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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Tribeca 2010: Documentary Short Film Highlights

This review originally appeared on IONCinema.

Tribeca 2010: Documentary Short Film Highlights
by Melissa Silvestri

This year at the Tribeca Film Festival showcases short films in six different "thematic" programs. Wishful Thinking is a package dominated by characters making hard decisions, while Between the Lines examines subject matter that isn’t always what it seems at first. The package Flashback, made up of six documentary shorts, explore politics, music, race, and popular culture, and give a fascinating diversity in telling these stories. I’ve selected the best in my opinion that you should look out for, should you ever come across the film or its directors.

James Cromwell is best known as an actor, particularly from Babe and The Green Mile, but he has been a lifelong activist for human rights. In the 1960s, he provided a safe house for affiliates with the Black Panthers, risking the ire of the police and his own social standing as a young white man in dangerous times. A .45 at 50th, co-directed by Joshua Bell and John Cromwell, combines Cromwell’s recollection of this tumultuous time with black & white re-enactments of his story. Cromwell had made the acquaintanceship with Elbert 'Big Man' Howard, a core member of the Black Panther Party. Cromwell worked with the Committee to Defend the Panthers, offering his parents’ apartment as a safe house while they were on vacation, and being both committed to the cause, and feeling way in over his head. The film is both sad for its subject matter, and funny in moments where Cromwell sticks out like a nerd against the militaristic black-leather clad coolness of the Panthers. His remarkable activism was very brave and admirable during a time when it was dangerous to be a civil rights supporter as a white man.

A similar hero, considered the Rosa Parks for Japanese-Americans, gets her due in Out of Infamy: Michi Nishiura Weglyn, co-directed by Sharon Yamato and Nancy Kapitanoff. Born to a Japanese-American farming family in California, Michi was a bright young woman whose family was interned in the U.S. concentration camps during WWII. After the war, she went to NYC and became a successful costume designer on "The Perry Como Show", working with the likes of Bob Hope and Lucille Ball. But she never forgot the pain and humiliation that the U.S. had inflicted onto her community. She met and married Walter Weglyn, a German Jew who survived the war via the kindertransport and hiding in Holland. The realization that Roosevelt at the time both neglected to save European Jews earlier and kept his own people in an concentration camp sparked her to write Years of Infamy, a book detailing the harsh reality of how the U.S. treated Japanese-Americans during WWII. Her book pushed the protests for reparations, which were finally given out in 1988. Michi Nishiura Neglyn was an unsung hero who combined class, brilliance, smarts, beauty, and an unforgettable character in the activism for civil rights. (See pic above).

New American Soldier, co-directed by Emma Cott and Anna Belle Peevey, looks at three of the more than 70,000 immigrant soldiers fighting today in the U.S. military. The three chronicled are a young woman from Latin America, a young man from Ghana, and a teenage boy from Mexico, all whom are trying to gain their citizenship while serving in the military. Their stories range from coming to America via a visa lottery, to crossing the border and working in the fields in Southern California. It’s a long and hard struggle, but incredibly worth it to be considered an American both for personal pride, and ensuring the economic and social safety of their families.

Hip-hop got its start in the economic warzone of the South Bronx in the 70’s and 80’s, where from absolutely nothing, a creative and vital musical source grew. White Lines & the Fever: The Death of DJ Junebug, directed by Travis Senger, is an incredible story not only about a forgotten musician who was taken too soon, but how hip-hop came from its roots to became a multi-million dollar industry. When life in the Bronx, marked by poverty and drugs and hell, was a warzone, young people would line up outside the club Disco Fever, a badass dance club where the hottest beats played and you could just forget everything outside. DJ Junebug, a young Puerto Rican kid with an insatiable love for music, provided that soundtrack for the neighborhood in the early 80’s. But Junebug’s temptation towards the easy money of selling drugs would get in the way of his DJ work, and lead to tragic consequences. This short film, in just 27 minutes, tracks the old-school world of hip-hop with the drug realities of the time, and the interviews with illustrious figures like Kurtis Blow, DJ Hollywood, and Sal Abbatiello chronicle an unforgettable time that blew up into an amazing art form.

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