NEW YORK – When a film festival opens with an artistic achievement like the heart-stopping "United 93," nothing that comes after it, at least in the same genre, quite measures up.
But the first major motion picture about Sept. 11 did pave the way for the other dramas and documentaries at this year's Tribeca Film Festival that address the 2001 terrorist attacks and the subsequent, ongoing war in Iraq.
"Civic Duty," about an accountant who becomes paranoid and obsessed with terrorists after 9/11, and "Five Fingers" starring Ryan Phillippe, Laurence Fishburne and Gina Torres, about a human-aid worker kidnapped and tortured by terrorists in Morocco, were among the festival's dramatic feature films with Sept. 11-related themes.
Most of Tribeca's offerings that broached the subject of terrorism, war and 9/11, however, were documentaries.
"Shadow of Afghanistan" invites viewers into the once breathtakingly scenic and peaceful country that has been ravaged by decades of war — beginning with the 1979 Soviet invasion.
The documentary follows Afghanistan through the 10-year-long brutal Russian occupation and war, during which at least 80,000 people were tortured and killed, thousands were forced into refugee camps and poverty and the beautiful country of emerald fields and purple mountains was reduced to a mass of rubble and land mines.
Following a brief period of euphoria after the Russians were defeated and retreated in 1989, the Taliban wreaked their own form of havoc on the Afghani people, inciting a vicious civil war and destroying even more of the country and its culture. And then Usama bin Laden and his ilk arrived, and Afghanistan was again used for others' destructive gain.
By the time American forces dropped bombs in the hopes of killing bin Laden and driving out the Taliban, Afghanistan was in shambles, battered after years and years of the evils of war and corruption. But the spirit of the people could not be destroyed, and since the Taliban were successfully toppled from power, life has begun to slowly improve for Afghanis.
The informative documentary is at times haunting and sad, at times heart-warming and inspiring. It was made thanks to a handful of journalists and filmmakers from around the world dedicated to telling the true story of the country. Some died in the process.
"The War Tapes" follows the lives of three National Guard soldiers stationed in Iraq for a year. New Hampshire director Deborah Scranton, who did an earlier project on World War II veterans, was asked to embed with the New Hampshire National Guard troops in Iraq.
"I had the idea to give the guys the cameras and direct through IM [instant message]," Scranton said during a question-and-answer session after a screening.
The result is a powerful, often shocking, even funny documentary about the day-to-day existence of three young men stationed in Iraq.
"The War Tapes" captures their conflicting feelings about the war, their ignorance about the Iraqi people and culture, their cynicism about the Bush administration's motives for invading Iraq, their depression and anger, their patriotism and homesickness, their crude humor and coping mechanisms.
During one scene, one of the three is reciting the Bush mantra about the reasons for the war: to spread democracy, give Iraqis a better life and bring peace to the Middle East.
"Then, after that happens, maybe we can buy everybody in the world a puppy," he says wryly.
We see and hear what the soldiers see and hear while stationed in the desert: bombs going off and the thick plumes of smoke left in their wake; shootouts; brushes with death; bloodied, dead bodies; burned and mangled military vehicles; Halliburton's expanding presence; palm trees; children in the streets; dusty roads clogged with traffic.
"I promised to tell their stories no matter where they took us," Scranton said. "I think they ripped their hearts open."
Running parallel to the soldiers' tales are the stories of the ones who love them, left behind back home with their own complicated array of mixed emotions.
The Lebanese-born mother of one of the young men speaks of the hardship of waiting for a whole year, not knowing whether her son would return home dead or alive.
But she has a sense of humor, too. When her beloved boy comes back, she throws her arms around him and tells him he's handsome. He doesn't like her to call him handsome, she explains to the camera. But she's going to keep doing it anyway.
"What's he going to do, shoot me?" she quips.
Other documentaries that address the war in Iraq include "The Blood of My Brother: A Story of Death in Iraq," about an Iraqi family grieving for their son who was killed by American troops while guarding a mosque, and "Home Front," the story of the slow recovery of a U.S. soldier blinded in combat at age 21.
Documentaries that look at Sept. 11 include "Saint of 9/11," about New York Fire Department Chaplain Father Mychal Judge, who sacrificed his life that day to administer last rites to a mortally wounded firefighter; "The Heart of Steel," which highlights the difference regular people can make in the midst of a disaster and follows volunteers who joined forces after the catastrophe; and "The Journalist and the Jihadi — The Murder of Daniel Pearl," about the life and tragic killing of The Wall Street Journal reporter by Islamic militants in Pakistan.
Other films in the festival found drama in families, in architecture, even in Chinese fairytales.
"Wah-Wah" is, as described by leading man Gabriel Byrne before the premiere, a "drama with a light vein running through it" about the dysfunctional family of writer and director Richard E. Grant — better known for his acting in films including "The Player" and "Gosford Park."
As an adolescent growing up in Swaziland, Africa, Grant witnessed his mother having sex with his father's best friend, whom she ran away with, leaving him with his alcoholic father, played by Byrne. Emily Watson plays his American stepmother Ruby.
"It's about family. You never really get away," said Grant on his way into the premiere.
Byrne said he agreed to become involved in the picture and play Grant's father in part because he was in awe of the director's courage in making an autobiographical film.
"I was hugely admiring of the bravery that demanded, of opening oneself up to the scrutiny of strangers," Byrne told the audience at the premiere this week.
"The Architect" is also about a dysfunctional family — dysfunctional because they don't communicate, even though they're all suffering. The dramas inside the architect's family are set against a bigger drama going on outside over the architect's design of a housing project that one of its residents is petitioning to tear down.
A different kind of drama unfolds in "The Promise," a mystical sort that's the stuff of fairytales and fantasies. Special effects and colors the likes of which aren't often seen in American films explode on the screen in this picture, which also happens to be the biggest budgeted Chinese movie ever made. It's the story of a general's slave who kills the king while dressed as the general in order to save the princess' life (got all that?).
Save for "United 93" and the blockbuster "Mission Impossible 3," the true dramatic stars of the festival, however, were not the feature films (most of the aforementioned had some major weaknesses, especially "The Architect"), but the documentaries — perhaps because many of them offer powerful new perspectives on reality.
As "Shadow of Afghanistan" producer Dan Devaney says on the film's Web site: "Now, more than ever, the media must be encouraged to shed its light on everything happening in our world."