Your Tribeca Film Fest Wheat-Chaff Special

04/28/2009 4:00 AM |

Watching someone try to get the inside scoop from a man holding a rocket launcher is a high point of Fixer, which is about a young Afghani go-between for foreign journalists. Ian Olds’s documentary-cum-memorial about Ajmal Naqshbandi is at its best when showing the complex skills of on-the-ground diplomacy required by this unusual job and how people like Naqshbandi can affect the shape of news stories and perceptions abroad. The likeable, dimpled 24-year-old is a true professional, in many ways more impressive than the two journalists we meet who worked side by side with him. Much of Fixer tags along with Naqshbandi and Christian Parenti (reporting for The Nation) on the stop-start sniffing out of stories in the Pashtun tribal hinterlands of Afghanistan (the topics Parenti proposes “doing” are Drugs and Instability). Naqshbandi must effectively be a double confidant, politely building trust amidst contingent loyalties while leaving Parenti satisfied that he is covering new terrain; the translation in the subtitles is alert and revealing. Fixer, however, is mostly about how this true professional ended up dead: kidnapped with an Italian journo for La Repubblica, he was the one Karzai did not bend the rules to free. Olds, whose Occupation: Dreamland followed grim American patrols through Iraq, understandably dwells on the drama and injustice of the confinement crisis, but it’s also at this point that the film, which needs tightening up, seems to slip through his fingers. And even (mostly) censored by a black box, the recruitment-video beheading of Naqshbandi, a few feet from his terrified client, should have been omitted. But Olds broaches valuable and timely new territory in his foray into Afghanistan and in chronicling an unseen part of newsgathering not framed by U.S. military operations, in a film that is at some level also about itself.

Amid the hoopla and the documentaries, Tribeca often harvests a few good international films that have played at other festivals. This year yields a readily matched pair of films about grown-up siblings brought together, still smarting over old wounds. Still Walking is a becalmed, sentimental house drama from Hirokazu Kore-eda, director of Nobody Knows and forthcoming Cannes entry Air Doll. A daughter and two sons (with kids of their own) gather at the old homestead, fussed over by their mother and presided over, at first in absentia, by their brusque, aloof father. The cold war between the retired-doctor patriarch (Yokoyama Kyohei) and his son Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) who has married a widow leads into subtler looks at masculinity across generations, though the most engaging performance comes from the shrewd mother (Kirin Kiki). The occasion for the reunion is memorializing the untimely death of a third brother, and throughout the film we see the gnarled forms which grief can take. Limited to the time period of the visit, Still Walking also has an affecting feel for how people change over the course of a day. The fuzzy gentleness of it all, however, didn’t jive with one restless colleague sitting next to me, or another who said a lipsmacking scene of corn frying was the film’s finest moment. With the latter I might agree: there’s an element of corn in any film that uses a butterfly as a dramatic climax.

Grandma steals the stage in Pandora’s Box, from Turkish director Yesim Ustaoglu, after disappearing one day from her mountainside house. With a lovely beginning subtly trapezing among landscape-dominated POV shots of her grown children, the film follows their fractious journey to her house and the reverberations when they find her (somewhat selectively) touched with dementia. Pandora’s Box covers a lot of ground, literally, as Grandma (played by French actress Tsilla Chelton) is shunted in the city among the two daughters and a grizzled deadbeat son; the sole, woefully adrift grandson joins the mix too. Ustaoglu’s handling of their relationships in intimate two-person scenes is excellent, though Grandma (who mostly does whatever the hell she wants, except when she can’t do much at all) is a little too prone to dropping cutting epigrams about her kids.

If you want to see pallid Brits in debate-team suits casually dropping elaborate invective, In the Loop [see also Henry Stewart’s review] is for you. The satirical intent — an insignificant British minister inadvertently talks up war “in the Mideast”— suffers from a patched-together feel maybe traceable to the film’s origins in acclaimed British TV show The Thick of It. It’s an interesting reminder of the verbal culture to British politics — here straddling both Westminster and the Beltway — even though the movie runs out of gas. Still, a hateful foul-mouthed Scot is always a tonic for the spirits.