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Tribeca Diary: Documentary Roundup

A group of young women pose for a picture in a still from the documentary <em>Teenage,</em> a film that explores the evolution of young adulthood in America and abroad.
Tribeca Film Festival
A group of young women pose for a picture in a still from the documentary Teenage, a film that explores the evolution of young adulthood in America and abroad.

Writer Joel Arnold is surveying the scene at the Tribeca Film Festival, which runs in New York City through April 28. He'll be filing occasional dispatches for Monkey See.

I keep going back to the documentaries. Out of the 14 films I've seen here so far, the documentaries have consistently offered some of the most inherently dynamic subjects — and served up surprising moments of discovery.

Here's a rundown of three that deserve more attention than this short roundup, and that certainly deserve to be seen theatrically, on Netflix — or anywhere possible, really.


Before there were teenagers, there were the teeners, the sub-debs and the Bright Young Things.

In the early history of the modern adolescent, one word with one definition for that perilous period between youth and adulthood had yet to coalesce; ditto any one way that societies treated their youth. In Teenage, writer-director Matt Wolf tracks the development of the teenage identity that solidified in the second half of the 20th century by looking to its origins in the first — and the uncharted push and pull between youth culture and the culture at large.

Adapting Jon Savage's book Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture, Wolf blends newsreels, archival footage, written personal diaries and vivid 16mm recreations in an entrancing collage that puts the voice of youth at the center of a narrative in which the broad strokes of history tend to overlook them.

Jena Malone, Ben Whishaw, Jessie Usher and Julia Hummer narrate in the personas of everyteens from the U.K., U.S., and Germany, describing the struggles of youth during the Industrial Revolution, the heartbreak of a lost generation after World War I, the newfound freedoms of the 1920s and political activism in the 1930s.

Locating youth identity in four diverse narrators illustrates the differences of the teen experience across cultures and generations, but also suggests their common desires for independence, expression and purpose. The choice to eschew outside commentary in favor of letting teens speak for themselves makes Teenage occasionally repetitive (think about it — it's the same four teenage voices with pretty similar concerns, refusing to age over five decades) but also feels like an appropriate act of rebellion.

'Alias Ruby Blade'

Looking out the window of a plane bound for East Timor, Kirsty Sword seems a modest but curious presence. Unless you already knew, you'd be hard pressed to guess the instrumental role she played in a revolution.

Alias Ruby Blade chronicles East Timor's independence movement through the eyes of an outsider who came to surprisingly be one of its most important supporters. Sword, an Australian who learned Indonesian as a child, fell in love with the people of East Timor when she visited in 1990, just as the country was beginning to open to the outside world 13 years after Indonesia's invasion.

Sword's passion for aiding the oppressed East Timorese led her to work as a member of a surreptitious documentary crew whose footage of the 1991 Santa Cruz Massacre brought international attention to the oppression of the Timorese people.

Using footage taken by Sword and supported by interviews with activists including former East Timor President Jose Ramos-Horta, director Alex Meillier weaves a tale of bravery and selfless devotion as Sword moves to Jakarta, where she became a crucial link between the Timorese resistance, human rights groups and those political prisoners jailed in Jakarta — including the charismatic Timorese rebel leader Xanana Gusmao.

Alias Ruby Blade works as an accessible introduction for those completely unfamiliar with East Timor's history, and if you know a bit more than nothing it also serves nicely to convey a lesser-known personal side of the story. Where it truly succeeds, though, is in showing the uncertain growth of a relationship — from mutual admiration to sweet, childlike flirtation — between Sword and Xanana.

Over years they exchange videos, letters, even paintings, all without meeting in person. As the conflict with anti-independence forces intensifies, the future of Sword and Xanana's relationship becomes intertwined with that of the East Timorese.


A dentist living in Oceana, W.Va. puts it well: The place is a contradiction. Behind the natural beauty of its hills and streams, there's an invisible darkness that's threatening to overwhelm its people. The longer you watch Oxyana and get to know the people of this coal-mining town, the more you can feel the bleak truth: The darkness is the opiod painkiller OxyContin, and the film presents a chilling portrait of a once-thriving community ravaged by addiction.

Director Sean Dunne builds incredible trust with his subjects who are dealers and addicts, along with those in Oceana who aren't using but whose lives are just as affected as anyone's by the town's epidemic.

They freely talk about how it started: when Oxy first showed up about 15 years ago it was a way to have fun in a small town, but no one believes it's just that any more. One twentysomething has watched half his high-school class die from overdoses. And yet despite the commonness of experiences like that, the addicted can't break away.

People from all walks of life talk about the unimaginable things they've done to get a fix, and most people approach their addiction with a fatalism that's more heartbreaking than if they were in denial. One woman, six months pregnant, worries about her dealer husband and how he changes when he goes through hellish withdrawals; he'll need Oxy on a daily basis just to stay on an even keel, and with a baby on the way, money will be tight. It's possible to make more money dealing than working in the coal mines, and with Oceana's economy transformed, law enforcement can't keep up.

In a town where half the children born locally are treated with methadone, there's little to say about Oceana that's hopeful, except that its people soldier on. Oxyana shines a sympathetic light on this tragedy; it's a good bet its portrait will not go unnoticed.

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Joel Arnold

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