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'Capturing' Kudos / LI-based film wins a top Sundance honor

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

starring Peter Dinklage, Bobby Cannavale and the ubiquitous Patricia Clarkson.

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

performances by Maria Bello and William H. Macy and enough plot holes to bring

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

the ambience.

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

Sundance.

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