This year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which begins Wednesday, April 18, features a dizzying array of nonfiction world premieres. They aren’t notable because of the clout of the filmmakers, but because of their subject matter and cinematic promise. So much so that I have a hard time focusing on what I want to see — although The Rachel Divide might take the top slot. I’m fascinated by the story of vilified, white, Rachel Dolezal, who passed for African-American. Luckily, Cara Cusumano, the festival’s director of programming, was willing to answer my questions about this year’s incredible slate, which happens to be opening and closing with nonfiction galas, an incredible statement in itself of the festival’s faith in the power of documentaries to move audiences.

Read on and mark your schedules for what to see!

You have 96 films; I’ve heard 46 percent of them are directed by women, the highest percentage in the festival’s history. What do you attribute this remarkable near-parity to? And how does this relate to the nonfiction realm?

The 40-something percent figure holds remarkably consistent across documentary and narrative, and a number of our sections including short films and New Online Work. 100 percent of our independent TV pilots have female creators or co-creators.  I do believe that this explosion of mediums has created opportunities for more of a diversity of voices.  Creators, including women, who maybe didn’t find the doors as open for them in traditional Hollywood models have been able to thrive in parallel worlds of documentary, digital and “small screen” creation.  And now that those old-school boundaries are collapsing and the line between who is a film director versus TV director or a doc director versus a narrative film director is blurring, we are finally seeing a little more widespread parity, at least in this festival in this year.

The festival often opens or closes with documentaries. How does the festival’s belief in nonfiction as an audience pleaser contrast with the overall movie industry standard that fiction trumps nonfiction?

Recognizing the amazing docs we’ve been fortunate enough to showcase year after year, and the positive response that has come from audiences and critics, it made perfect sense to us to start highlighting nonfiction in a bigger way. Our criteria for selecting an Opening or Closing film are the same for a fiction or documentary – does it set the right tone? Is it about something? Is there a little glamour and excitement? And this year we were lucky enough to find that in these two great films; Love, Gilda about [comedian] Gilda Radner for Opening night and closing with this trenchant look at the struggle of the press in our unique moment in American history in The Fourth Estate.
I might consider this the most compelling slate of docs in Tribeca’s history. There are just a few of the most-recognizable, big name directors in nonfiction represented this year. Could you comment on that?

Tribeca has always been a destination for discovery, and some of the docs that have emerged in the biggest way from our program have been directed by first-time filmmakers (Virunga, Bombay Beach, last year’s winner Bobbi Jene).  We have talked a lot about our high percentage of female directors, but we have a comparably high number of first-time directors as well. This sense of discovery and platform for new voices is essential to how we put the program together.
With such a strong slate, could you help audiences pick what to watch by answering the following questions about your world premieres…

Name a few of the most cinematic documentaries…
Island of Hungry Ghosts
Phantom Cowboys
When Lambs Become Lions
Tanzania Transit

The most surprising…  
The Proposal
The Bleeding Edge
The Staircase
White Tide: The Legend of Culebra

The most politically/socially urgent… 
The Fourth Estate
Roll Red Roll
House Two
Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland

The most illuminating character studies…
The Gospel According to André
Kaiser: The Greatest Footballer Never To Play Football
And last; are we going to be surprised by The Rachel Divide?

I hope so.  I certainly was. I admire any film that can take on a subject or issue that every viewer already has some pretty strongly held ideas about and have them walk away with new questions and thoughts.  I think that’s what will happen with The Rachel Divide.

The 2018 Tribeca Film Festival is from April 18 – 29. Visit the official website for more information about screenings, talks and more.

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Published by

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