An eight-year-old who draws rappers, a French street artist, a techie futurologist, and 19th-century England’s most beloved taxidermist. It’s not the set-up for a joke, but a selection of the most art-centric short films featured at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which includes two documentaries, an enigmatic science-fiction drama, and a ballet set in a Parisian housing project.
Les Bosquets (JR, 2015)
Set in the titular housing project on the outskirts of Paris — one of the focal points of the riots that rocked France 10 years ago and where JR created some of his first photo murals — Les Bosquets explores the conditions of extreme poverty and destitution that fueled the uprising and ruminates on its aftermath. The 18-minute film blends stylized street fight sequences featuring dancers from the Ballet de l’Opéra National de Paris with footage filmed by JR and others before, during, and after the riots.
The older material is very gritty and amateur, with inhabitants of the projects leading the camera through trash-carpeted courtyards, graffiti-covered building lobbies, burnt-out apartments, and onto desolate rooftops. Occasional riot footage — a helicopter hanging ominously in the night sky, a car in flames, silhouettes running through dark streets — blends into the ballet sequences, which find two groups of dancers squaring off in a parking lot surrounded by the dilapidated project buildings. Soloists Lauren Lovette and Lil’ Buck perform a powerful closing duel that could read as a dance battle between old and new France. JR’s trademark — and, lately, ubiquitous — photo murals appear only sparingly, which makes them very impactful in the film’s final moments.
Live Fast, Draw Yung (Stacey Lee and Anthony Mathile, 2015)
This documentary about Yung Lenox, the eight-year-old, Seattle-based artist whose drawings based on iconic rap album covers went from Instagram sensations to gallery show and art fair fodder, comes belatedly to its most difficult and compelling questions: are these levels of attention healthy for a precocious and sensitive second-grader, and what are his parents’ stakes in his celebrity? Most of Live Fast, Draw Yung‘s 16 minutes are devoted to footage of Lenox’s drawing sessions, his interactions with his father — a copywriter and brand consultant who goes by “Skip Class” — and his encounters with famous rappers and fans. After a taxing exhibition opening, Skip questions his own motives in encouraging his son’s art to such extreme (and lucrative) levels, but the self-examination feels cursory and half-hearted. Lenox is undeniably endearing, but his story often feels like a skit from a Seattle-based Portlandia spin-off.
Future Relic 03 (Daniel Arsham, 2015)
The third chapter in artist Daniel Arsham‘s enigmatic sci-fi series, Future Relic, finds a woman (Juliette Lewis) exploring Eero Saarinen’s Bell Labs complex in suburban New Jersey, while flashbacks show her father’s disappearance when she was a child and intimate some kind of apocalypse and possible human colony on the moon. There are a few moments of delightful weirdness: a donkey standing in an old office peppered with large globes arrayed like a vast solar system diorama, an owl that, with the aid of a translating device, tells the woman that “no one is here, except me, the horse, and the donkey.” But for the most part, Future Relic 03 offers little more than pretentious portents, as artful shots of sand blowing over crystals, waves rolling down a beach (in reverse!), and mysterious artifacts (all of them — surprise! — sculptures by Arsham) demonstrate adept camera skills and little more. This Future Relic is already a relic.
Walter Potter: The Man Who Married Kittens (Ronni Thomas, 2014)
This documentary about the pioneering English taxidermy artist Walter Potter (1835–1918), produced by Brooklyn’s Morbid Anatomy Museum, comes off like a 19-minute pitch for a feature-length film. Not unlike his incredibly detailed and quirky vitrines of dozens of animals performing human rituals, each little section of Walter Potter: The Man Who Married Kittens is fascinating and merits further exploration. Potter’s own personality and life story are barely touched upon, and director Ronni Thomas only alludes to the huge popularity of his tiny, quirky museum in the small town of Bramber. The changing attitudes toward taxidermy and Potter’s specific stripe of anthropomorphic tableaux from the middle of the 19th century to today are evoked as context, but bring up a constellation of fascinating issues, from questions of class and taste to environmentalism and animal rights. The 2003 auctioning off of Potter’s entire oeuvre and the small community of collectors who specialize in oddball taxidermy offer another intriguing entry point into a story that demands a much more thorough exploration. One day, hopefully, a 90-minute Potter documentary will turn up at Tribeca.
Les Bosquets, Future Relic 03, and Walter Potter: The Man Who Married Kittens are featured in the Tribeca Film Festival‘s Shorts: Gallery Opening program, which screens April 21 at 2:45pm, April 23 at 6:45pm, April 25 at 1:30pm, and April 26 at 6:45pm. Live Fast, Draw Yung is part of the festival’s Shorts: Be Yourself program, screening April 22 at 2:45pm, April 24 at 5:30pm, and April 25 at noon.