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Walk of fame

The Tribeca Film Festival launched a few months after Sept. 11, 2001 with the express goal of drawing New Yorkers to a downtown area devastated by the attacks on the nearby World Trade Center. What began as a rallying cry for a beleaguered neighborhood has grown exponentially into New York City's largest — and most populist — film fest, one that has yet to find its identity despite rapid growth and increasing respect from the film industry.

And film festivals in general come into being for a number of reasons — from the desire to champion a certain kind of cinema, to bringing a wider spectrum of movies to a community, to spurring tourism with bits of star power.

The sixth incarnation (April 25 to May 6) displays all the strengths of an emerging powerhouse, and the limitations of trying to be all things to all movie lovers. The arrival of the Tribeca Film Festival in New York stirs up whirlwinds of activity, but what often gets lost in the dust clouds are the films it's here to showcase.

 The fragmented TFF is all over the place, literally, and the current incarnation has little to do with Manhatten's Tribeca neighborhood anymore: films play in venues all over Manhattan, even reaching the outer boroughs with the Spider-Man 3 premiere in Queens.

 The ever-expanding Tribeca umbrella this year contains a family series (and free kid-friendly street fair) plus a sports-themed festival co-sponsored by ESPN. That's in addition to panel discussions and filmmaker talks, an ASCAP music lounge, and programs aimed at encouraging emerging filmmakers. All of which makes it easy to be driven to distraction.

 In its programming, Tribeca falls between the exclusive Sundance, with its upscale indie vibe, and the encyclopedic Toronto, with its global reach and cache as an Oscar predictor. As a film marketplace, where movies come to acquire buzz and distribution, Tribeca is still an unproven quantity: the young, upstart festival has yet to launch a major breakthrough hit. And its sheer volume of offerings — 157 feature films, 73 of them world premieres — means fierce competition.

 Add to this a steep increase in ticket prices (individual admissions start at $18) despite enough corporate sponsorship to make festival banners look like NASCAR vehicles, and it's a wonder Tribeca survives, let alone thrives.

 So why does it work? Two reasons: 1) Celebrity. 2) The movies themselves. Despite his own press-shy nature, Robert De Niro, who founded the festival (and the year-round Tribeca Film Institute with producer Jane Rosenthal and her entrepreneur husband Craig Hatkof), knows what draws media attention.

 In many ways, Tribeca is a celebrity photographer's dream gig. Actors show up en masse to attend their film's public premiere, but not before they've hit the adjacent photo tent for a thorough flashbulb drenching. This fact makes the high quality of the films at Tribeca all the more surprising.

Entourage actor Kevin Connolly makes an assured directorial debut with Gardener of Eden, containing a career-defining performance from Lukas Haas as a snarky college dropout turned latter day Travis Bickle. Black White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe mixes high art with low life as it focuses on the lesser-known Wagstaff, a former DIA curator and influential dealer and collector of photography who helped shape the career of his now infamous lover and protégé.

Two deeply personal and fiercely independent documentaries about Cuba — Camila Guzmán Urúza's The Sugar Curtain and Vivien Lesnik Weisman's The Man of Two Havanas — explore exile and family ties. An elegiac Urúza revisits her childhood friends and documents their individual — and the country's collective — loss of revolutionary zeal, while a sharply observant Weisman shows how politics polarize Cuban society in Havana and Miami alike, and why her journalist father, Max Lesnik, maintains his idealism in the face of constant derision.

Going back to revisit the same company he chronicled during Vietnam, British documentarian John Laurence takes an evenhanded, clear-eyed view of contemporary combat in I Am An American Soldier: One Year with the 101st Airborne, while director Bryan Gunnar Cole also echoes that era in Day Zero, which imagines a reinstatement of the draft as the war in Iraq drags on, and how three disparate New Yorkers take the news of their imposed sacrifice.

 Political films are one of Tribeca's strengths, demonstrated by this year's festival award winners, including the documentaries Taxi to the Darkside, which unravels the mysterious death of an Afghan cab driver in U.S. custody, and A Story of People in War and Peace, about the reverberations of the 1994 conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Israeli film My Father My Lord, an exploration of the conflicting demands of religious orthodoxy and family life, wins for narrative film.

 If this weren't telling enough, the audience favorite is We Are Together (Thina Simunye), a British documentary about the Children of Agape Choir, whose members reside in a South African orphanage after losing family to AIDS. It probably didn't hurt that the choir made a number of appearances at the festival, the one instance of a Tribeca photo opportunity resulting in tangible success.

 There's a major disconnect between the flash and substance of the still-evolving Tribeca Film Festival. The winners of the festival's jury and audience prizes didn't have a single film star between them. Perhaps Tribeca will hit stride when it focuses more on films and less on being Hollywood on the Hudson.

Serena Donadoni is a film critic for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com

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