The Tribeca Film Festival is filling a growing desire to showcase the future of storytelling

A still from “See Yourself in Others.”
A still from “See Yourself in Others.”
Image: Tribeca Film Festival
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On March 30, twenty actors donned square-shaped helmets made from mirrors and were set loose in New York City. Reactions from passersby varied. Some were confused, arching their eyebrows and cocking their heads. Others avoided eye contact, which was impossible anyway, since the actors had mirrors covering their faces. Then there were those who took selfies.

But most people got into it, quickly catching on to the project’s mission of promoting empathy. The mirrorheads were being filmed for a short piece for the Tribeca Film Festival, which began on April 19 and ends April 30. The project, titled See Yourself in Others, reflects the theme adopted by festival organizers this year and couldn’t come at a more appropriate time, landing amidst the divisions and angst of current events.

Now in its sixteenth year, Tribeca is tapping back into its own empathetic roots. Debuting in 2002, just months after the 9/11 attacks, festival creators Robert De Niro, Craig Hatkoff, and Jane Rosenthal were seeking a way to revitalize the Tribeca neighborhood and soothe the wounds. But these people were, “storytellers, not firemen or first responders,” according to Andrew Essex, CEO of Tribeca Enterprises. They responded the best way they knew how: “Let’s put on a show. Shows bring people together,” he said.

Following in the wake of the most polarizing election in recent history, the festival’s lineup—as much from serendipity as anything else—reinforces that original mission. “I would love Donald Trump to try the experience,” Essex said of the mirrorheads project.

What began purely as a film festival has expanded. “We’re evolving how the culture is evolving,” said Essex. In addition to its film roots, Tribeca has become a multi-platform cultural event showcasing storytelling mediums like television, online and digital projects, virtual reality, music, and gaming. There’s also Tribeca X, a competition to award the best storytelling from brands working with filmmakers and artists. (Atlantic Re:think, which is a cosponsor of Tribeca X, is a division of Atlantic Media, which also owns Quartz.)

“When we started, there was no YouTube, let alone Snapchat. The fundamental way people consume content has changed,” Essex said. Regardless, when curating selections the festival organizers “Ignore the content and the label, as long as there’s a strong story behind it,” he said.

While the technology may be new, what hasn’t changed is a focus on engaging audiences with experiences outside their own. Using storytelling to create empathy is, “why the festival exists, and why the arts exist,” Essex said.

In the Island of the Colorblind exhibit, visitors are brought into a specially lit room containing the work of Belgian photographer Sanne De Wilde. It’s part of Tribeca’s Immersive showcase, a platform for interactive exhibits, where participants get to see life in the same hues as the residents of Pingelap, a Pacific atoll that was decimated by a typhoon over a century ago. One of the few survivors carried a rare gene that causes achromatopsia, a condition that prevents people from seeing colors, and now almost the entire island has it. When I experienced the room, a woman whose son has the condition joined me. It was the first time she got to see the world in the same way as him.

With the Tribeca All Access program, The Tribeca Film Institute also helps minority and underrepresented talent gain access to industry networks in order to reach wider audiences. This year, the festival organized over 1,800 interviews between filmmakers and industry representatives that can provide financing, music licensing, or any number of other services. Tayarisha Poe, the writer and director for Selah, and the Spades, a film she described as a cross between Clueless and The Godfather, said the program had helped set up roughly fifty curated meetings for her in two days.

Also part of the Immersive showcase this year, Eric Darnell, director of the Madagascar series and Chief Creative Officer and Co-Founder of Baobab Studios, showed Rainbow Crow, a charming VR film based on a Native American legend about self-sacrifice for the larger group. The story, involving a storyline about how crows came to be black rather than an assortment of different colors, prompts audiences to ponder issues of identity. “The things you see as flaws are the very things that make you unique,” Darnell said.

But promoting empathy doesn’t mean stories still don’t provoke. Sometimes they’re supposed to spark discomfort. It’s an important point to remember as free speech comes increasingly under attack from extremists—either the thugs in Washington who call a free press an enemy, or those delicate thugs on college campuses that refuse to listen to speakers outside their bubbles.

This year’s Tribeca lineup embraces political differences. There’s The People’s House, a VR tour of the Obama White House; a panel for Kathryn Bigelow and Imraan Ismail’s VR short The Protectors: A Walk in the Ranger’s Shoes, that included surprise guest Hillary Clinton; The Reagan Show, about the former president’s manipulation of his media image; and Netflix’s Get Me Roger Stone, about the controversial political operator who has a back tattoo of Richard Nixon, was the youngest person called before the Watergate grand jury, and who, on the red carpet for his film, opined that it’s, “better to be infamous than not be famous at all.”

This year, as Tribeca comes full-circle with the civic role that originally inspired its creation, the lineup explores differences, political and otherwise, currently dividing Americans. But that’s a good thing. “Stories put us in unfamiliar or uncomfortable situations and force us to confront other points of view,” according to Icaro Doria, of DDB, the festival’s ad agency that put together the mirrorheads film. “Once we’re inside, the universal human truths we find there help us find ourselves—even in faraway places and radically different cultures. More than ever, we need these stories.”