GENERAL MAGIC and Other Tribeca Film Festival Highlights

Film writer Dana Knight reports on tech and tech-themed films from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival that took place in New York from April 18–29. Since its inception in 2002, the Tribeca Film Festival has been a notable launchpad for independent filmmakers from all genres, especially the documentary form and this year the festival both opened and closed with documentary films: LOVE, GILDA, by Lisa D’Apolito, and THE FOURTH ESTATE, by Liz Garbus.

Tribeca’s festival hub at 40 Varick Street. Copyright: Tribeca Film Festival

The documentary competition section comprised films such as Marco Proserpio’s THE MAN WHO STOLE BANKSY, narrated by Iggy Pop; Dyana Winkler and Tina Brown’s roller-rink doc UNITED SKATES; Laura Brownson’s portrait of Rachel Dolezal, THE RACHEL DIVIDE as well as a host of other compelling titles in the Spotlight Documentary section, particularly GENERAL MAGIC, by filmmakers Matt Maude and Sarah Kerruish; STUDIO 54, directed and produced by Matt Tyrnauer.

Other highlights of the festival were the Immersive Showcase, featuring Virtual Arcade and Storyscapes; Tribeca Talks, featuring Claire Danes, Nancy Meyers, Sarah Jessica Parker and others. Click here for the Tribeca Talk recap with SingularDTV’s VP entertainment, finance and development Daniel Hyman. The festival also featured the fifth edition of N.O.W (New Online Work), a platform for unique storytellers emerging from the online space; and last but not least, Tribeca TV, featuring highly anticipated TV shows such as REST IN POWER: THE TRAYVON MARTIN STORY, from executive producer Jay-Z; SWEETBITTER, a coming-of-age series about a young woman working in the restaurant industry in New York City; Cobra Kai, Genius: Picasso, Netflix’s BOBBY KENNEDY FOR PRESIDENT, and MR. SOUL! focusing on the groundbreaking show SOUL!

Another truly remarkable way in which Tribeca distinguishes itself from other film festivals is through its openness towards women filmmakers and this year, of the almost one hundred titles on the Tribeca docket, 46% were directed by women. Along the same lines, the impressive Time’s Up initiative, formed earlier this year by three hundred women in the film industry, including Kerry Washington, Natalie Portman, Brie Larson, Ashley Judd and Reese Witherspoon with the hope to finally end sexual harassment in Hollywood and beyond, held an entire day of talks featuring activists, filmmakers, actresses, storytellers, journalists and lawyers.

Such was the offering of the festival that ten days were not enough to digest everything that was presented. With this in mind, here are a few titles that stood out for me:

GENERAL MAGIC

GENERAL MAGIC by Matthew Maude and Sarah Kerruish.

For those who love technology and startups, this is a must-watch. Blending rare archival documentary footage and present-day interviews with some of the tech innovators that ultimately developed the technology behind the iPhone this documentary features people who now lead companies like Samsung, Apple and Facebook, or have gone on to found eBay, LinkedIn and Android. Filmmakers Matthew Maude and Sarah Kerruish bring to life what Forbes described as “the most important dead company in Silicon Valley” — General Magic: a startup spun out of Apple in the early 90s to experiment with and transform the way we use a telephone.

As it is often the case, there is always an intimate link between filmmakers and their subjects and at the interview I had with them in NYC, Sarah revealed that she was on the scene 25 years ago, having been brought in to document and tell the story of General Magic. She personally met all the passionate people who were part of the original team and captured delightful scenes of them pulling in all-nighters and geeking out over things they could create with technology.

Long story short, over a period of four years (1990–1994), General Magic created Magic Link, the first handheld wireless personal communicator — what is today the smartphone — with features, products and services that now dominate the tech industry and our day-to-day lives: from mobile computing, social media, downloadable apps and e-commerce to touchscreens, emojis and USB. Their launch was unfortunately a big fiasco: apart from a small number of friends and family members, no one else bought the product. “Do I really need to be in contact with other people all the time?”, wonders one detractor on camera. Market readiness was simply not there, and the product was way ahead of its time: this was before the World Wide Web, 3G, Google, and even before those brick-like mobile phones that became popular overnight. Soon, General Magic closed down and The Magic Link become just another display in a tech museum.

But though the company itself didn’t succeed, the vision it had was on a par with its epic failure: the concepts and the people who pioneered them went on to change everything, and this is something worth glorifying. As Sarah confessed during the interview: “The story of General Magic set me meditating on the meaning of failure and its importance in bringing innovative ideas to life”.

Apart from her filmmaking career, Sarah Kerruish is now the Chief Strategy Officer for a tech startup, a deep-learning tool for early cancer detection and diagnosis: “We have a ridiculously smart team in London, the smartest team I worked with since General Magic. If we can make a little tiny dent in cancer detection, that would feel really worthwhile”.

THE FOURTH ESTATE

THE FOURTH ESTATE by Liz Garbus

The latest from renowned documentary filmmaker Liz Garbus (“Searching for Bobby Fischer,” “The Farm: Angola, USA”, the Oscar-nominated “What Happened, Miss Simone?”), was the Closing Night film for Tribeca 2018. THE FOURTH ESTATE is the first episode of a four-part documentary series produced by Showtime. The film takes an inside look at how The New York Times covers the Trump presidency, focusing on the Trump administration’s first 100 days, the resignation of Michael Flynn, Trump’s first speech to Congress and the moment Trump called the media the “enemy of the people”, which makes one New York Times reporter grimace painfully on camera.

