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Sundance Winners: Human Trafficking & Brazil Violence + Oscar Shorts & Hong Kong Film Critics' Winners

Sangre de Mi Sangre Christopher Zalla

Enemies of HappinessThe 2007 Sundance Film Festival winners have been announced.

The best U.S. narrative feature was Christopher Zalla's Padre Nuestro / Sangre de Mi Sangre (top photo), about a young Mexican who hops on a truck transporting illegal immigrants from Mexico to New York City, where the young man's father supposedly resides.

The best U.S. documentary, Jason Kohn's Manda Bala / Send a Bullet, also won the best documentary cinematography prize for Heloísa Passos' camera work.

The World Cinema prize for documentaries was given to Eva Mulvad and Anja Al Erhayem's Enemies of Happiness, which revolves around 28-year-old female politician Malalai Joya's parliamentary victory in rabidly patriarchal Afghanistan.

The World Cinema Grand Jury prize for narrative films went to Dror Shaul's Sweet Mud, which is set on a kibbutz in southern Israel in the 1970s. In this coming-of-age drama, a boy must cope with social and cultural hypocrisy as his mother falls prey to mental illness. Sweet Mud was Israel's submission for the 2007 best foreign language film Oscar and it shared the Israeli Academy's Ophir Award for best film.

Irene Taylor Brodsky's Hear and Now, the story of two deaf 65-year-olds who undergo cochlear implant surgery in an attempt to gain the ability to hear, took the audience award for best U.S. documentary.

Two performers received special awards for acting: Jess Weixler for Mitchell Lichtenstein's horror-comedy Teeth, and Tamara Podemski for Sterlin Harjo's Four Sheets to the Wind.

John Cusack in Grace Is Gone by James C. Strouse
© Jon Farmer / Plum Pictures

James C. Strouse's Grace Is Gone (above), described as a “tearjerker,” won the audience award for independent U.S. narrative films. The family drama stars John Cusack as a man who goes on a trip with his daughters while trying to muster enough courage to tell them that their mother has died while serving in Iraq. Strouse also won the Waldo Salt screenwriting award.

In the Shadow of the Moon by David Sington

John Carney's Irish musical Once was the Sundance audience's choice for best foreign narrative film, while David Sington's British-made In the Shadow of the Moon (above), about NASA's Apollo Space Program, was the best foreign documentary.

CNN's Tom Charity was mostly unimpressed with the downbeat films he saw at this year's Sundance, including the much ballyhooed Dakota Fanning vehicle Hounddog. “What was lacking, almost across the board,” Charity writes, “was something to shape and define this vague malaise. Visually nondescript and overwhelmingly conventional in its language and address, American independent cinema has fallen significantly behind series TV for edge and originality.”

Joe Strummre: The Future Is Unwritten by Julien TempleKenneth Turan admired the documentaries. “This year proved to be such a strong one for documentaries that several excellent works came away empty-handed,” Turan explains in the Los Angeles Times. “One such was Julien Temple's Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten (right). An engrossing biopic about the self-described 'punk rock warlord' and legendary front man for the Clash, Unwritten reveals Strummer to have been thoughtful, charismatic and something of a visionary.”

“Also richly deserving but unrewarded,” Turan continues, “was Steven Okazaki's White Light/Black Rain, a dispassionate but emotionally devastating account of the effects of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, two bombs that ended up eventually killing more than 350,000 people. Alternating grim footage of the human damage and current interviews with those who survived, White Light/Black Rain conveys the horror of those events in unflinching detail. One hopes it is not too late for the world to listen and learn.”

 

Manda Bala by Jason Kohn

'Manda Bala': Brazil's Corruption, Kidnappings & Frogs

Jason Kohn directed Manda BalaWhen I read the synopsis of Jason Kohn's Manda Bala / Send a Bullet in the Sundance Film Festival's independent film - documentary list I thought the film sounded like supermarket tabloid trash: “In Brazil, known as one of the world's most corrupt and violent countries, Manda Bala follows a politician who uses a frog farm to steal billions of dollars, a wealthy businessman who spends a small fortune bulletproofing his cars, and a plastic surgeon who reconstructs the ears of mutilated kidnapping victims.”

Not helping matters was reading Mary Milliken's Reuters article on Manda Bala, in which she asserts that there's “a boom in ear-reconstruction surgeries” in Brazil as a result of the fact that “gangs from the teeming [São Paulo] slums often cut off their victims' ears to pressure families to pay ransom.”

Now, according to Brazilians (including a physician) I spoke with on the phone there's no ear-reconstruction boom in that country, and although mutilations have indeed occurred in kidnapping cases, those are quite rare. In fact, I found precious little online on the subject, and most of the dozen or so articles I read revolved around a fictitious mutilation case. If chopping off kidnapping victims' ears were truly routine in Brazil, I believe it's fair to say that there would be much more information available.

Worse yet, was reading in IndieWIRE Kohn's statement that he envisioned his documentary on personal tragedies set in a far-away land “as a non-fiction RoboCop depicting a very real broken and violent society,” while in The Reeler he says he wanted his documentary on corruption and kidnappings “to be an entertaining movie.” (Kohn, by the way, is a former research assistant to Errol Morris, who has given generous praise to Manda Bala.)

