The dramatic competition jury was nothing if not judicious at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, splitting the Grand Jury Prize between a veteran independent filmmaker and one of the 20-something newcomers whose presence has dominated this 10-day event.
The joint award, to Victor Nunez’s “Ruby in Paradise” and Bryan Singer’s “Public Access,” was announced Saturday night to a raucous, overflow crowd in ceremonies emceed by last year’s special jury prize winner, actor Seymour Cassel.
The award to “Ruby,” the story of a young woman from Tennessee (beautifully played by Ashley Judd, younger sister of Wynonna) finding her way in the resort community of Panama City Beach, Fla., was expected. For Nunez, whose thank-you speech was brief and restrained, has been an independent stalwart since his “Gal Young Un” was shown at the New York Film Festival in 1979.
“Public Access,” however, the portentous story of a mysterious young man who wreaks havoc in a bucolic small town, was more of a surprise, especially to its makers. While the talented 27-year-old director, who had made the film in 18 days for $250,000 using short ends of leftover film stock from “Dracula” and “Hoffa,” said little, his producer, Kenneth Kolkin, more than made up for it.
“Oh my God, the Grand Jury Prize, this isn’t happening,” Kolkin said with a gasp, running his hands over his face. After asking his parents to stand up, he said he wanted to thank “every person who has ever worked on a movie” and proceeded to just about do so. The crowd, ever tolerant, was suitably forgiving.
On the documentary side, despite this being a year when almost all of the 15 entries were well worth seeing, seven of the eight awards given, including the Audience Award (voted on by the paying customers) and the Filmmakers Trophy (selected by the competition filmmakers) went to just three films.
The Grand Jury Prize in this category was halved as well, going to two films (“Silver Lake Life: The View From Here” and “Children of Fate: Life and Death in a Sicilian Family”) that have complicated production histories.
The heartbreaking “Silver Lake Life,” which also won this year’s first Freedom of Expression Award, given to a documentary that “informs and educates the public on an issue of social concern,” was begun as a video diary by Mark Massi and Tom Joslin, a couple for 22 years when their HIV-positive status was diagnosed.
It was finished after their deaths by a close friend, Peter Friedman, who first thanked a minion at the door for “letting me in without a ticket” and then had to fight tears as he acknowledged the film’s two subjects who “devoted the last months of their lives creating a work of art to help let the world know about the immensity of the tragedy we’re living through right now.”
“Children of Fate,” which also won the Cinematography Award, has an even more torturous history that began more than 30 years ago when directors Robert M. Young and Michael Romer went to the notorious Cortile Cascino slum in Palermo to make a TV documentary for NBC.
The network, however, pulled the plug on the show only three days before the air date and Young and Romer nearly had their film irrevocably destroyed. Thirty years later, Young’s son Andrew and his wife, Susan, returned to Sicily and almost miraculously found the woman who was the center of the original documentary. “Children” intercuts the current color footage of her struggles with Young and Romer’s breathtakingly poetic original black-and-white shots, all to powerful effect.
Robert M. Young, clearly delighted at sharing the award with his son, simply said: “They’re making them bigger and better.” Andrew Young, however, noted that “anyone who has seen the film knows that the greatest part of the award goes to my greatest inspiration, my father.” He also thanked, as did many of the evening’s winners, his Uncle Irwin Young, whose lab in New York has “encouraged a whole generation of independent filmmakers.”
“Something Within Me,” winner of the most documentary awards, was also, at 55 minutes, the festival’s shortest entry and the one that got the biggest applause when its first victory was announced. The story of a school in the embattled South Bronx that requires its students to study music for what it can do to their lives won the Audience Award, the Filmmaker Award and (along with the environmentally conscious-raising “Earth and the American Dream”) a special jury award.
The festival’s most talked about non-winning documentary was “Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer.” Veteran British documentarian Nick Broomfield traveled to Florida to search out Wuornos, portrayed in the press as America’s first female serial murderer, and found the reality much stranger than even he could have anticipated.
Unlike the situation with documentaries, no film on the dramatic side won more than a single award. The Cinematography Award went to “An Ambush of Ghosts,” one of the darkest films in the festival, both in terms of subject matter and light on the screen. Shot by Judy Irola for director Everett Lewis, whose “A Brief History of Parking Lots” was much talked about two years ago, it is an unremittingly agonizing film about an exceedingly troubled family.
The Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award went to “Combination Platter,” the story of an illegal alien from Hong Kong trying to get used to America while working in a Chinese restaurant in Queens. Producer-director (and co-screenwriter with Edwin Baker) Tony Chen made the most-appreciated acceptance speech when he thanked his parents because “we shot the whole film in their restaurant. We didn’t have to pay a location fee and my father came in at 4 in the morning to do the catering.”
The dramatic jury also gave two special awards. One, for “outstanding achievement in a first feature,” went to “Just Another Girl on the IRT,” written and directed by Leslie Harris and dealing with a Brooklyn teen-ager with big dreams and an attitude to match. “Lillian,” an almost minimalist feature about a real woman (who played herself) who is a care-giver of heroic proportions, won an award “for distinction” for writer-director David Williams, who said he felt like “Lillian did all the work and I just held on.”
Of the two non-jury prizes, the Filmmakers Trophy went to “Fly by Night,” a drama set in the world of New York rap music, directed by Steve Gomer and written by Todd Graff. And the Audience Award went to Robert Rodriguez’s “El Mariachi,” which is rapidly becoming the most celebrated $7,000 film ever made.
Each Jury Prize winner takes home $2,500. Other winners receive trophies or plaques.
The most talked about non-winning dramatic film was “Amongst Friends,” a neo-mean streets set in the wealthy South Shore of Long Island and written and directed with passion and natural commercial instincts by first-timer Rob Weiss.
Already signed by United Talent and with a studio picture probably in the offering, Weiss had perhaps the most unusual financing story of the entire festival. His father, Weiss revealed in his gravelly, staccato voice, “is in the casino business, and he convinced some gamblers they had a better chance backing this.” As this festival finally drew to a close, that looked to be one of the safer bets of the year.