5 unmissable documentaries showing at tribeca

From a fascinating tale of street art appropriation to the untold stories of 'Freaks and Geeks.'

by Sarah Gooding
18 April 2018, 8:01pm

As summer approaches the slowly defrosting Northern Hemisphere, the silver screen is also heating up. The Tribeca Film Festival has a history of showcasing amazing independent films of all kinds, but if there’s one thing it’s known for, it’s documentaries. This year’s selection looks particularly exciting, with features on fashion, activism, and even memes. We’ve narrowed it down to five that you don’t want to miss if you’re in New York for this year’s festival.

The above is an exclusive clip from "Phantom Cowboys."

Phantom Cowboys
Phantom Cowboys is an incredibly powerful, raw documentary that follows the lives of three young men living in forgotten industrial towns in America, from adolescence to young adulthood. There’s Nick Reyes, who lives in Trona, California; a tiny former mining town on the edge of Death Valley, where the searing heat and saline soil forces the school football team to play on a dirt field. Then there’s Larry Young, who lives in Pahokee, Florida; an isolated town in the Everglades, where residents make do hunting rabbits in the sugarcane fields. And then there’s Tyler Carpenter, who lives in Parkersburg, West Virginia; a former oil refining center where the population has been declining since the 60s. In a manner similar to Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, which followed fictional characters in real-time for 12 years, director Daniel Patrick Carbone spent 10 years creating Phantom Cowboys. The film illuminates rural life in modern America, the hopes and dreams of the young men that live there and, ultimately but perhaps inadvertently, institutionalized racism. It’s an important film that encourages empathy and understanding at a time when the world needs it more than ever. These days city-dwellers tend to view rural America through a political lens. This film shows us the humanity in these places.

Studio 54
For many of us, Studio 54 was way before our time, but we still hear stories about it. The club had a door policy so strict that people tried anything to get in – including two women who rode a white horse naked to the velvet ropes. Apparently the horse got in, but the women didn’t. The club’s parties were worth the effort, though. Studio 54 was transformed into a country farm for Dolly Parton, hosted a circus-themed birthday party for Valentino, and Bianca Jagger rode a white horse across the dancefloor for her 30th birthday (inspiring the two women denied at the door). Now, 41 years after it opened in 1977, a new documentary is finally shedding some light on what really went down with the legendary venue. Studio 54 steps out of the club to explore the era’s wider social climate, including the sexual revolution and the AIDS crisis, which contributed to Studio 54’s sudden rise and fall over less than three years. Co-founder Ian Schrader speaks at length for the first time on how he and Steve Rubell went from New York nightlife kings to being indicted for skimming $2.5 million off the club’s books and going to jail for 13 months – but not before hosting a star-studded farewell bash. This deserves to be seen on the big screen.

The Man Who Stole Banksy
Narrated by Iggy Pop, The Man Who Stole Banksy is a fascinating tale of street art appropriation and commodification in a setting of ongoing political unrest. In 2007, Banksy traveled to Palestine and painted numerous political works on walls and buildings all over the city – including on the West Bank Barrier. Everywhere he’s gone in the world, the street artist’s work has proved famously divisive, sparking intense admiration and contempt in equal measures – and for a select few, opportunism. These paintings in Palestine were no different. One in particular, showing an Israeli soldier checking a donkey’s ID, caused considerable controversy, inspiring a local taxi driver and bodybuilder known as Walid “The Beast” to cut it out of the wall and auction it on eBay with the help of another local businessman, Maikel Canawati. In The Man Who Stole Banksy, director Marco Proserpio follows the painting around the world as it’s re-sold to various collectors, gathering the various perspectives of artists and collectors. The film provides unique insight into the malleability of public art, and how illegal art can be legally sold.

The Gospel According to André
“You can be aristocratic without having been born into an aristocratic family,” says André Leon Talley in the trailer for the documentary on his storied life and career. “Aristocratic” is a fitting word for the fashion icon, who has been a force in the industry for more than 40 years. In The Gospel According to André, first-time director Kate Novack goes beyond the legendary editor’s work at publications including Women’s Wear Daily, W, and Vogue (where he worked as news director, creative director, and finally editor-at-large) to explore how this inimitable tastemaker and beloved personality came to be. The film charts Talley’s love of fashion all the way back to his childhood in the segregated Jim Crow South, where he was inspired by the parade of local churchgoers every Sunday, and was instilled with impeccable grace and style by his grandmother. From there we follow Talley to New York City in the 70s, where he reveals he battled both racist and homophobic prejudice, but ultimately overcame these obstacles. Novack presents the kind of personal portrait of Talley that we haven’t seen before. If you’re fast you can snag tickets to the premiere, where Talley will appear in conversation with Novack and the film’s producers. Otherwise you can catch the documentary in select theaters from May 25.

Freaks and Geeks: The Documentary
If you’re among the older millennials, Freaks and Geeks likely holds a special place in your heart. And if it was before your time, get ready to be acquainted with one of the best coming-of-age TV comedies ever made. Freaks and Geeks burst onto our screens and into our hearts to Joan Jett’s rowdy “Bad Reputation”, and while it only ran for one season, it left an indelible mark on viewers who were, like the characters, questioning their identities in the fraught period of high school. The show launched the careers of James Franco, Busy Philipps, Jason Segel, and Seth Rogen (the “Freaks”); Martin Starr, Samm Levine and John Francis Daley (the “Geeks”); and Linda Cardellini (who alternated between the two). It also kickstarted the reigns of comedy kings Judd Apatow and Paul Feig (who went on to helm countless comedies such as Bridesmaids and Ghostbusters 3). All of this has given Freaks and Geeks cult status. Regardless of whether or not you’re an OG fan, the baby-faced stars and their untold stories are sure to give you a kick. Diehards can catch the documentary’s director Brent Hodge in conversation with Feig after the premiere, if they still can’t get enough.