I serve as the director of the Tribeca Film Festival, and in this position, I have an incredible opportunity to find and showcase films that I believe are important. I’ve made it a priority to show films that seek to dispel myths and prejudices. These are the kinds of films that I enjoy, and that can have a lasting impact on audiences.
We started the Festival in the wake of 9/11 to help a devastated and demoralized community downtown. The founders—Jane Rosenthal, Robert De Niro and Craig Hatkoff—had a vision. They believed that by showing movies, they could stimulate a dying economy, and bring a community together to mourn, commiserate and revive itself through the art of film. What we learned in those early years is that film has the power to transcend specific communities and bring people together.
So look at what happened: the economy in downtown Manhattan rebounded, and the Tribeca Film Festival has become a strong force in world cinema. We soon discovered that the smartest of audiences—New Yorkers—were hungry for the best storytelling from around the world. New York is a city full of different communities, and each one has a story to tell. It’s a microcosm of the world. Through those stories, we can learn about each other and understand that we are more alike around the world than we are different.
Take Iran, for instance. Ruled by an oppressive regime, the fierce rhetoric that surrounds any discussion on Iran is daunting. But are they so different from Americans?
Tribeca showed an Iranian film two years ago called About Elly: a rich story about the disappearance of a teacher named Elly set against the backdrop of middle-class Iran. A group of friends head to the beach, and they are just like you and me—worrying about who is buying the groceries and cooking dinner, and who is watching the kids as they play on the beach. About Elly taught me, to my surprise, that some Iranians are living a life very similar to mine.
Another example: earlier this year, as I was watching Tribeca Film Festival selections, I came upon a film called Cairo Exit. The film is about an attractive teenage couple: he is a Muslim and she is a Coptic Christian. They are star-crossed lovers, looking for a way to survive with their love intact in a bleak world. Our heroine Amal has to make a choice: leave with her boyfriend or stay in Egypt, facing debilitating poverty and sacrifice. How do you get ahead and make a better life for yourself in a country that provides no options? Even the educated can’t find jobs, and they make terrible sacrifices to raise their children up into a world where they know the next generation’s lives will not be any better than their own.
When I finished the movie, my TV came on, and on it was the footage of the revolution in Tahrir Square. It was as though the film was the precursor to the revolution, and the history of all that anxiety and oppression was summed up in a 96-minute film.
A few years ago, Tribeca was approached by the country of Qatar to start a film festival there. Qatar is a small country about the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island on the Arabian Sea. Historically, it was a country of Bedouins and pearl divers: a desert country. Since the discovery of oil and natural gas, though, Qatar has become an important player on the global scene—a site of one of the largest US military bases and a power broker in Middle Eastern politics, as well as holder of the world’s largest reserves of natural gas.
When Tribeca first sent me to Qatar to assess the possibility of a film festival there, I have to admit that I was the biggest skeptic. Why us? Why them? Do they care about film? What is their community? After literally one day on the ground, I got it: these were a people starved for world culture. While they understood celebrity, they also wanted to be exposed to how the rest of the world lives and to their stories. If we built it with them, I concluded, there was no doubt that they would come and take part in the festival that Tribeca and the Doha Film Institute created together. It was an interesting tribute that, while aspiring to create a new culture pretty much from scratch, they saw film as an art form that would give stature to their new country.
There are people just like us all over the world. Even in societies we think are closed off from us, and hard to understand, we find through film that they are rather like us. Film is a universal language, and we all speak the language of humanity: to be an enemy of despair and a friend of hope.
We aren’t all born exactly the same, and often we don’t understand people who are different from us. But I think that the Tribeca Film Festival tries to understand that difference. And if we can teach each other that we are more alike than different, that’s a legacy I can be proud of.