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Progressive New York

Bill Meyer: Although I was only planning to attend the venerable Tribeca Film Festival (TFF), now in it's 14th year, there were many diversions that occasionally pulled me away.

A trip to New York City is always an awesome cultural and political experience. There's more going on in one city block than in some entire cities! Although I was only planning to attend the venerable Tribeca Film Festival (TFF), now in it's 14th year, there were many diversions that occasionally pulled me away.

Hand That Feeds

For a city that offers at least three political rallies daily, I was able to participate in at least one – the giant $15 a Day Rally that took over several blocks of Central Park West and marched all the way to Grand Central Station with thousands of supporters. The spirited gathering brought attention to the need to raise the minimum wage so that even many full-time workers can rise above the poverty level.

These issues were also raised in several films at TFF this year to be discussed later. An empowering doc that played at Traverse City Film Festival last year, The Hand That Feeds, is one of the finest and most militant statements about New York undocumented workers fighting to organize for better pay and working conditions.

A quick survey of the hundreds of New York theatrical productions going on daily, drew me to the debut of Emmett Down in My Heart, by Clare Coss, which tells the compelling story of a young Black man from Chicago who traveled to Mississippi and was murdered for supposedly whistling at a white woman in a grocery store. Many say the tragedy sparked the Civil Rights Movement, hastened by Emmett's mother's determination to have an open casket funeral that revealed the horrid mutilation he endured before death. The powerful performance in the heart of Broadway at the Castillo Theater, by a convincing cast of dedicated actors, sparks hope in the revival of social conscious theater.

Attending too many plays could easily thin the wallet, so a free romp through the streets of Brooklyn, viewing the proliferation of constantly changing political graffiti and stunning murals, proved much less expensive.

Attending too many plays could easily thin the wallet, so a free romp through the streets of Brooklyn, viewing the proliferation of constantly changing political graffiti and stunning murals, proved much less expensive. Artists from around the world leave their statements on walls, doors, sidewalks and almost anything else that will hold paint. Chilean muralist Dasic Fernandez, prolific Huntrodriguez, the elusive Banksey and Iranian brothers Icy and Sot are just a few of the socially conscious artists decorating the community with art and activism. Sadly, many of these creative paintings are either tagged or painted over, due to the temporal nature of graffiti art.

Another great work of art that was saved from oblivion and neglect was a 10-panel mural entitled America Today by Thomas Hart Benton, originally painted for a boardroom in the New School for Social Research, but recently transplanted panel by panel to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The size and scope of this historic work of art is reminiscent of Diego Rivera's epic fresco mural, Detroit Industry, located in the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Just prior to Tribeca each year, The Havana Film Festival of New York presents highlights from Cuba and the rest of Latin America, much like its famed parent event that takes place every December in Havana. Attending one Festival is time-consuming enough, but missing this entire festival would be a shame. I had to fit in the latest film from one of Cuba's more venerated directors, Fernando Pérez (Havana Suite, Clandestinos). His first independent film, The Wall of Words deals with issues of mental health and how patients are treated in Cuban society.

The heartwarming personal story of a mother (Isabel Santos) who dotes on her mentally disabled son, while often sacrificing the rest of her family members, features one of Cuba's most famous actors as the mentally impaired son. Without uttering a single word in the entire film, Jorge Perugorría adds another bravado performance to his long list of varied roles, starting with the gay lead in the award winning Strawberry and Chocolate. And just recently both he and Santos starred in a film by revered French director Laurence Cantet, Return to Ithaca, which tells the homecoming story of a Cuban who has spent 16 years in exile in Madrid.

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The Armenian genocide was addressed in a new film, 1915, released in theaters across the city, while running in tandem with TFF, which also featured The Cut, a film about the same subject. It's the 100th anniversary of what many people, including most Armenians, consider the 20th Century's first act of genocide. Unfortunately both movies dealt more with emotions than substance, and the complex historic details of the end of the Ottoman Empire and World War I were slighted.

The Cut was directed by Turkish-born director Fatih Akin, who was praised for his sympathetic treatment of the Armenians, but the plot often seemed contrived taking the protagonists to Cuba and then Minnesota, while the acting, along with the music score, at times seemed removed from reality. Rock guitars played in the score when there were no instruments of this type existing, and the main lead looked the same through the entire span of years covered in the story. By the end, after years of physical hardships and tragedies, he looked younger than his grown daughters. This is not to diminish the power and importance of one of the first films dealing with the Armenian genocide.

The 12 Annual Games for Change Festival, New York's largest game event, celebrates programmers who choose to develop social impact games. Awards were given to games that taught about the Bill of Rights (That's Your Right), that focused on innocent victims of war rather than the typical soldiers of fortune (This War of Mine), and that demonstrated how harmful choices can make a harmful world (Parable of the Polygons), just to name a few.

A trip to the El Museo del Barrio Latin American Museum acquainted attendees with the fantastic work of cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, a longtime associate of the great Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel, Figueroa crafted his skill to such a high level, having worked on over 200 films, that when the Hollywood legendary cinematographer Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane) died, Hollywood came begging for Figueroa. He declined however preferring to work in his own country of Mexico, creating some of the most beautiful photo and film images of the period.

After attending all these progressive events, it was only natural to dine at the Colors Restaurant at 417 Lafayette in the East Village, a non-profit restaurant owned by Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United, which supports abolishing the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers and where they pay sustainable, living wages.

Despite all these great diversions, Tribeca was calling me with an enticing list of films that any progressive film lover would die for. There were many panels, red carpets, parties, and special events also, with special guests such as Valerie Plame, Alex Gibney, Roseanne Barr, George Lucas, Stephen Colbert, among many in attendance. Highlights from the Festival will be covered in the next few columns.

bill meyer

Bill Meyer