NEW YORK" The most poignant movie experience of the Tribeca Film Festival, which opens Wednesday, may turn out to be an 89-minute documentary about a trapeze artist, made up largely of black-and-white still photographs, and set in -- and above -- a Manhattan of 34 years ago.
If this sounds at all peculiar, consider the title character of "Man on Wire": French aerialist Philippe Petit, who electrified New York in August 1974 by wire-walking between the towers of the World Trade Center.
Tribeca, the festival, now 7 years old, was created and/or presented as an effort to revitalize the very target of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the area that lay in the shadow of those now-vanished buildings. So there are apt to be a few moist eyes in the house when Petit's story rolls across the screen. After all, the man did for the Trade Center what King Kong did for the Empire State Building.
But "Man on Wire's" presence in Tribeca has a certain metaphorical content, too. When Petit ambled out illegally 110 stories above the street, he did what he did against all odds, in defiance of good sense, and maybe just because he could. A lot of Tribeca's filmmakers, though closer to the ground, will feel a certain kinship with the movie's subject.
And then there's the fact that Tribeca itself has always been part film festival, part balancing act. Never more than now.
"The mission of the festival is to bring the widest group of films and filmmakers in front of the biggest audience," said Jane Rosenthal, the movie producer who, with her longtime colleague Robert De Niro, founded the festival in 2002. She was asked about this year's changes, which involve situating the festival almost entirely in the Union Square area, rather than its namesake neighborhood.
"Let's face it," she said, "there are no venues downtown. There's no place for us to screen pictures that isn't in front of a bunch of steel going up. So we had to create a hub, somewhere we could find a new home."
"It's still New York," De Niro said during an interview at the Tribeca Film Center. "Tribeca is Tribeca, and the center of gravity is still here. To me, it's a logical evolution of the festival. It doesn't mean anything else."
Both Nancy Schafer and Paola Freccero, the co-executive directors of the festival, stressed that Tribeca's purpose was to be something for everyone, "a populist festival," in Freccero's words. There seems to be room for that. The film events that dot the yearly cinema calendar in the New York metro area " from Lincoln's Center's New York Film Festival to its cousin at Stony Brook University " might be considered elitist, given that their purpose is to find the best films for their audience, as deemed such by the rarefied taste of their programmers. Tribeca wants to do something else.
"We are a film festival for movie lovers," said Freccero. "If there can be such a thing as a world-class film festival for the broadest possible audience, we are it. And we're a reflection of the city we are in." Until Tribeca came along, she added, "there really wasn't a festival as broad and diverse and as wide-reaching as New York is."
That wide-reaching, diverse broadness is evident in this year's range of films: The opening film, "Baby Mama," the Tina Fey-Amy Poehler surrogate-mother comedy, screens Wednesday; "Trucker" is about a different kind of mother, a long-haul trucker (Michelle Monaghan), suddenly coming to terms with her estranged son. "Speed Racer," which closes the festival, brings the Japanese TV hero into the new millennium; "Kassim the Dream" is about a different kind of heroism, that of a Ugandan child soldier-cum-champion boxer. "War, Inc." is a comedy about corporate war; "Standard Operating Procedure" is Errol Morris' haunted, haunting look at the photographs that define, rightly or wrongly, Abu Ghraib. And while animator deluxe Bill Plympton gets wacky with "Idiots and Angels," cinematographer-turned-director Santosh Sivan closes out the Raj era with the lush "Before the Rains."
There are fewer films in the festival this year, but more screenings of individual films. And while De Niro resisted any comparison to the Sundance empire ("Sundance is Sundance and it's great, but this is another thing") Tribeca does have an institute and educational programs and the All-Access program, "designed to help foster relationships between film industry executives and filmmakers from traditionally underrepresented communities," according to the literature. It's a given that what separates the AAA film festivals from their lessers is how much business gets done, how many deals are cut. Tribeca is clearly concerned with this, but Rosenthal indicated there are other priorities.
"We're as much about courting the audience," she said, "as we are about the courting the industry."