By Christine Kearney
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The Tribeca Film Festival kicks off this week with a greater emphasis on independent foreign films in competition, stars such as Justin Bieber on red carpets and a broader overall program heading into its second decade.
The festival, one of the largest in the United States and co-founded by Robert De Niro as a way to revive downtown Manhattan after the September 11 attacks, opens on Wednesday with high-profile Hollywood comedy, "The Five-Year Engagement" starring Jason Segel and Emily Blunt.
But the 12-day festival which runs until April 29 features mostly independent cinema. From almost 6,000 submissions, Tribeca 2012 will screen 89 feature films split between 57 fiction and 32 documentaries, including 50 world premieres.
Half of its lineup of 12 fiction films in competition are international productions, including "Yossi," an Israeli fiction film about a closeted gay man in Tel Aviv that opens the narrative competition and "The Girl," an American/Mexican production starring Abbie Cornish as a struggling, single mother in Texas who helps smuggle immigrants over the border.
"War Witch" is shot entirely in the Congo and tells the story of one girl's harrowing life since rebel warlords stormed her village.
Among world documentaries, "The World Before Her" parallels the lives of women in the Miss India beauty pageant with those in a fundamentalist Hindu camp for girls. It opens the documentary competition.
This is the first year Tribeca organizers selected debut night films for the narrative and documentary competitions, and the overall program reflects of a range of films from around the world instead of typically dominant European fare, said Tribeca's chief creative officer Geoff Gilmore.
"I think they had been all over the map, sometimes in the past," he said of the programming in the past 10 years. "There was sometimes a lack of consistency, and I think one of the things that you look for is the kind of discovery and diversity that we have in the program this year."
Sandwiched between the South by Southwest indie film festival in Austin, Texas and France's Cannes film festival, which has a reputation for hosting some of the world's best films, Tribeca shows only slightly more than half the total number of films it screened six years ago.
"Cannes shows just a few films and there is lots of other kinds of work we can reach out to and we did that," Gilmore said. "It feels like we are in a new phase, we have done our ten years of Tribeca ... now are entering our next decade."
BIEBER DOES TRIBECA
The festival has tried to balance the sort of Hollywood star power that brings attention to a festival with its eclectic film program because, as Gilmore said, "if that (celebrity) is the only hook for the festival, then you have sold yourself down a slippery slope," Gilmore said.
This year, the festival honors Justin Bieber for being a leading innovator in using technology to reach mass audiences. Other stars expected to attend include James Franco, Olivia Wilde, Chris Rock, Tony Bennett, Kristen Wiig, Rob Lowe and Jason Sudeikis who are all due to hit red carpets.
Stars on the big screen include Kate Bosworth playing an unhappy wife who travels to Naples in "While We Were Here" and Freida Pinto in director Michael Winterbottom's "Trishna."
Some of the U.S. feature films premiering range from "First Winter" about a group of Brooklyn hipsters staying in a remote farmhouse to the more artistic "Consuming Spirits," a meticulous animation film 15 years in the making.
Tribeca's traditional strength - documentaries - include sports story "Knuckleball!" about the best known knuckleball pitchers in baseball and "Wagner's Dream" a look at the pursuit of art that tells about stage director Robert Lepage's staging of Wagner's Ring Cycle at The Metropolitan Opera house.
"The Flat" has gained some pre-festival buzz as an accomplished and unusual holocaust tale, as has "The Revisionaries" about the politicizing of education textbooks in Texas. Also, Morgan Spurlock returns to Tribeca with a humorous look at what it means to be a modern man in "Mansome."
In addition Tribeca, which has experimented in the past with online films, will again offer several premieres on the Internet for U.S. audiences to watch including "The Russian Winter" about ex-Fugees musician John Forte's concert tour in Russia.
Gilmore predicted indie films could look forward to a stronger future in the video-on-demand market that has grown in recent years but remains slow in recapturing lost revenue from declining DVD sales.
"There is a new generation out there that is accessing film and all the different forms of storytelling in a different way than what my generation did," he said. "These guys (watch films) when they want, where they want, with whatever device they want and you have to figure out ways to make it accessible for them."
(Reporting by Christine Kearney; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte)