Festival winners paint sober, stark realities
The best of the Sundance Film Festival turned out to be films that grapple with the atrocities of wars abroad, in Iraq and at home in America, behind closed doors.
At the festival’s closing awards ceremony this weekend, the podium became more than a chance to thank producers, investors and crewmembers for their collaboration. It was also an opportunity to raise awareness about the world’s real and tangible conflicts beyond the theater screen.
Documentary filmmaker Charles Ferguson, who directed "No End in Sight" accepted a Special Jury Prize "in recognition of the film as timely work that clearly illuminates the misguided policy decisions that have led to the catastrophic quagmire of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq." Filmmaker Carlos Sandoval presented the award to Ferguson, describing his film as a "portrait of sad incompetence." "America deserves better," he said.
As he held his orange award on stage, Ferguson thanked his Iraqi bodyguards, whom he said he paid $7,000 a day.
"Out in Baghdad, you don’t just walk around with a camera at will I never shot more than 30 minutes of film a day and never in the same place twice," he said. "When we found someone willing to be interviewed, my body guards formed a human wall around me."
He said his aim was to make a film that was a-political, but a film about facts that "brought us to this utterly horrific state."
"It’s too late for Iraq," he lamented. "But I hope it’s not too late for the country to conduct itself differently in the future."
James C. Strouse won both the dramatic Audience Award and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award for his drama "Grace is Gone," which stars John Cusack as a widower who struggles with the loss of his wife who has died while serving in the Iraq war.
"Many people have asked me if this is an anti-war film, and I say it’s a pro-America film," Strouse told the audience at the awards ceremony. "I tried to tell a story that would connect and touch the heart in a very personal way I think we can all agree that the losses from war transcend political dogma."
Other films visited the continents of Asia and Africa to reveal similar disquieting struggles.
The husband-and-wife filmmakers Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine won the Directing Award for their film "War/Dance" which examines northern Uganda’s war with a rebel force, the Lord’s Resistance Army, by following children form a displaced-persons camp to a national music and dance festival.
Saturday night, the Fines announced that profits from the film will go directly to organizations attempting to ameliorate the African country’s crisis.
"Nanking," winner of the award for best documentary editing, focused on the aftermath of the 1937 invasion of the Chinese town.
"Nanking" director Dan Sturman, who produced the Academy Award-winning documentary "Twin Towers," called the win "bittersweet."
"I think something that took place 70 years ago can have important lessons to us now and show us how horrible a thing like war is," he said. "I hope we can learn."
Grand Jury Prize winners for dramatic and documentary features handled weighty topics as well. The main character of dramatic winner "Padre Nuestro" is a Mexican immigrant who searches for his father in New York City. Documentary winner, "Manda Bala (Send a Bullet)" takes a behind-the-scenes look at Brazil’s darker side, interviewing kidnappers, kidnap victims and the people who profit from the corruption within the country.
Lighter interludes poked through a mostly sober evening, however, including a belated acceptance speech by actress Jess Weixler who won a special jury award for her performance as a girl with "vagina dentate" in "Teeth."
While en route to her next destination on Jet Blue Airlines, Weixler learned she needed to take a return flight to Salt Lake City to receive the award. Sundance Film Festival Director Geoffrey Gilmore invited her onstage later in the ceremony to celebrate her win.
"I was on a plane going somewhere else and the stewardess said, ‘You’re going to Utah next,’ and I was like ‘What!’ I just screamed in her face," Weixler said, adding, "I’m glad people could connect to a girl with teeth in her vagina."
After the ceremony, awards presenter and "Eagle vs. Shark" director Taika Waititi said that he understood why this year’s jurors chose this particular batch of films.
"More and more people know what’s going on in the world through entertainment, and if you’re an artist, you should have a message," he said.
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