Park City, Utah
'Capturing the Friedmans," New Yorker Andrew Jarecki's enigmatic, cinematic
and problematic exploration of a late '80s Long Island molestation case, took
the Sundance Film Festival's grand jury prize for documentary Saturday night.
It was an outcome met with wild applause, at the conclusion of a festival where
nonfiction had been king.
"The most important thing this does," Jarecki said of his award, "is
establish the movie not as just a traditional documentary, but rather as a
complete dramatic experience. Audiences didn't just come out and say, 'I
learned something.' They said, 'I was riveted.' And in that, the ideas of a
film are more completely conveyed."
In the dramatic competition, the grand jury, led by actor Steve Buscemi,
awarded its top prize to "American Splendor," the genre-mixing comedy by Shari
Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini. A sort-of biography of comic-book writer
Harvey Pekar, it leaps promiscuously from animation to narrative fiction to
documentary interviews and back, and was the best feature film this
correspondent saw. Following closely was the dramatic audience award winner
"The Station Agent," a modest but immensely moving film about otherness
Featured in four different festival films, Clarkson got one of two special jury
prizes for performance (the other going to Charles Busch, for the campy "Die
Mommie Die"). "The Station Agent" also won the Waldo Salt screenwriting award
for writer-director Tom McCarthy.
The dramatic jury was a bit prize-happy this year: Two more special prizes
for "emotional truth" went to David Gordon Green's "All the Real Girls" and
"What Alice Found" by A. Dean Bell.
The cinematography prizes went to Derek Cianfrance for the feature "Quattro
Noza" and to Dana Kupper, Gordon Quinn and Peter Gilbert for the documentary
"Stevie." The freedom of expression award was given to "What I Want My Words to
Do to You," about playwright Eve Ensler's writing program for women at the
Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. It was directed by Judith Katz, Madeleine
Gavin and Gary Sunshine.
Still gripped by the 40-degree temperatures that had made the annual 10-day
Sundance mostly sunny and a little soggy, the festival saw special documentary
prizes awarded to "The Murder of Emmett Till" by Stanley Nelson and "A Certain
Kind of Death" by Blue Hadaegh and Grover Babcock.
Juries at Sundance this year really honored the most deserving films ("It
doesn't always happen," agreed festival director Geoff Gilmore). In a
documentary field populated by very well-made, meaningful but largely
unadventurous material, "Friedmans" shone. "American Splendor" possesses some
of the most innovative uses of visual storytelling seen in years.
Conversely, and to no one's surprise, the most ardent bidding by
distributors over the past 10 days had been on some of the least adventurous
movies - "Pieces of April," for instance, which was a very funny but pedestrian
comedy starring such well- known names as Katie Holmes and Clarkson. Or "The
Cooler," a tale of love in Las Vegas that has at its heart two terrific
on immediate cardiac arrest.
The 800-pound gorilla at Sundance last week was the democratic question.
Jonathan Karsh, director of "My Flesh and Blood," won both the documentary
audience and directing awards for his story of Susan Tom and her 11 adopted
special-needs children. When he said during a panel discussion Friday that
films are simply made for different audiences - some of them smarter, or better
off - he got a bit of flak. But he's right, and Sundance proved the disparity
within its constituency more this year than ever ...
"If we had J.Lo here we'd have drawn 5,000 people," said Penny Woolcock,
director of "The Death of Klinghoffer," based on the opera by John Adams, who
was sitting a few seats from her at a respectably if modestly attended
discussion Friday morning. The next morning's screening of the film, based on
Adams' controversial opera about the 1985 terrorist hijacking of the Achille
Lauro, played to a less than packed house, which is pure irony: Tickets for the
films that will be seen within months at the local mall or art house were the
hardest to obtain, while films that may never be seen again in this country
were much easier to get into. ("Klinghoffer" has a date in May at Lincoln
Center's Walter Reade Theater).
Adams voiced sympathy for the plight of so many festival directors. "How
frustrating it must be to devote years of your life to something that is then
subject to the decisions [of executives] as to who gets played at the local
octoplex." That, of course, has been at the heart of the Sundance experience
since it became the indie mecca that it is today. With the oxygen thin and the
enthusiasm high, how does one judge what will or will not play in the outside
world? How does one divorce critical judgment from the standing ovation given
the mediocre film? One of the problems with Sundance is that everyone's so damn
happy: The filmmakers are ecstatic, the audiences feel blessed just to be in
the building, the programmers and staffers are delirious that it's almost all
over. It's hard to distinguish the quality of the cinema from the quality of
What were the bona fide highlights of this year's festival? Among features,
"American Splendor" and "The Station Agent," which apparently appealed on a
number of levels: "Since we're in Utah, will you two marry me?" a woman asked
Cannavale and Dinklage during a post-film Q&A. Polyandry may not have a future,
but "The Station Agent" does (it was picked up by Miramax).
Among documentaries? It's much harder to say, although the noncompetitive
international program inaugurated this year was the most consistently excellent
and - as regards the American documentarians - humbling. Brit filmmaker Kim
Longinotto's "The Day I Will Never Forget" even proved that Utah audiences
aren't so squeamish: Despite having viewed a harrowing sequence involving
female circumcision, audiences stayed, asked questions and offered to
contribute to the cause of reform in Kenya. It was the kind of thing film
festivals are all about - not all the time, perhaps, but often enough at