Trio of Tribeca Documentaries


In God We Trust

What makes a hero? In God We Trust, a documentary profiling native New Yorker Eleanor Squillari, reminds us that heroism takes many forms. Squillari was personal secretary to the now-notorious Bernard Madoff for 25 years; since Madoff's 2008 arrest, she has distinguished herself as a hero for sure.

Squillari's job as she knew it had its aggravations, as most will (for example, she was constantly "on call") -- but it provided, so she believed, a close group of coworkers and an honest living. When Madoff's lies were exposed, she was personally devastated and found her prospects in jeopardy; try getting another job when you have to tell people you worked with Bernie Madoff for 25 years. She lost her livelihood and a lot of her faith in people, and in the film she's in the process of losing her house.

To regain a sense of control amid the betrayal, Squillari took it upon herself to start her own investigations (given phone records, travel logs, and other data that she had unique access to), and she has been a significant help to the authorities in the ongoing attempt to achieve justice in this case.

The footage of Squillari in action is very moving -- her former employer will be jailed for the rest of his life, while her decency and determination will carry her into the future. Her decision to use what she had (in this case intelligence, perseverance, and many paper trails) to work for the greater good is an inspiring one. Squillari is a local hero and a national treasure, and she's rightly honored in this compelling work.

Big Joy

"Amazement awaits us at every corner," said poet and experimental filmmaker James Broughton, and the warmth of the late artist's work and spirit can be felt clearly in this film [photo above]. 

Broughton was part of the San Francisco Renaissance in the late 1940s, which paved the way for the Beat movement and even, with its all-day poetry readings, eventually for gatherings like Woodstock. He threw himself into art with bravery and humor, and the results could indeed be joyful -- though he bore the scars of a less-than-joyous childhood (born into a wealthy and formal family, Broughton lost his father when he was young and described feeling judged and belittled by a distant mother). 

In the mid-1970s, after various long-term romantic relationships with men and women -- he had child with film critic Pauline Kael and later two children and a 16-year marriage with artist Suzanna Hart -- Broughton fell in love with one of his filmmaking students, Joel Singer. Singer was 35 years his junior and, in the film, describes propositioning his professor. The two remained together until Broughton's death in 1999.

The footage from Broughton's films and the recitations of his poetry are engaging, filled with candid explorations of dance, sex, nature, fear, and love. And the interview footage of the artist makes him seem like a friend -- it feels impossible not to root for his happiness. On the other hand, it's also impossible to ignore the pain in Susanna Hart's eyes when she speaks about the divorce and admits she never truly got past it. The depths of our emotions, as Broughton would readily admit, are not likely to be easy terrain. This film offers both a sensitive artistic portrait and a meditation on the big joys and significant sorrows we'll likely encounter if we live with an open heart.

Inside Out

This film follows the work of a French street artist who goes only by JR. Much of his work involves portraits, and much of it -- given that it commands public space, generally without a license -- has been deemed illegal. For example, in 2007, with fellow artist Marco, JR completed a project called Face 2 Face, which posted large portraits of Israelis and Palestinians face to face in eight Palestinian and Israeli cities. 

In March 2011, JR's work was granted the TED prize, which brings a significant grant, and he used this funding to launch a global participatory art project called Inside Out. The project funds people worldwide to have their portraits taken and to paste them publicly as a community statement. With the project, JR segued from photographer/paster to chronicler of the photos and pastings of others: each Inside Out group action around the world is documented, archived, and exhibited online. As of December 2012, over 120,000 people from more than 108 countries had participated. 

Describing this work and this film is one thing, seeing it quite another. In some cases, JR and his crew choose to fly out to assist with especially emotional group projects, and the footage of these interactions brought quite a few tears to my eyes. A grieving family on a reservation in South Dakota; young and hopeful Tunisians in the wake of the Arab Spring; teenagers in earthquake-ravaged Haiti -- these subjects, their experiences, and their photos are unforgettable. "It's as if photography gave me my life back," a Haitian teen says. The film is a must-see as it shines insightful and loving light on people and stories too often pushed aside. 

If the Tribeca screenings are sold out (as they should be), the film will be coming to HBO toward the end of the year. Meanwhile, the Inside Out project is ongoing, and is providing a photo-booth truck in Times Square from now till May 10th for those in New York City who wish to participate. See for more info and to check out the extraordinary work already done. - Pamela Grossman

Ms. Grossman is a Brooklyn-based writer. Her work has been published in ,, The Village Voice, and Filmmaker magazine, among other outlets, and she is a regular contributor to Women's Enews.