sundance2010At the close of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, actor David Hyde Pierce, dressed as a rebellious rapper with a knit cap to protect himself from the Park City chill, beckoned filmmakers to quiet down and pull themselves away from the free liquor bar so that he could confer awards on some of the films and filmmakers.

The Grand Jury Prize for a Dramatic film went to “Winter’s Bone,” a suspense filled coming of age tale about a girl in the Ozarks, directed by Debra Granik. The film also won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award; and Roadside acquired the North American distribution rights and plans to release it this Summer. (Granik is a member of the tribe.)

The Grand Jury Prize for a Documentary film was won by “Restrepo,” the story of an American military platoon from the 173rd Airborne Brigade deployed to “Camp Restrepo” in Afghanistan over the course of an entire year. The documentary was directed by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington.

Radnor with his young charge

Radnor with his young charge

The Dramatic Audience Award was given to “happythankyoumoreplease,” which was written and directed by Josh Radnor, who also stars in the film about hip and anguished twenty-something singles in New York. Radnor, who is best known for his role as Ted in the television series, “How I Met Your Mother,” stars as Sam Wexler, a frustrated writer, who takes in a runaway boy, Rasheed, that he meets on a subway. Radnor is a graduate of Kenyon College and NYU’s Tisch School; he attended the Columbus Ohio Torah Academy until ninth grade and studied in Israel on the Livnot program.

The Documentary Audience Award was given to “Waiting for Superman,” a documentary on the state of American schools, directed by Davis Guggenheim. Guggenheim recently participated in a trip to Israel with other Los Angeles film industry professionals.

Other award recipients included Leon Gast, who received the Documentary Directing Award for his film, “Smash His Camera,” about one of the first American paparazzos, who sued the federal government when it barred him from photographing, or some would say, harassing, Jackie Kennedy Onassis; Penelope Falk, who received the Documentary Editing Award for “Joan Rivers—A Piece Of Work,” a documentary that spent 14 months following Joan Rivers; Joelle Alexis, who received the World Cinema Documentary Editing Award for “A Film Unfinished,” about the Warsaw Ghetto; Rob Lemkin and Thet Sambath, who received the World Cinema Special Jury Prize in Documentary for “Enemies of the People,” an insightful and timely documentary on the Cambodian Holocaust and Killing Fields; and Ariel Kleiman, who received an Honorable Mention in Short Filmmaking for “Young Love,” a victorious love story shot at an alpaca farm. Kleiman, an excellent bowler, hails from Melbourne Australia, where he shocked his family by leaving his promising university studies in science to enroll in film school. Oy!

Hilde at her table

Hilde at her table

One surprise was “A Small Act,” a documentary by Jennifer Arnold about a simple gesture and its large effect. It is the story of a poor boy in Kenya, Chris Mburu, who, like Pip in “Great Expectations,” received money from an anonymous donor (from Sweden.) The monthly donation allowed him to go to school, end up at Harvard Law, and land a job at the United Nations where he works on issues of genocide. His anonymous benefactor thought nothing of her “small act” which had great impact. The benefactor? It is Hilde Back, who turns out to be a teacher in Sweden who is actually a German Jewish woman who fled Nazi Germany and survived the war that killed other members of her family. Some audience members were so moved by the film, that the filmmaker raised over $70,000 in donations at the screening. The short that caused me to lose a pint of tear fluid was “Born Sweet,” the documentary film by Cynthia Wade about Vinh, a Cambodian boy who is ostracized in his village due to water-borne arsenic poisoning. He dreams of becoming a karaoke star. The film I would acquire if I were a distributed was “Last Train Home” a Chinese documentary by Lixin Fan. His film follows two of the over 130 million Chinese migrant workers who work in urban Chinese factories and attempt to return home by train and bus to their rural villages each lunar new year. Many stand for days at the train station in an attempt to squeeze onto a train, and remain away from their children for years in order to earn money to provide them with better lives, and provide Americans with cheap shoes and apparel.

“Douchebag,” is a film by Drake Doremus and Jonathan Schwartz. It is a story of Sam Nussbaum, who, a week before his wedding, decides to take a roadtrip with his estranged younger brother in an effort to find his brother’s lost elementary school girlfriend. I asked Lindsay Stidham, one of the screenwriters, why they named the brothers “Nussbaum?” “We wanted them to by Jewish,” she told me, “and Nussbaum was a good name.”

Alex Gibney directed a documentary on Jack Abramoff, titled “Casino Jack and the United States of Money.” The film will open theatrically in May 2010, distributed by Magnolia Pictures. Jack Abramoff, a graduate of Hollywood High, was an extremely successful lobbyist in Washington DC, a baal teshuvah Orthodox Jew, and a supporter of Jewish causes that ranged from kosher restaurants to Orthodox academies and private gifts to the Jewish poor. He was indicted and sentenced for fraud, tax evasion, and conspiracy to bribe public officials. Even worse, he produced and co-wrote a Hollywood film, titled “Red Scorpion,” which starred Dolph Lundgren in 1989. The film looks at whether he was actually a criminal or just a blind, idealistic, zealot.

“Freedom Riders” a documentary by Stanley Nelson, concerns the Freedom Riders, who in 1961, nearly five decades ago, rode interstate buses in the South in order to integrate bus travel and bus stations. It led to violence, beatings, burnings, arrests, and forced the Kennedy brothers to act against segregation. The film, which will be shown on PBS, includes an interview with Rabbi Israel Dresner, who led the June 1961 Interfaith Freedom Rides. Several rabbis and young Jewish students participated in the later Freedom Rides and ended up in Mississippi prison farms.

“My Perestroika,” is a documentary by Robin Hessman, and it was a garnered a popular buzz at Sundance. It follows some Russian childhood classmates from a Moscow school who grew up in the Soviet Union, joined Komsomol, and experienced Perestroika and Glasnost as young adults. Using their home movies from the 1970s and interviews from today, the filmmaker weaves a fascinating story of change and adaptation. In one interesting exchange, (of course, it would not be a Moscow story without this zinger) we learn that the surname of the families is… “Meyerson,” This makes the story even more intriguing, especially when Meyerson‘s wife discusses her mother‘s reaction to learning her then boyfriend was of Jewish heritage.


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