Split decision: veteran, novice share big prize at Sundance film festival

February 01, 1993|By The Los Angeles Times

PARK CITY, Utah -- The dramatic competition jury was nothing if not judicious at this year's Sundance Film Festival, splitting the Grand Jury Prize between a veteran independent filmmaker and one of the twentysomething newcomers whose presence has dominated this 10-day event.

The joint award, to Victor Nunez's "Ruby in Paradise" and Bryan Singer's "Public Access," was announced Saturday night.

The award to "Ruby," the story of a young woman from Tennessee (beautifully played by Ashley Judd, younger sister of Wynonna) finding her way in the resort community of Panama City Beach, Fla., was expected.

"Public Access," the portentous story of a mysterious young man who wreaks havoc in a bucolic small town, was more of a surprise, especially to its makers. While the talented 27-year-old director, who'd made the film in 18 days for $250,000 using short ends of leftover film stock from "Dracula" and "Hoffa," said little, his producer, Kenneth Kolkin, more than made up for it.

"Oh my God, the Grand Jury Prize, this isn't happening," Mr. Kolkin gasped, running his hands over his face. After asking his parents to stand up, he said he wanted to thank "every person who has ever worked on a movie" and proceeded to just about do so. The crowd, ever tolerant, was suitably forgiving.

On the documentary side, seven of the eight awards, including the Audience Award (voted on by the paying customers) and the Filmmakers Trophy (selected by the competition filmmakers) went to just three films.

The Grand Jury Prize was halved here as well, going to two films ("Silver Lake Life: The View From Here" and "Children of Fate: Life and Death in a Sicilian Family") that have complicated production histories.

The heartbreaking "Silver Lake Life," which also won this year's first Freedom of Expression Award, given to a documentary that "informs and educates the public on an issue of social concern," was begun as a video diary by Mark Massi and Tom Joslin, a couple for 22 years when their HIV-positive status was diagnosed.

It was finished after their deaths by a close friend, Peter Friedman, who first thanked a minion at the door for "letting me in without a ticket" and then had to fight tears as he acknowledged the film's two subjects who "devoted the last months of their lives creating a work of art to help let the world know about the immensity of the tragedy we're living through right now."

"Children of Fate," which also won the Cinematography Award, has an even more torturous history that began more than 30 years ago when directors Robert M. Young and Michael Romer '' went to the notorious Cortile Cascino slum in Palermo to make a TV documentary for NBC.

The network, however, pulled the plug on the show only three days before the air date and Mr. Young and Mr. Romer nearly had their film irrevocably destroyed. Thirty years later, Mr. Young's son Andrew and his wife Susan returned to Sicily and almost miraculously found the woman who was the center of the original documentary. "Children" intercuts the current color footage of her struggles with the breathtakingly poetic original black-and-white shots, all to powerful effect.

"Something Within Me," winner of the most documentary awards, was also, at 55 minutes, the festival's shortest entry and the one that got the biggest applause when its first victory was announced. The story of a school in the embattled South Bronx that requires its students to study music for what it can do to their lives won the Audience Award, the Filmmaker Award and (along with the environmentally conscience-raising "Earth and the American Dream") a special jury award.

The Cinematography Award went to "An Ambush of Ghosts," Everett Lewis' unremittingly agonizing film about an exceedingly troubled family.

The Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award went to "Combination Platter," producer-director Tony Chen's story of an illegal alien from Hong Kong trying to get used to America while working in a Chinese restaurant in Queens.

Of the two non-jury prizes, the Filmmakers Trophy went to "Fly by Night," a drama set in the world of New York rap music, directed by Steve Gomer and written by Todd Graff. And the Audience Award went to Robert Rodriguez's "El Mariachi," which is rapidly becoming the most celebrated $7,000 film ever made.

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