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What Makes a Documentary Right for Tribeca

The Tribeca Film Festival opens today with dozens of documentary premieres by both new and established filmmakers. Did you ever wonder how…
What Makes a Documentary Right for Tribeca
Film still from Clive Davis: Soundtrack of Our Lives, the Feature Documentary on Tribeca’s opening night.

The Tribeca Film Festival opens today with dozens of documentary premieres by both new and established filmmakers. Did you ever wonder how Tribeca and other festivals select which films make it into festivals? We spoke to Cara Cusumano, who has worked as a programmer for the festival for the last ten years and who now oversees the whole film selection process as the Director of Programming. She told us how they whittle down almost 1500 documentary submissions to the 45 films playing at the festival this year. Here are the takeaways:

1. Quality is paramount.

With over 3,000 total film submissions — documentary submissions make up a little less than half — the programmers have to start watching them in September and don’t finish until months later. They start with looking for the highest quality, and then narrow them down to around 100 international, inclusive, and diverse films.

“You just start. You start watching films, reaching out to filmmakers, sharing with each other, and having conversations. Over time, you start to whittle it down to ones you think are objectively the best. And we try to come at it with a pretty open mind, and be very receptive to the work we think is exciting and to the directions that the filmmakers are leading us in rather than dictating certain themes or things that we’re looking for specifically. So it’s quality first.” — Cara Cusumano, Director of Programming at the Tribeca Film Festival

2. ‘Quality first’ in a documentary means having both strong visuals and a strong voice.

When Cara and the festival programmers look for the best documentaries, they look for the same qualities that they do in narrative films.

“We’re a very filmmaker driven festival. We like docs that have a strong point of view, that are clearly by a filmmaker and have visual excitement, great characters, and stories. So we look at them very much the same way we look at narrative films. We want to be entertained, we want to be challenged, and we want there to be vision and artfulness. You’d be surprised how many films tend to feel the same as people tend to fall back on expected formulas. It’s always really refreshing when we see something that feels genuinely original and owns it’s own voice.”

3. Diversity matters.

After finding the highest quality films, the programmers also consider how to make the program diverse in the filmmakers and films represented.

“Maybe later in the process it becomes more about whether we have enough different people represented, do we have enough countries represented, do we have enough women directors. There’s a lot of different ways we went about the program to be diverse and inclusive.”

4. Themes that capture the zeitgeist are also a factor.

While Cara said that the theme of films doesn’t lead their selection process, they begin factoring them in later on as they think about the broader discussions happening in the world.

This year in particular, the direction that took was towards the political and the environmental. Somewhere in the process, we decided to make a strong statement on Earth Day this year, which is April 22. And we programmed documentaries addressing different environmental issues. We have a great one called A River Below and it’s all about the ethics of environmental activism. Those kinds of specific things we’re looking for come together over time, but we really just focus on the quality of the films first.”
The Amazon River. Film still from A RIVER BELOW. Photo credit: Helkin René Diaz.

5. The nature of documentary filmmaking is evolving.

Cara says that the type of documentary films submitted over the ten years she’s worked at Tribeca have changed. They have become as entertaining as narrative films and often challenge traditional notions of documentary filmmaking.

“I think that the direction that docs have gone is exciting. You start to see documentaries really challenge the idea of nonfiction, objectivity, and sometimes that takes the form of real hybrids. I think that there’s this real willingness among filmmakers to show their point of view and to make strong choices that bring their films into different genres. We’ve seen horror documentaries now, we’ve seen thrillers, we’ve seen comedies. We’ve seen documentaries stretch in different directions the same way that narrative films do. It’s very exciting and definitely has momentum moving forward.”

6. Documentary filmmakers shouldn’t be afraid to try experiment with their films.

While Tribeca divides the festival films up into sections, such as “Spotlight,” “Viewpoints,” and “Competition,” they mix documentary and narrative films together and treat them the same way. And sometimes the films they choose won’t fall squarely into either genre. This is good news for documentary filmmakers, who want to challenge traditional filmmaking techniques and experiment with genre.

“There’s a great film called ‘Flames’, though whether it’s a documentary or not is going to be the conversation around it. It’s about a couple who films their own relationship as it’s disintegrating, and it’s about them making the film. I think that’s one that has such a strong kind of artistry to it, and things that people don’t normally expect to see in a documentary.”
Trailer for Flames documentary

7. There are many different ways a documentary can be labeled a success.

Documentary filmmakers are often looking to get different things out of screening their film, such as having it acquired or getting awards. For the festival programmers, it seems that a successful documentary to them is one that draws crowds and has a great energy around it.

“The best can mean a lot of different things. Like what films people are coming to see public-wise, what films are getting acquired, success within the industry, and then there’s the critics and films that will really break out in terms of good reviews. So I’m optimistic for a lot of reasons. One thing people are really looking forward to is our opening night with Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives, which is a great documentary about Clive Davis and felt like the perfect way for us to open the festival because it’s about a producer and how artists support each other. It’s going to set a great energy for the whole festival.”

Whether you make it to Tribeca this year or not, make sure to check out the documentaries being screened.

By D. Simone Kovacs, Writer at Storyhunter