In 2012, the first Avengers movie served as the closing night film for the Tribeca Film Festival. This year, the latest installment served as the festival’s main competition. It was hard to deny the pervasiveness of Marvel’s latest behemoth as it Hulk-smashed through box office records; one director introduced his film at a screening with the cheeky greeting, “Thank you all for not seeing Avengers today.” The disparity between the blockbuster dominating the multiplexes and these smaller films clustered in New York’s smaller screens made the act of attending Tribeca in 2019 feel like an act of resistance.
But perhaps it shouldn’t feel quite so oppositional. The Tribeca Critics’ Week sidebar, the first of its kind in a stateside festival, programmed two American films that shared some of the traits that have made the Avengers series such a cultural landmark.
Say what you will about the Avengers, but even its detractors have to acknowledge that the franchise took a (calculated) leap in building a multi-year narrative, baking duration into a project released into a world that prefers instant gratification. Such longitudinal storytelling is less a rarity in the documentary world, but the patience of directors Julia Reichert and Steve Bognar in American Factory is still a marvel (pun fully intended). Non-fiction filmmaking so often thrives on a director being smart enough to put themselves in a place to observe dramatic accidents, and Reichert and Bognar’s camera captures a remarkable swath of experience. Their documentary achieves nothing short of capturing cultural and economic relations between China and the United States in microcosm.
From the dilapidated frame of a former GM plant near Reichert’s Ohio home rises a new factory in 2015, and this one is hardly all-American. The new occupant is Fuyao Glass, a Chinese corporation expanding its business footprint into United States. With them comes the new economy — high-efficiency, multi-national, cross-cultural, profit margins over worker comforts. The filmmakers let events speak for themselves, employing no staged talking heads and only the occasional voiceover to provide first-person context. Over the course of three years, Reichert and Bognar follow the growing pains of Fuyao as they ramp up their operations, the sum of their observations in American Factory painting a rich portrait of how contemporary labor and production function.
Fuyao brings over a number of employees from China to help kick the function of the factory into high gear, plopping them right into the heart of middle America where their habits and hobbies diverge a bit from their fellow workers. The transplants receive detailed instructions and seminars about how to coexist and accommodate the natives. They are told, for example, that Americans dislike theory and abstraction in their everyday lives, preferring the tangible and simple. The Americans don’t live to work like the Chinese, who prioritize their output above all else. Hypothetical instructions like these quickly spiral into real scenarios which have the effect of retrenching the American workers in a style of working they simply considered natural. Cries mount for a union, a prospect that spooks the company’s owner so thoroughly that he threatens to pull his entire investment from Ohio should one form.
If this is the future of the factory – globalized, automated, optimized – how is it possible to comport the Chinese laser-sharp focus on efficacy in output with the holistic American view that centers the safety and well-being of workers (in rhetoric, at least, if not in practice). Can the cultures strike a compromise, or must one side bend entirely to accommodate the other? American Factory (which Netflix will release later this year) offers no simple answer, only an uneasy look at one scenario where the United States’ desire for economic prosperity outweighs their concern for protecting the average worker’s economic security.
Elsewhere in the sidebar, another American film captured a dynamic that many credit as central to the appeal of the Avengers: teamwork and cooperation amidst adversity. This masterwork is Andrew Ahn’s Driveways, just the second film from a director who already shows signs of being America’s closest approximation to Hirokazu Kore-eda. Ahn establishes the film’s tender, understated compassion within minutes (wordlessly, too) and maintains his hold on the heartstrings until the end. He lets go after only 83 minutes — a complete experience, to be clear, but one that could easily have sustained a longer runtime without breaking the film’s gentle spell.
Driveways chronicles the summer of 8-year-old Cody (Lucas Jaye) as he accompanies his single mother Kathy (Hong Chau) to upstate New York in order to clean out the home of her recently deceased sister. Even more so than most children, the precocious Cody is a sidecar to his mother with very little control or agency in his situation. He balks at forced friendship with the neighbors’ kids, especially two menacing pre-teens with a penchant for wrestling. Where he finds connection, however, is with an unlikely partner in crime – the octogenarian next door, widowed veteran Del (Brian Dennehy).
Once the Cody-Del connection solidifies into a friendship, everything around them starts to fall into place. Kathy starts to get a handle on decluttering the house and putting down roots in her own life. Cody begins opening up with some of the neighborhood children. Del shakes off some of the grouchiness that embittered him. Ahn’s film makes for a moving tribute to power of makeshift communities. As raggedy as they might be, our agency in forming these arrangements gives them power. Crucially, Ahn does not sand down some of the obstacles in forming them, particularly the casual racism of some white neighbors. He provides a model for depicting a Trump voter archetype with dignity – giving them backstory that helps explain the storied “economic anxiety” without excusing the behavior that stems from it.
Apart from this American pair, the programming remained strong, if not quite as unimpeachable. The trio rounding out Critics’ Week featured selections from nearby countries — Canada, Mexico, United Kingdom — that put fresh spins on established genres and narratives. It certainly will not be for everyone, but Peter Strickland’s In Fabric will retain a beguiling pull for those who can get on its wavelength. The film revolves around a haunted center of gravity, a mysterious red dress that spells doom for anyone who dares to don it. Strickland displays his command over surrealist horror conventions with aplomb, but In Fabric rises above mere technical competency on the strength of his jarring scene transitions. The way Strickland collides the paranormal with the mundane results in genuine hilarity that places In Fabric a notch above the average retro horror flick.
Canadian filmmaker Stella Meghie’s The Weekend provides a close approximation of early Woody Allen comedy, just with a group you aren’t likely to find in the work of that director: people of color. Stand-up comedian Zadie (Sasheer Zamata) isn’t looking for love … sure, that sounds like the opening line of trailer narration, but she’s self-aware enough of her own situation that such a proclamation feels appropriate. “I constantly act as if I’m the supporting character in a rom-com,” Zadie even declares at one point in the film.
On a weekend getaway that involves her mother, her ex-boyfriend, his new girlfriend, and a potential new flame, Zadie and all the guests talk through various personal issues and question their assumptions about each other. The Weekend is a little too leadenly paced to work as comedy, but Meghie settles nicely into a tonal groove as an earnest, emotional relationship drama – though perhaps a bit too late.
The only film remotely resembling a weak link in the Critics’ Week lineup was Hari Sama’s This Is Not Berlin, and it was by no means even close to being bad. The film follows 17-year-old misfit Carlos as he finds friends in the underground music and art scene of ‘80s Mexico City. His involvement in these groups eventually leads him to some fairly radical public performance art meant to indict the leisure habits of the bourgeoisie.
The title refers to a quote in the film used to talk patronizingly to one of Carlos’ acquaintances who takes himself too seriously, criticizing his bohemian and hedonistic habits in service art that will gain little recognition from international art snobs. Yet Carlos and his contemporaries manage to push the boundaries of art and sexuality while also being aware of the box in which they are constrained. Sama resists the clichés of teenage euphoria in self-discovery and instead dwells on the growing pains of becoming unique in a culture that demands uniformity.
None of these films are particularly slick, appealing titles that jump to the top of any festival must-see list. They don’t boast much in the way of marquee stars, though maybe the fact that the Obamas’ production company is throwing its muscle behind American Factory will change things for that film. These five films are the type that benefit from a tightly cultivated slate that forces a spotlight in their direction, and kudos to Tribeca for being game enough to give this concept a chance in America. May it continue on as a solid slate to anchor this festival for years to come!