January 28, 2007

New Yorkers Score Big at Sundance

NYC filmmakers behind Padre Nuestro, Manda Bala and Grace is Gone lead charge at festival awards

By S.T. VanAirsdale

Com-Padres: (L-R) Nuestro cinematographer Igor Martinovic, producers Maria Nelson and Per Melita, writer/director Christopher Zalla and producer Benjamin Odell after Saturday's awards show (Photo: STV)

When you looked at the odds, it all made sense in a way: With upwards of 50 films from New York programmed between the shorts, documentary and dramatic competitions at this year's Sundance Film Festival, nobody really could have been that surprised to see the New York contingent take home a suitcase worth of hardware -- including the Dramatic Audience Award (Grace is Gone) and both the Documentary (Manda Bala) and Dramatic (Padre Nuestro) Grand Jury Prizes -- at Saturday night's awards show.

"Numb," said Padre Nuestro director Christopher Zalla, who told The Reeler about his reaction to juror Sarah Polley's announcement at the end of the ceremony. "Literally, when they announced it, I don't know what happened; my legs straightened out on me and I was suddenly standing up. I wished for it, but I didn't expect it."

You kind of have to believe him -- his decision to not prepare a statement resulted in a nine-minute-and-22-second acceptance speech. But Zalla was endearing in his shock, gratitude and in the generous sprawl of ideas echoed in his outstanding film, as was Manda Bala director Jason Kohn, who earlier in the evening had run entertainingly long in accepting Heloisa Passos's documentary cinematography award and who later, while collecting his own Grand Jury Prize, resorted to an impromptu BlackBerry brainstorm of names. "People are calling me on this thing as I'm..." Kohn half-winced, half-laughed from the podium. "This is retarded, I know."

Writer/director James C. Strouse claimed both the Dramatic Audience Award and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award for Grace is Gone, his tale of a Middle American Army husband who withholds the news of his wife's death in Iraq from his young daughters. "Many people have asked me, 'Is this an anti-war film?'" Strouse said while accepting the Audience prize (and, perhaps not coincidentally, immediately after thanking "the Godfather of our family, Harvey Weinstein," who picked the film up Jan. 20 for $4 million.) "I say, 'It's a pro-America film.' I tried to tell a story that transcended polemics, and it was my hope that whatever side you find yourself on -- right, left, in between or none of the above -- that this story can kind of connect and touch your heart in a personal way. I think that we can all agree that the losses suffered in this war by the families left behind kind of transcend political dogma. Thanks to audiences for recognizing this film."

Jeffrey Blitz scored big on his first trip to Sundance as a filmmaker, scoring the Dramatic Directing Award for his extraordinary comedy Rocket Science. "It was about 10 years ago that I was last at Sundance, and I was a film student then," he said onstage. "I drove here and I didn't have anywhere to stay. And through a friend of a friend of a friend, I ended up in a strange condo and I slept on the bathroom floor. That's how exciting this festival is -- even without this. So for me, the real prize is that I had my own bed. But this is amazing."

Producer Vanessa Roth accepted a Special Jury Prize for the short documentary Freeheld on behalf of director Cynthia Wade, while director Mitchell Lichtenstein picked up Teeth star Jess Weixler's acting award for what the jury determined was a "juicy and jaw-dropping performance." (Weixler arrived minutes later from the airport, ebulliently expressing her joy that "people connected to a girl with teeth in her vagina.") Benoit Debie received the dramatic competition's Excellence in Cinematography award for Joshua, and Ray Tintori received an honorable mention in short filmmaking for Death to the Tinman.

I'll have more from Zalla later about his film's distribution and festival positioning, but in the meantime, have another run through The Reeler's exclusive pre-festival interviews with Zalla and his fellow triumphant New Yorkers Jason Kohn (as well as festival coverage of Padre Nuestro and Manda Bala themselves), James Strouse, Cynthia Wade, Ray Tintori and Sundance/NHK International Filmmakers Award-winner Caran Hartsfield. Congrats to them, and safe travels to me; I have a plane to catch.

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