an endangered dolphin. I was intrigued by the way it took on its subject not purely at face value, but dug deeper to ask questions about the ethics and tactics around modern environmental activism.”

WASTED! The Story of Food Waste
“I appreciated this doc because it is fun to watch and solution-oriented, presenting a vital environmental issue through creative, forward thinking solutions. Using the ever-popular format of a food doc to raise awareness and motivate viewers to make a difference.”

For Ahkeem
“This is a gorgeous, cinematic coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of Ferguson. With a character we absolutely fell in love with, it’s an intimate story that seems to speak to nationwide questions through one very personal story.”

“We really responded to this character-driven piece about activists who film the police to foster accountability for police violence. This degree of access to the people involved in this work hits close to home.”

“The Elián González case was not something I had thought about recently before seeing this doc, but it ended up being a surprisingly apropos and prescient story to revisit for our contemporary moment. I was particularly compelled by the access to Elian now a grown man reflecting on his experiences.”

The 2017 Tribeca Film Festival is from April 19 – 30. Visit the official website for more information about screenings, talks and more.

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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