Sundance Film Festival
Latin Roots Celebrated At Sundance
'Padre Nuestro' and 'Manda Bala' receive the film festival's top prizes. The Iraq war-themed 'Grace is Gone' also takes honors.
"Padre Nuestro," written and directed by Christopher Zalla, won the dramatic grand jury prize. A Spanish-language film set in New York, it's a disturbing, smartly made debut about the dark side of the American dream that pivots around an involuntary exchange of identities between two young illegal immigrants from Mexico.
The documentary grand jury prize went to Jason Kohn's "Manda Bala" (Send a Bullet). Edgy and provocative in tone, it focuses on how the rich get richer in Brazil and the poor try to get even by kidnapping and other crimes. (The film also won the documentary cinematography award for Heloisa Passos, with the dramatic version of that prize going to "Joshua's" Benoit Debie.)
The only other film to win two awards was James C. Strouse's "Grace Is Gone," starring John Cusack as a father who has all kinds of trouble telling his daughters their mother has died in Iraq. "Grace" took the dramatic audience award and the Waldo Salt screenwriting award.
Receiving the audience award for documentary was Irene Taylor Brodsky's deeply affecting and personal "Hear and Now," about her deaf parents and their decision to have cochlear implant surgery at age 65.
The world audience award, a relatively new category, went to two of the strongest films in the festival. The British "In the Shadow of the Moon," directed by David Sington, won the documentary half of the award. An enthralling film made with intelligence and emotion, "Shadow" uses long-unseen NASA footage and lively and candid astronaut interviews to make the story of going to the moon especially compelling.
The world dramatic audience award was won by the charming "Once," easily the festival's most universally liked film, though it is mysteriously without distribution. Set in Dublin and written and directed by John Carney, this reality-based musical romance shows how two semi-lost souls (Glen Hansard of the Frames and Czech-born Marketa Irglova) meet, make beautiful music and consider falling in love. Made with an impeccable touch that doesn't overdo a single moment, "Once" was as close to irresistible as anything Sundance had to offer.
Though they didn't win the audience awards, a pair of popular films received Sundance's directing nods. On the dramatic side, Jeffrey Blitz, director of the documentary "Spellbound," won for "Rocket Science," the story of a young boy who joins his high school debate team in the hopes of curing his stuttering and improving his romantic life.
The documentary directing winner was the very moving "War Dance," co-directed by Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine. Set against the background of Uganda's big-deal interscholastic National Music Festival, it details what happens when a school from a refugee camp, where many of the students are either orphans or rescued child soldiers, gets to compete for the first time. "It is difficult for people to believe our story," one of the children says, "but if we don't tell you, you won't know."
The jury prizes in world cinema went to a pair of unavoidably serious films. Dror Shaul's "Sweet Mud," one of last year's most successful Israeli films, won the dramatic award, and the documentary nod went to "Enemies of Happiness," directed by Eva Mulvad and Anja Al Erhayem, about the role of one determined woman in electoral politics in Afghanistan.
Three other documentaries also received awards. "Nanking," a look at the World War II atrocity, took the documentary editing award for Hibah Sherif Frisina, Charlton McMillian and Michael Schweitzer. Charles Ferguson's "No End in Sight," a devastating critique of what went wrong after the U.S. invaded Iraq, received a special jury prize, as did the Israeli "Hot House," directed by Shimon Dotan, an inside look at imprisoned Palestinians.
This year proved to be such a strong one for documentaries that several excellent works came away empty-handed. One such was Julien Temple's "Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten." An engrossing biopic about the self-described "punk rock warlord" and legendary front man for the Clash, "Unwritten" reveals Strummer to have been thoughtful, charismatic and something of a visionary.
Also richly deserving but unrewarded was Steven Okazaki's "White Light/Black Rain," a dispassionate but emotionally devastating account of the effects of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, two bombs that ended up eventually killing more than 350,000 people. Alternating grim footage of the human damage and current interviews with those who survived, "White Light/Black Rain" conveys the horror of those events in unflinching detail. One hopes it is not too late for the world to listen and learn.
On the dramatic side, special prizes were also presented to "Teeth" star Jess Weixler, "Four Sheets to the Wind" actress Tamara Podemski, "The Pool" director Chris Smith and the coolly fatalistic Franco-Georgian "The Legacy," directed by the father-son team of Gela and Temur Babluani. And the Alfred P. Sloan Prize for a science-themed film went to Chen Shi-Zheng's "Dark Matter."
Though it didn't take home any awards, "Starting Out in the Evening," directed and co-written by Andrew Wagner, stood out at Sundance. It stars Frank Langella as an aging, nearly forgotten novelist, Lily Taylor as his daughter and Lauren Ambrose as the dewy-eyed but formidable graduate student who wants to rescue the writer from obscurity. Set in New York's literary world, "Starting Out" was unusual in this ever-youthful festival for being intelligent, involving and conspicuously adult.