Women and their power at Tribeca Film Festival

Power play: The dynamics of a women’s hockey team are explored in Austrian director Clara Stern’s “Breaking the Ice,” a genre-twisting romance that had its American premiere at the recent Tribeca Festival.

NEW YORK -- The power of women in front of and behind the camera has always been strong at the Tribeca Film Festival since its inception in 2002. This year's festival continues to support that strength, with many of its eclectic films showing off some of the most impressive female talent in the industry.

An emphasis on fashion, with a hard-edged analysis of its impact on social, economic and political situations, is evident in "The Beauty of Blackness," a documentary/infomercial focusing on the past, present and future of a brand born in the 1970s that revolutionized the beauty industry for Black women. Its popularity is defined by a longtime customer, who remarks, "I like someone who looks like me to tell me about me."

Co-directed by Kiana Moore and Tiffany Johnson, the beautifully photographed pay-for-play production, streaming on HBO Max, is glamorous as well as relevant in its effort to show how beauty is connected to power and whiteness. Created by Vox Creative and its story-hunting division Epic Stories in partnership with Sephora, Digitas and Ventureland, it won the TribecaX Award for Feature Film, which recognizes the best artist and brand collaborations of the year.

"Fashion Re-imagined" is a much different take on the industry, a straight-ahead technical documentary chronicling the efforts of Amy Powney (a determined, dedicated daughter of rural working-class environmental activists), designer of luxury sustainable London-based womenswear brand Mother of Pearl, to reduce the impact of fashion -- one of the most destructive industries on the planet -- on the environment.

Powney's goal: to produce clothing that is organic, traceable, socially responsible, produced in small geographical regions, and considerate of animal welfare. It's directed by Becky Hunter and Daniel Goetz; executive producer is Lindsay Lowe of London-based Duck Productions.


"More Than I Remember" is a timely, resilient and affecting 14-minute animated documentary concerning a 14-year-old girl in southeastern Congo who, upon awakening to the sound of exploding bombs, finds herself alone as her family scatters to save themselves. A newly minted refugee, she sets out on a solo journey in search of her family and their lives together. It's directed and produced by Amy Bench with fellow producer Carolyn Merriman; animation director is Kiyv-born Maya Edelman, and executive producers are Eloise DeJoria and Constance Dykhuizen.

Among the most potent narrative films this year is "The Year Between," an acerbic, sometimes brutally honest debut from writer-director-star Alex Heller, who uses her own struggles with mental health to craft an unsettling story of Clemence Miller, a college sophomore diagnosed with bipolar disorder and how her family deals with the corresponding highs and lows (answer: not well).

Her mostly well-meaning yet clueless parents (J. Smith-Cameron and Steve Buscemi) are alternately supportive and irritated with the need to deal with a grim, mean-spirited, and arrogant daughter who hoards, steals, shrieks, abuses drugs, and shows bad judgment in choosing companions; "I didn't ask to be the mother of a f***ing mental patient," says her stressed-out mother in a less than supportive moment.

And her younger sister and brother resent the time and resources devoted to treating their unpredictable, disagreeable, and unrepentant sister. It's brutal, cruelly funny, socially relevant, and not the stuff of happily-ever-after fairy tales.


There are many more impressive narrative and documentary films by and starring women, such as Clara Stern's "Breaking the Ice," an oddly wayward trauma tale in which Alina Schaller stars as Mira, a young woman with family troubles who leaves her stress behind whenever she hits the rink as the captain of a kick-butt Austrian women's hockey team. Don't get too comfortable and think you know what's going to happen next; keep paying attention.

"Pink Moon," an emotional, distressing, riveting if inconclusive Dutch drama directed by Floor van der Meulen, stars Julia Akkermans as 29-year-old Iris, who refuses to accept her father Jan's (Johan Leysen) calmly rational decision to make his 75th birthday his last.

The director received a special mention in the festival's Best New Narrative Director Award category "for her lovely filmmaking: the use of the banal in juxtaposition to the larger questions that the script begs so eloquently articulated with the camera, offering multiple points of views, confident direction and two incredible lead performances."


A high point of my screening-crammed three days at this year's festival: A Tribeca Talks event titled "Speaking In Codes: Storytelling That Codifies Gender Equitable Systems In China And The U.S."

That title definitely doesn't count as click bait, but the discussion, moderated by British-Moroccan film director and editor Malika Zouhali-Worrall with panelists including spoken-word poet Sarah Kay; poet, activist, journalist lecturer and writer Robin Morgan (her 1970 anthology "Sisterhood Is Powerful" is considered influential in starting the contemporary feminist movement in the U.S.); writer Gloria Steinem, a feminist journalist and social political activist who became nationally recognized as a leader and spokeswoman for the American feminist movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and now concentrates her efforts on issues of equality; and "Hidden Letters" director Violet Du Feng, was alternately uplifting, distressing, gloomy, and hopeful.


The panel discussed Feng's documentary "Hidden Letters," a quietly incisive and unique story of generations of women in China who developed Nushu in the 19th century, a syllabic script created and used exclusively by women in Hunan Province, China, who were forbidden formal education by a patriarchal culture for centuries.

Some experts believe the language dates to the Song dynasty (960-1279) or the Shang Dynasty more than 3,000 years ago. The script was passed down from peasant mothers to their daughters and practiced among sisters and friends in feudal-society China during a time when women, whose feet were often bound, were denied educational opportunities.

Nushu was used in embroidery, calligraphy and handicrafts to record songs, riddles, translations of ancient Chinese poems, all written in poetry form.

"Poetry is so concentrated," Steinem said. "If you poured water on a poem, it could become a novel; that's a part of its magic and power."

Robin Morgan, in relating Nushu's relevance to modern times -- it was originally believed to be a code of defiance against the highly patriarchal society of the time -- said, "We need more civil disobedience. There's much more unity among movements now. People come out for each other."

And that's necessary, she added, because in the current uproarious social and political climate, "time is short."

The live version of Tribeca Film Festival wrapped up last Sunday, but that's not the end of screenings. Tribeca at Home, an online platform, will be available online through this Sunday. Passes range from $25 for virtual access to shorts, $50 for access to award winners, and $150 to view all virtual content. For details visit tribecafilm.com/festival/tickets.