TriBeCa: Is It Real or Just Reel?

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Beneath the glitzy parties and street fair recreation, the real glow of this year's edition of the Tribeca Film Festival comes from its grittier, mostly nonfiction offerings.

The festival's first weekend promises much provocation from its documentaries - even (most especially, perhaps) from a movie that looks, acts and sounds like a documentary but isn't one.

"Street Thief" has the kind of audacious premise that sounds plausible enough in this anything-goes age of documentaries. A film crew's cameras follow a professional burglar named Kaspar Carr as he cases houses, stores and even a multiplex in Chicago. The step-by-step process of tapping phones, immobilizing burglar alarms, jimmying doors and windows is laid out so well that you wonder how filmmakers Malik Bader and Miles Harrison got away with it.Here's the thing: Bader is playing Kaspar Carr (quite well, by the way.) And the film is far more a faux documentary than the genuine article. However one chooses to regard "Street Thief," it's still a compelling and cunning example of what one can still do with the crime movie genre with enough guile and crowbars.

No question, on the other hand, of the documentary pedigree of "Home Front." Richard Hankin's film is an account of how Army Ranger Jeremy Feldbusch, blinded, brain-damaged and bedridden by a shrapnel wound sustained in the Iraq War, bonded with other war veterans to lobby Congress for the "Wounded Warrior" bill.

Another lobbying campaign is at the center of "Lockdown U.S.A.," which is both a fierce "j'accuse" against the Rockefeller drug laws and a semi-intimate portrait of the nascent political clout exhibited by Hip-Hop Nation. One of that nation's leaders, Russell Simmons, is shown meeting with legislators, activists, fans, pop stars and families of those serving mandatory prison sentences for drug convictions. (Simmons is even shown meeting with Gov. George Pataki.)

It's tempting to see the film as a valentine to Simmons' passion, drive and energy. His bursts of exasperation with the process are so explosive, you can feel slightly singed by the force. Yet as he and others discover, politics doesn't always give you everything you want, and the tension between what Simmons and his fellow activists seek and what they're settling for is unflinchingly captured by filmmakers Rebecca Chaiklin and Michael Skolnik.

"Saint of 9/11," directed by Glenn Holsten and narrated by Ian McKellen, is a portrait of Father Mychal Judge, chaplain of New York City's Fire Department, who perished while administering last rites to a firefighter at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. This heroic Franciscan priest proved more complex in life than many realized at the time. He was a recovering alcoholic and proud homosexual who cared for AIDS patients and the homeless. The story is told through archival clips and interviews with, among others, former fire commissioner Thomas Von Essen and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Further information on these and other festival selections and programs can be obtained at www.tribecafilmfestival.org.

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