The film’s fly-on-the-wall aesthetic is an open-ended one, and in a sense, it couldn’t be otherwise: the film concerns itself with the nature of investigative journalism and the news process during a critical moment of US politics. We see the NYT journalists in their day-to-day struggle of coming to grips with Trump’s unpredictable policies, which constantly throws them out of their depth since they can hardly believe what they’re reporting on. In an attempt to cover Trump’s presidency as matter-of-factly as possible and to compensate for his soap-opera style, we see these journalists thinking on their feet and trying to adopt a no-drama fashion of rendering the news. The contrast between the two camps is often hilarious: on one hand, he is seemingly most impetuous, impulsive and idiosyncratic president in US history, while on the other hand, the Times is as meticulous, painstaking and “by the book” as it gets, to the extent that journalistic understatement becomes an art.

There are also many funny instances: when Maggie Haberman, the White House correspondent of the Times, interviews Trump on the phone after his first failed attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act. She asks if it’s a relief for him to have this battle in the rear-view mirror and he replies, “Yeah, it’s enough already”, or the occasional office clash, like one between the Washington bureau and the New York editors who are at a loss for words when trying to interpret Trump’s remarks during his Congressional address. The former think that the story should focus on his immigration policy, while the latter decide at the last minute to play up the larger political battle between Trump and the Washington establishment, basically anything to maintain an even keel and keep the national conversation in balance. If you missed it at Tribeca, catch it on Showtime where it premieres on May 27.

JONATHAN

JONATHAN by Bill Oliver.

Good and gripping sci-fi fare is a rare find and since Alex Garland’s EX MACHINA (2014), I haven’t been impressed with much in this space.

The first feature of a little-known director Bill Oliver about two siblings inhabiting a twisted and uncomfortable relationship, could have easily gone unnoticed. But what are festivals for, if not for discovering new directorial voices with interesting things to say. I’m not familiar with the gestation time for JONATHAN, but judging from everything that went into its style, (from the elegant mise-en-scène, the subtle camera movement and calm editing pace, to the way the actors say their lines), this modest feature was diligently matured to quasi-perfection.

Starring Ansel Elgort in a dual role, JONATHAN is a split-personality narrative that isn’t easy to classify into any particular genre. While the premise is at the heart of the film, its spare treatment, the original exploration of themes of identity and personal freedom, the clean widescreen lensing and the impeccable production design, could make a case for the sci-fi genre. This is only by default, possibly due to the fact that this piece is the furthest removed from the naturalist narrative, without falling into suspense or the thriller genre either. I would describe it as a spot-on commentary on the complex human psyche through its lucid exploration of the complicated relationships we develop with others as well as with our own selves, something anyone should be able to relate to. In the director’s own words: “My co-writer, Peter Nickowitz, and I wanted to explore the nature of intimacy: the jealousy, codependency, safety, danger, anger, and affection that come with extreme closeness. JONATHAN is about the longing to connect with another human being, which I believe resonates with today’s culture in which some of us feel simultaneously more connected and more divided than ever.”

Without disclosing too much of the story line, which would come with serious spoiler alerts, JONATHAN is an interesting watch, a captivating hybrid, awash with intelligent lines of dialogue and a calm, restrained, slightly meditative film style, strangely reminiscent of SOLARIS, though on an obviously smaller scale.

EGG

EGG by Marianna Palka

If you loved Roman Polanski’s CARNAGE, chances are you’ll love Marianna Palka’s EGG, a satirical chamber piece in which two couples are at each other’s throats over the thorny issues of motherhood and pregnancy.

As the first feature script penned by best-selling author Risa Mickenberg, EGG is a witty dramedy that keeps you very interested in the main characters from the beginning to end: Christina Hendricks and Alysia Reiner play Karen and Tina, two old art-school rivals that both happen to be expecting babies at the same time, the only difference being that one is carrying hers in the traditional fashion that involves her own womb, while the other is using a surrogate, played by Anna Camp, thus dispensing with the “inconvenience” of having a suckling cling to her breasts for months after birth. And as if this was not outrageous enough, we also find out that Tina’s motivation to become a mother comes as a result of being commissioned an art project on the topic of motherhood. What has the world come to!?

Watching the dramedy unfold, you can tell it comes from a genuine place: “I wrote EGG because I was in my early 30s and having a difficult time choosing whether or not I wanted to have children. It was so difficult, in part because I never knew a heroine in film or fiction who had passed up motherhood, so I could follow her lead”, confessed Risa Mickenberg.

DIANE

DIANE by Kent Jones.

The first feature from Kent Jones, the director of New York Film Festival, was one of the most accomplished features in Tribeca’s US narrative competition and it came as no surprise that DIANE won the top awards at the festival this year: best narrative feature, best cinematography and best screenplay.

The title character is a widow, superbly played by the 70-year-old Mary Kay Place, who goes through a very depressing stage in her life that sees most of her friends and relatives drop dead, one after another. To make matters worse, her son gives her no comfort in her old age: not only is he battling a drug addiction, but he now wants to convert his mum to his new-found religion. Diane does not budge, and her upbeat spirit and resilience in the face of adversity is incredible until the very last scene, a beautifully shot sequence that is as moving as it is serene.