Tribeca Docs: From the Unsinkable Joan Rivers to AIDS in DC

06/29/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It will make me no friends to say this, but I have a problem with many documentaries. The earnestly instructive, humorless, sad sack -- righteous! -- kind narrated by one of those mealy NPR voices. Such docs exude the tepid sarcasm of a petitioner on the street who, when you keep moving, says "Enjoy your day."

The Tribeca Film Festival, founded in the aftermath of 9/11 to reinvigorate lower Manhattan, is heavily weighted toward docs, including the miserabilist sort. But it has also delivered dynamite, life-enhancing ones that transcend the genre, if you will, through blistering or haunting material. I hear the Untitled Eliot Spitzer Film is a must-see. But it was "by invitation only" and I must have misplaced mine.

However, I did get to grace the premiere of Joan Rivers -- A Piece of Work by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg (The Devil Came on Horseback). Many folks think about Rivers, when they think about her at all, as a plastic surgery joke. But this defiant, outrageous film, which hits you like a blast of oxygen, gives the groundbreaking comedian a 3rd -- or 10th -- life. The filmmakers cover the bases: Rivers's start as a precocious stand up, high times guesting on Johnny Carson, the feud with NBC when she quit to start her own show, her marriage to Edgar and his subsequent suicide, her autobiographical play that bombed in London, her ties to her longtime agent and daughter Melissa.

But what resonates most in this rambunctious film is that Rivers, at seventy-five, simply won't go away. For her a fate tantamount to death is a blank date book; hence she's constantly scheming to find new gigs. Not for Rivers the pleasures of grand-babies and hobbies -- "I paint, but who cares?" She's a glutton for work. "I'm 75," she declares, "and I haven't peaked yet." But this in a society and show biz culture that would gladly cashier her out. So strong is her determination to remain a player, she'll accept any gig at all, including one in deepest Wisconsin in winter, where a heckler attacks her for a Helen Keller gag. She takes him down big time. We root for and applaud her because she's all about laughing at the slings and arrows.

In the film the jokes fly thick and fast, most of them outrageous, un-p.c., or beyond tasteful. But it's that forbidden, did-she-really-go-there? element that makes Rivers funny. She kicks off one sequence by saying, I'm Jewish, I can't help this, and spritzes a hotel toilet with disinfectant. Her own aging is a constant source of humor, and she's got some real doozies on that, almost none printable. Rivers is also insightful about her own brand of humor. It's anger that fuels comedy, she says. "I'm furious about everything." She hears the clock ticking every minute. One of my favorite images: Rivers shlepping through an airport at 3:30 A.M.

On the opposite end of the feel good spectrum lies The Other City, a documentary directed by Susan Koch and written by Jose Antonio Vargas. Shockingly, we're told, three percent of Washington DC is HIV positive, a rate higher than parts of Africa, and Koch goes about uncovering a corner of DC unseen by tourists and ignored by mainstream media. She focuses on individual stories within the epidemic: an ailing mother of three unable to get housing, a hospice called Joseph's House staffed in part by privileged kids, and a former addict advocating for the funding of needle exchange programs on Capitol Hill. In almost a throwaway moment, Larry Kramer does a cameo, declaring that he has probably murdered friends because "I knew there was a virus out there."

Several things bother me about The Other City. First, it shows a young man sheltered at Joseph's House who is not only moribund, but, I think, literally dying. I ask you, is it okay to show a real death in a movie? In some awful way, it speaks to the conviction in America that nothing truly happens unless it's captured by the media. To invade the grief of the young man's mother seemed to violate another boundary.

Secondly, the film isn't angry enough. I mean, here's this underclass that no one cares about. The government drags its feet on funding clean needle exchange; the founders of Joseph's House actually play power ball to raise a pathetic 150 grand to keep going -- and someone is quoted as saying "we lack the political will" to rectify all this. But who's "we," dammit?

The film oozes a dirge-like forbearance blessed by Mother Teresa. It never fingers the larger culprit: the institutionalized poverty/drug use epidemic in America that has destroyed all the lives it explores. Only one who works up a good head of anger is Eleanor Holmes Norton on Congress's longtime ban on the needle exchange. Oh, and Larry Kramer, who was in the audience. When the topic came up in the post-film panel of Obama's efforts to stamp out AIDs, Kramer yelled, "He's done shit!"