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Quinceanera A Surprise Winner At Sundance

Several surprise winners dominated the Sundance Film Festival Awards, which were presented to a packed house of enthusiastic filmmakers, professionals and audience members at a gala ceremony held on Saturday night at the Park City Racquet Club. The concluding awards ceremony and party bring to an end a 10-day film bonanza that drew nearly 40,000 visitors to the Festival.

Two films, both surprise choices based on early predictions, won the four top prizes in the American Independent Film competition. QUINCEANERA, a heartfelt family drama set in the Mexican community of Los Angeles' Echo Park, won both the Grand Jury Prize as Best Dramatic Film and the Audience Award, voted on by the general public. The film, co-directed by Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer, focuses on a family preparing for the "quinceanera", a Mexican version of the Jewish bat-mitzvah or Catholic communion, of a young Chicano girl. The film touched on themes of tolerance, gentrifrication and the eroding of traditional Latino culture.

In a similar move, the documentary film GOD GREW TIRED OF US won both the Grand Jury Prize as Best Documentary and the Audience Award. The film, directed by Christopher Quinn, is an intimate look at three Sudanese "lost boys" who leave their war-torn country to start new lives in the United States.

Neither film has been mentioned in news reports as possible winners, nor have either secured distribution deals. Of course, all this can change rapidly, since the films obviously scored points with both the discriminating professional juries and the "grande publique". Expect to hear about pickups of both titles in the coming days.

For the second year, films competed in the World Cinema Competition in both documentary and dramatic categories. 13 TZAMETI, a black-and-white thriller directed by Georgian-born French director Gela Babluani won the Grand Jury Prize as Best Drama. The film is a gritty tale of making moral choices as a taxi driver decides to follow instructions intended for someone else, which leads him to confront the underbelly of society.

The World Cinema Audience Award went to the New Zealand sleeper NO. 2, a feel-good family comedy starring American actress Ruby Dee. The film, which comes alive with the heat and passion of the South Pacific, was written and directed by Toa Fraser.

Two Mexican documentaries dominated the Best World Documentary categories. IN THE PIT, written and directed by Juan Carlos Rulfo, chronicles the daily lives of workers building a new freeway in Mexico City. DE NADIE, directed by Tin Dirdamal, won the Audience Prize for his gritty telling of a woman's terrifying journey through Mexico to enter the United States illegally.

The documentary film IRAQ IN FRAGMENTS walked away with the most prizes, winning awards for best direction and cinematography (James Longley) and editing (Billy McMillin, Fiona Otway and Longley). The film offers a harrowing look at the violent atmosphere of the war-torn country seen through the eyes of a young boy. The film has not yet been picked up for distribution, but seems a likely bet for a courageous distributor.

If Sundance has launched any career this year, my vote would be Dito Montiel. The debut director won the Best Director prize for his autobiographical A GUIDE TO RECOGNIZING YOUR SAINTS, a memoir of growing up on the mean streets of Astoria, Queens.

The film, which featured terrific performances from such veterans as Robert Downey Jr, Chazz Palminterri and Diane Weist and a host of dynamic young actors, also copped an award for Best Ensemble Cast. The film, which has not yet found a distributor, may have the good luck of benefiting from a bidding war. The film certainly seems destined to have a career on the big screen, and Dito Montiel is a new indie name to reckon with.

The prestigious Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award went to Hilary Brougher, for her sensitive portrayal of a young girl's unexpected pregnancy in the film STEPHANIE DALEY. The Best Cinematography prize was awarded to Tom Richmond for his work on the terrorist bombing thriller RIGHT AT YOUR DOOR, the only film to win an award that secured a distributor during the Festival (Lions Gate).

Several films that early opinion polls predicted as frontrunners (including such dramatic films as COME EARLY MORNING, HALF NELSON, SHERRY BABY and STEEL CITY, and such documentary titles as A LION IN THE HOUSE, THIN, THE TRIALS OF DARRYL HUNT and WORDPLAY) came away empty handed.

However, as has been endless repeated in the trade press, the Sundance awards are not always terrific predictions for box office success. There is talk of a "Sundance curse" that has bedeviled the Festival from the beginning. However, as Festival Director Geoff Gilmore eloquently put it at the awards ceremony, all the films shown at the Festival are to be lauded as a tremendous achievement for simply being made against great odds.

Now that Sundance 2006 is history, the films, both award winners and others that excited and moved audiences during an extraordinary 10 days of cinema excellence, will have lives of their own. Some will make it to the big screen, some will only make it to the small screen, some will only get seen at other film festivals. But whatever their fate, their Sundance pedigree will distinguish them as filmgoing events that will stimulate the hearts and minds of thoughtful audiences around the world.

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Sandy Mandelberger, Industry Editor

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