By Patricia Reaney
NEW YORK (Reuters) - More than a decade after it was launched to revitalize lower Manhattan following the September 11 attacks, the Tribeca Film Festival has become a showcase for documentaries and independent films as well as a testing ground for new talent and digital innovations in cinema.
The festival kicks off on Wednesday with "Time Is Illmatic," a documentary about the American rapper Nas and the making of his groundbreaking 1994 debut album "Illmatic," from which he will perform after the screening.
More than 85 feature films including documentaries were selected from 6,117 submissions, and will be screened during the festival that runs through April 27.
"It was never intended to be just a film festival that would have just films or certain types of film," Robert De Niro, an Oscar-winning actor and co-founder of the festival with film producer Jane Rosenthal, told Reuters.
"It is more of a community-type thing. That was our intention because that was what it was born out of," he added.
"Gabriel," by writer-director Lou Howe and starring Rory Culkin ("Signs" and "You Can Count on Me"), opens the festival's world narrative competition.
The drama about an emotionally disturbed young man in search of his first love will compete for best feature, director, actor and actress, screenplay and cinematography prizes against 11 other films.
They include "Brides," a French-Georgian film set in the suburbs of Tbilisi, "Five Star," about a member of the Bloods street gang, and "Zero Motivation," a dark comedy about young, female Israeli soldiers.
"Dior and I," by French director Frederic Tcheng, chronicles the first couture collection of Belgian designer Raf Simons for the famed Christian Dior fashion house and will lead the documentary competition.
Films from France, Puerto Rico, Britain, the United States, Belgium and the Netherlands will battle for best documentary feature, best new director and best editing awards.
Among them are "Garnet's Gold," a British entry that details a search for lost riches, "Misconceptions," about the consequences of world population growth and "Mala Mala," a look into the transgender community in Puerto Rico.
Actress Courteney Cox, best known for "Friends," makes her directorial debut with the comedy-drama "Just Before I Go." Chris Messina, of TV's "The Mindy Project," will also go behind the camera for the first time with "Alex of Venice," about a lawyer pushed to the edge after the departure of her husband.
"Boulevard," a drama starring comedian Robin Williams, will premier at the festival, as will "Miss Meadows," in which Katie Holmes plays a schoolteacher who moonlights as a vigilante.
Music-themed documentaries include "The Other One: The Long, Strange Trip of Bob Weir," about the Grateful Dead guitarist, "Bjork: Biophilia Live," and "Super Duper Alice Cooper."
For sports fans, boxing greats Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and Bernard Hopkins will appear in "Champs," as well as Michael Rapaport's "When the Garden Was Eden," a love letter to the New York Knicks basketball team.
Tribeca N.O.W. is a new program at the festival that recognizes independent storytellers who create and share their work online.
"What we have now is a generation that experience storytelling in a range of different formats," said Geoff Gilmore, the festival's chief creative director. "It is very much not just a universe that is emerging but evolving."
(Editing by Eric Kelsey and G Crosse)