On the 20th anniversary of its genesis, the Tribeca Film Festival comes full circle with a big exhale of “Hallelujah.” “Look! We have come through!,” to quote D. H. Lawrence, and so they, and we, have. Founded by Jane Rosenthal, Craig Hatkoff, and actor–restaurateur–living monument Robert De Niro, the first Tribeca Film Festival was organized amid the shock, dread, and disorientation following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, where for months bodies were extracted from the ground where the towers once stood and grief thickened the air. Downtown came to a standstill that threatened to become a death blow. Hotels and restaurants closed, tourism plummeted, traffic was diverted from Chinatown and other once throbbing hubs, and security checkpoints sprung up like dragon’s teeth. Into this miasma of confusion and sunken morale came the Tribeca Film Festival to the rescue. Its original purpose was to revitalize the downtown economy and re-inspire the troops.
“When we began,” Rosenthal recalls, “the world didn’t need another festival—Tribeca did. We knew that we could contribute and galvanize support in a way that would be significant for our city in a time of need.” The initial need was met, and over the last two decades the Tribeca Film Festival has become an institution and creative magnet, branching out into showcases for video games, virtual reality, and, heaven help us, podcasts. And the film festival isn’t nestled exclusively downtown but has spoked out all over the city.
In 2021, the festival attends to a city emerging from a different crisis and downturn—not the reeling after-effects of a terrorist attack but the year-long somnambulism of a pandemic lockdown that has reduced so many vibrant streets to phantom stretches of vacated businesses and abandoned asphalt. But as more and more New Yorkers are vaccinated and restrictions lifted, optimism is returning with a hip-shaking boom as represented by Tribeca’s choice of opening film this year: Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jon M. Chu’s joyous musical, In the Heights, which will premiere at the grand United Palace, in Washington Heights, and be simulcast on outdoor screens in all five boroughs. Also featured are Steven Soderbergh’s latest caper, No Sudden Move, Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, and, the festival’s closer, an untitled documentary produced by comedian Dave Chappelle. Whatever cobwebs and dust bunnies have gathered over the last year will be lustily blown away. —James Wolcott