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Tribeca Film Festival

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NEW YORK (CNN) -- In just five years Tribeca has joined the likes of Cannes, Venice and Berlin as one of the world's most prestigious film festivals.

Founder Robert De Niro explained to CNN how the festival began as a way to help the city recover from 9/11. "We first came up with it because it was a way to do something for our neighbourhood after September 11th," he said. "We'd always talked about doing a film festival but we did the first one within eight months and really tried to give a new memory to our neighbourhood and get all of New York to come down town to feel normal again."

Eclectic flavor

The festival organizers have kept this New York vibe. De Niro said, "It's a very eclectic mixture of cultures and everything and that's tried to be shown through the films that are here and everything we're trying to do."

Jane Rosenthal, De Niro's Tribeca co-founder, agrees. She told CNN that the flavor of the festival stems from the city that stages it: "I think you can walk across Manhattan and feel you've been to China, Japan, parts of Africa, parts of the Caribbean."

And New York's communities have responded to the festival's eclecticism. Rosenthal continues, "There's all these cultures here; what is so special about the film festival is that we embrace all those communities -- and all those communities show up for our films."

Having acting legend Robert De Niro as its co-founder hasn't exactly harmed the festival's pulling power to draw in the big names and the blockbusters. Nor has New York's long association with some of the most memorable locations in movie history. But beyond that, the festival has quickly won a daring reputation for showing challenging features and documentaries from all over the world.

The line-up for this year's festival has entries from as far afield as Afghanistan, China and Ethiopia, as well as top drawer names including Leonardo DiCaprio and Danny Devito.

Controversial collection

Leading the controversial collection this year is "Taxi to the Dark Side," which features allegations of torture by the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Guantanamo.

"Beyond Belief" follows two 9/11 widows, who bond with similarly distressed women in Afghanistan.

Another feature likely to stir controversy is "The Killing of John Lennon," a non-judgemental film about Mark Chapman, who shot the former Beatle on the steps of New York's Dakota building. (Read our exclusive feature on "The Killing of John Lennon.")

Success at Tribeca last year paved the way for subsequent awards and distribution deals for several films and documentaries.

British director Paul Greengrass opened last year's festival with "United 93," a subject close to the emotions of New Yorkers. The film told the story of the hijacked United Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania on 9/11. The film went on to gather several BAFTA awards and Oscar nominations.

Greengrass told CNN that for him, it was crucial that the film premiered at Tribeca.

He said, "When you bring any film to an audience for the first time it's a very delicate moment. [Premiering at] Tribeca, given that it was a festival that began in the wake of 9/11, made it an incredibly special event and one that was pretty nervewracking, because here you are bringing the first film about 9/11 to an audience in New York. I can't think of a better place to have done it and it was a very special evening, not just for myself but for everybody involved in the film."

Major festival

Greengrass believes that Tribeca has been essential for the regeneration of New York. He said, "It's now one of the major festivals; that's the bottom line. You've got Cannes and Sundance, Venice and Berlin. But now you've got Tribeca; it's a vital part of the map of modern cinema."

Greengrass notices a tangible difference between the film industry in New York and its sister industry in Hollywood. He puts this down to the role that New York City plays in the films it stages: "It's slightly more in your face, which is good; that's what you want. If you set a scene in the New York landscape, it's not just a scene, it's a scene in New York."

Another Tribeca debutant, "Jesus Camp," went on to receive an Oscar nomination for best documentary for its eye-opening story about a summer camp for evangelical Christians.

Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady chose Tribeca for its premier for several reasons.

Ewing told CNN, "We live and work in New York City and we wanted to have a home town opening. Also, the Tribeca film festival in the last few years has gained a lot of credibility. They've been launching a lot of really amazing films."

Political focus

Grady added, "New York City - even before 9/11 -- is a focal point of world politics. It makes sense that they have a lot of films that are more controversial. That's a good place for 'Jesus Camp.' We were hoping that people would see it as something that was going to ruffle some feathers."

Following appearances in Sin City and Grindhouse, New Yorker Rosario Dawson is taking part in her hometown festival, both producing and starring in "Descent," a film about a college student's recovery from a vicious sex attack.

Dawson's acting career began when she was spotted sitting outside her house and invited to take part in a movie. She explained the difference in attitude between filmmaking in New York and filmmaking in Hollywood.

"A lot of the people that are here for film also usually have a background in theatre," she told CNN. "People sort of converge onto Hollywood. They're all there for a very particular reason. A lot of it is not just storytelling; a lot of times it's about celebrity and getting attention. I don't think that's so much part of the agenda in New York; there's just a different kind of energy that comes into it."

Special magic

And there's no doubt that New York holds a special magic for some in the movie business. Bryan Greenberg, star of "Nobel Son," told CNN he was delighted that the movie was premiering at Tribeca this year. He said, "I love New York. It's my favourite city in the world, so to get a chance to come back here and be able to support this film and support this city that I love is great."


CNN's Myleene Klass talks to festival founders Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal



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