Even under normal circumstances, it’s tough to tease out themes, patterns and trends from a film festival lineup. That’s doubly true for the Tribeca Film Festival in the year of COVID-19. Rather than cancel or postpone their 2020 edition, the festival organizers opted to operate a small digital library of titles available online (with publicists supplying a few extras to supplement). While most high-profile titles opted out of this impromptu arrangement, holding out hope for the big in-person premiere and splashy festival premiere they initially envisioned, there were plenty of titles that took the plunge and made themselves available to quarantined reviewers. These were, by and large, documentaries.
I begin with a description of the viewing context because, after all, it’s always relevant. The in-person festival environment often warps a movie’s debut with instant Twitter bon mots and hyperbole, which snowball into quickly banged-out reviews written with little time and space to contemplate the work beyond an instant reaction. (I’m guilty of this, too, just in case you think I’m exempting myself.)
When it comes to documentaries, the form has not fully adapted to the boom in demand across platforms for non-fiction content. It’s safe to say that in the last five years, the voracious appetite for documentary filmmaking that held up a mirror to our world stretched the spectrum of acceptable lengths. Journalistic outlets like The New York Times popularized the “Op-Docs” format that gave home to bite-sized documentaries that dip quickly in and out of a subject’s life. Netflix provided a home for doc shorts in the 30 to 40-minute range that prove difficult to program at festivals but vital to the non-fiction filmmaking ecosystem. The streaming platform and others of its ilk have also proven that long-form, mini-series style documentaries are not just a flash in the pan; if there’s any piece of content that defines the early stages of social distancing, it has to be Netflix’s Tiger King.
The common denominator in all these innovations? At-home viewing. And yet, among the Tribeca documentaries I sampled, all seem geared with an eye towards eventual theatrical exhibition. Their runtimes run the gamut of 70-100 minutes, the durations we’ve deemed suitable for that distribution model. But this pandemic is going to change the nature of what gets shown in these venues — likely by accelerating existing trends. With each passing day, it becomes more and more difficult to imagine that non-fiction filmmakers will continue tailoring their storytelling for a viewing method that will become harder for them to achieve. As I connected the dots between the four films I watched, I could not help but wonder if Tribeca 2020 were a kind of last stand for documentaries prioritizing theatrical release. And as much of a purist as I tend to be for that style of movie-watching, another part of me wonders if this won’t ultimately liberate and expand the documentary form further.
None of this is to say that the Tribeca documentaries I watched are somehow inadequate (although I struggle to pick one among the bunch to enthusiastically champion). Each just feels perhaps better suited for a different viewing context, with the exception of Kristine Stolakis’ Pray Away. This slickly produced, 101-minute feature about the debunked conversion therapy programs and the “ex-gay” movement that flows from it grabbed my attention from the logo block when a familiar animation appeared: Blumhouse. While this is far from the outfit’s first foray into documentary filmmaking, the brand name does conjure up associations with the horror genre and guided my assumptions thusly.
Stolakis’ film, however, is far from sensational or shocking. It’s a measured piece of non-fiction storytelling guided by multiple prominent defectors from “ex-gay” circles — along with one current adherent who has returned to identifying with his birth sex after once identifying as a trans woman. Her focus remains squarely on the “grasstops” of the movement, such as prominent spokespeople, rather than the grassroots of individual survivors who left “pray away the gay” facilities with lifetimes of trauma. It’s a bit unsettling that Pray Away feels so divorced from the violence of conversion therapy, relegating representations of these practices mostly to descriptions from former participants. But there’s value in Stolakis forcing her subjects to confront some of the more objectionable statements they made in their past and explain the evolution they undertook to arrive on the other side of such positions. She efficiently packages and manages each of the major threads in the film, giving viewers an expansive and conclusive look at the topic.
