"Push" wins tops Sundance honors | ParkRecord.com

"Push" wins tops Sundance honors

Greg Marshall, Of the Record staff

It was obvious to shuttle riders bouncing along the road to the Park City Racquet Club Saturday evening that Big River Man was nervous.

And why shouldn’t he be?

In about an hour, the lights were set to dim at the Sundance Film Festival’s annual awards ceremony and Michael Strel, the four-time world-record holder for endurance swimming and the subject of the documentary "Big River Man," would find out if he needed to pack a prize before boarding a plane back to Slovenia.

Bundled in a coat, Strel said he enjoyed his time in Park City. "Winter’s good for me," he said. "It makes me healthy."

"Big River Man" didn’t take home top honors in the documentary category, but the psychological thriller about Strel’s journey down the Amazon captured an award for cinematography.

The honor was one of nearly 20 audience and jury prizes doled out Saturday night. "Push: Based on the Novel by Saffire" was the big winner of the night. The drama about teen pregnancy and sexual abuse swept the jury and audience prizes for U.S. cinema and garnered the film’s leading lady, Mo’Nique, a special jury prize for acting.

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Accepting the Grand Jury Prize, director Lee Daniels praised festival programmers for selecting the film for Sundance. "I really didn’t know that white people would understand the film," he said, choking back tears.

A film about a dot-com entrepreneur, "We Live in Public," took home the grand jury prize in the documentary category. The night may have belonged to "Push" and "Public," but Charlyne Yi of "Paper Heart" got the biggest laughs. "I’m sweaty," she said at the podium. "I smell bad." Yi and Nicholas Jasenovec won the Waldo Salt screenwriting award for "Paper Heart," a largely improvised documentary starring Yi and "Super Bad" starlet Michael Cera. "Who knows what will happen to our films, but at least they were seen," Yi concluded.

While the focus of the ceremony remained on the films, many presenters took time to praise President Barack Obama. Festival director Ken Brecher started the awards ceremony with a reference to the inauguration, during which Main Street teemed with people offering peace signs, cheering and chanting. "When we began, George Bush was the President of the United States and we ended it with Barack Obama," Brecher said. "I loved it when CNN showed us in Park City."

He added, only half joking, that Obama would be named the honorary head of this year’s jury.

Brecher wasn’t alone in effusively praising the new Commander-in-Chief. Joseph Gordon-Levitt presented documentary audience award wearing a Barack Obama T-shirt.

Geoffrey Gilmore, who is in charge of programming for the festival, said that the 25th anniversary of the festival was a success. "It’s been an inspiring moment when we really needed it," he said. Independent film has matured. It continues to change and we will, and have to, change with it."

Gilmore thanked Park City and the 1,585 volunteers who gave more than 100 hours during the festival, but the evening was not given entirely to optimism. Some programmers wondered aloud what the future of independent film would look like. "The future isn’t clear. It isn’t certain," said presenter Gail Stevens. "There are too many good films here that need to be seen by audiences everywhere."

Richard O’Barry, the star of the environmental thriller "The Cove," which won the audience award for documentaries, urged the Japanese government to end censorship on issues relating to aquatic life. "We love Japan and we love the Japanese people," he said. "They have the right to know the truth."

Award winners

Grand Jury Prize: documentary "We Live in Public"

Grand Jury Prize: dramatic "Push: Based on a Novel by Sapphire"

Grand Jury Prize: World Cinema Dramatic "The Maid" ("La Nana")

Grand Jury Prize: World Cinema Documentary "Rough Aunties"

Audience Award: Documentary "The Cove"

Audience Award: Dramatic "Push: Based on a Novel by Sapphire"

World Cinema Audience Award: Documentary "An Education"

World Cinema Audience Award: Dramatic "Afghan Star"