The rest of the documentaries I watched were not quite as finely packaged — though, in all cases, the messiness (or just departure from standard convention) worked in the project’s favor. This was most true in Bo McGuire’s Socks on Fire, an explosion of stylistic decadence in service of a deep-fried tale of Southern family saga. McGuire returns home to his Alabama roots to document the bitter struggle that ensues over his late grandmother’s estate. With no will to do the sorting for them, battle lines quickly emerge between McGuire’s drag queen uncle John and his staunchly traditionalist great aunt Sharon. Though the queer McGuire instinctively empathizes with his gay uncle, Sharon was his favorite relative in his youth — complicating a viewpoint that might otherwise be a little clearer-cut.
Socks on Fire embodies McGuire’s internal dialogue through what might best be described as a multimedia collage. It toggles between archival VHS and modern-day recreation somewhat uneasily and unconfidently. The former feels necessary to root the film in authenticity given the latter’s unabashed embrace of camp. The tone works because McGuire couches Socks on Fire in profoundly discursive musings, and his ironic undercutting through tawdry reimagining helps bring the film back down to earth. It’s a work full of introspection and empathy, but McGuire never quite cheats out enough to make his film applicable or generalizable. Socks on Fire, for all its novelty and ingenuity, arrives undercooked.
That sense of stylistic verve was even more pronounced in Rodrigo Reyes’ 499, which blurs the line between narrative and documentary altogether. The film begins by marking the near-quincentennial of Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés’ arrival in Mexico in an epigraph, only to have a period-appropriate colonizer wash up from the sea and head inward from the country’s coast. From there, this conquistador begins to observe the conditions in present-day Mexico as real citizens describe and depict their hardships to the camera. Reyes does not merely intercut his fantasy figure between the verité segments; the conquistador often lurks within the frame itself.
Is Reyes depicting reality we see… or shaping that reality? The question of the observer effect dates back to the earliest days of cinema, and 499 provides an interesting platform from which to explore it once more. Reyes is not particularly agile in drawing parallels between the conquering of the Aztecs and contemporary Mexican society, but he does succeed at using the conquistador to symbolize the looming specter of a past that we cannot vanquish, for it lives with us always. This does not feel like a thematic conceit with the strength to sustain an entire feature, however. 499 feels more suited for gallery walls, broken up into fragmentary screens and supplemented by more tangible representations of the country’s strength through adversity.
The documentary in the bunch that feels most poised for success in a post-COVID-19 world is Loira Limbal’s Through the Night, largely because it meets the moment of recognizing the unsung heroes that provide unseen cohesion in society. The documentary follows the round the clock work of Nunu, a 24-hour-daycare provider in Westchester, New York. Her services provide a crucial resource to two key groups of people: namely, night nurses and single parents who have to work multiple jobs in order to scrape by. “It’s not just a job, this is really my life,” Nunu tells the filmmaking team, admitting that she has often provided more attentive care to the children left with her overnight than her own flesh-and-blood offspring. She’s the last line of defense between many families and outright destitution, poverty or homelessness, and Nunu treats her responsibility with the utmost seriousness.
Limbal’s film provides what may become a crucial feature of documentary filmmaking in the wake of this pandemic: shining a light into the dark crevasses of the American economy and asking us to reflect on whether such an opacity should exist. Through the Night looks beyond the selfless labor of Nunu and ventures home with some of the children to meet their mothers, many of whom toil under the new label of “essential worker” with subpar compensation. It’s a bit scattered at times, but it works as a reflection of the ad hoc nature of their work. Limbal could likely have shaved the film down from a feature to a short (it’s already quite slender at 72 minutes), though given the frame of mind in which I watched the film, I didn’t mind the superfluous-seeming moments.
Through her bottom-up view of the pre-coronavirus economy, Limbal invites viewers to observe and then empathize. Her film depicts people in their full humanity, resisting hagiography for Nunu or martyrdom for the parents. That emotional connection pays dividends, too; a shocking final-act development sent me immediately running to Google her daycare after Through the Night concluded to see if they had posted a GoFundMe or any kind of update for how they are adapting to our scary times. If only we could emerge on the other side of this virus with people as aware of Nunu’s work as much as they are about Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin.
Follow Marshall Shaffer on Twitter (@media_marshall).