Kohn has also ridiculed Brazilians who've questioned his approach to the subject matter. “There is a very typical Brazilian response that I have encountered in the past five years making the movie,” Kohn says in the Reuters article. “'Why are you talking bad about my country?'"

Whether the New York-based filmmaker's Portuguese is as pidgin-ish as the English of those Brazilians he's encountered I have no idea – though I assume his mother, who is from Brazil, speaks better English than that. Either way, if reports on the film – whether positive or negative – are accurate, Manda Bala sounds not only exaggerated but also dated and simple-minded.

Surely, the link between political corruption and social violence is undeniable; one good example would be the billions of US reconstruction dollars that have never reached the Iraqi population following the invasion of their country. However, there are numerous other factors that help to explain Brazil's widespread social violence, including the fact that the country has one of the planet's worst gaps between rich and poor. (Kohn does mention that point in his IndieWIRE interview.)

Also, corruption in Brazil – if such a thing can actually be measured – shows no signs of having abated in the last decade, but the homicide rate in São Paulo has dropped by more than 50 percent since 1999. (See Veja – a sort of Time magazine of Brazil – and Comunidade Segura; both articles are in Portuguese.) In other words, although corruption is certainly a contributing factor to the country's violence, there are clearly other elements at work whether to make the violence worse or to stem its flow.

IndieWIRE's Steve Ramos praises Manda Bala for making “the powerful case that increasing violence [sic] and political corruption sum up the South American nation today,” though the New York Sun's Darrell Hartman criticizes the documentary for seeming “a bit too proud of its Rubik's Cube complexity. It also suffers from Tarantino syndrome: The jazzy soundtrack drowns out a woman who lost an ear, and the carefully maintained color scheme of bright blue, green, and yellow seems downright insensitive alongside grainy footage of blindfolded kidnapping victims who fear for their lives.”

The only Brazilian review I was able to find of Manda Bala was written by Myrna and Carlos Brandão in a film blog for the Rio daily O Globo. In their assessment of Manda Bala, the Brandão couple state that the documentary's biggest flaw lies in the “tiresome repetitiveness of the same characters, reducing the director's arguments to the replaying of the same corruption case, [and] to speeches made by criminals, by a kidnapping and mutilation victim, and by a none too convincing yuppie who drives an armored Porsche.”

The five-member Independent Film Competition jury for documentaries clearly found Manda Bala anything but repetitious or simple-minded for the documentary won top honors at Sundance. The color scheme didn't bother jury members, either, as Heloísa Passos was given the best cinematography award in the documentary category.

Considering what I've read about Manda Bala, both the hosannas and the complaints, I remain highly skeptical. Of course, the only way I'll know for sure if I'm right or wrong – or somewhere in between – is to actually watch the film. As of Jan. 28, however, it still hadn't been sold though I assume that at the very worst it'll find its way onto the Sundance Channel.

2007 Sundance Film Festival Awards

2007 Sundance Film Festival: Park City, Utah, January 18-28, 2007

Padre Nuestro by Christopher Zalla

 

The Grand Jury Prize - Dramatic: PADRE NUESTRO / SANGRE DE MI SANGRE, directed by Christopher Zalla

The Grand Jury Prize - Documentary: MANDA BALA (SEND A BULLET), directed by Jason Kohn

Special Jury Prize - Documentary: NO END IN SIGHT, directed by Charles Ferguson

The World Cinema Jury Prize - Dramatic: ADAMA MESHUGAAT / SWEET MUD, Israel, directed by Dror Shaul

The World Cinema Jury Prize - Documentary: VORES LYKKES FJENDER / ENEMIES OF HAPPINESS, Denmark, directed by Eva Mulvad and Anja Al Erhayem

The Audience Award - Dramatic: GRACE IS GONE, directed by James C. Strouse

The Audience Award - Documentary: HEAR AND NOW, directed by Irene Taylor Brodsky

The World Cinema Audience Award - Dramatic: ONCE, Ireland, directed by John Carney

The World Cinema Audience Award - Documentary: IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON, United Kingdom, directed by David Sington

The Directing Award - Dramatic: Jeffrey Blitz, ROCKET SCIENCE

The Directing Award - Documentary: Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine, WAR/DANCE

Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award: James C. Strouse, GRACE IS GONE

Cinematography Award - Documentary: Heloísa Passos, MANDA BALA/ SEND A BULLET

Cinematography Award - Dramatic: Benoit Debie, JOSHUA

Documentary Editing Award: Hibah Sherif Frisina, Charlton McMillian, and Michael Schweitzer, NANKING

Special Jury Prizes for Acting: Jess Weixler, TEETH “for a juicy and jaw-dropping performance,” and Tamara Podemski, FOUR SHEETS TO THE WIND “for a fully realized physical and emotional turn"

Special Jury Prize - Dramatic - for Singularity of Vision: Chris Smith, THE POOL

Special World Jury Prize - Documentary: HOT HOUSE, Israel, Shimon Dotan

Special World Jury Prize - Dramatic: L'HERITAGE / THE LEGACY, France, directed by Géla Babluani and Temur Babluani

Jury Prize in Short Filmmaking: EVERYTHING WILL BE OK, directed by Don Hertzfeldt

Jury Prize in International Short Filmmaking: THE TUBE WITH A HAT, Romania, directed by Radu Jude

Special Jury Prize: FREEHELD, directed by Cynthia Wade

Honorable Mentions in Short Filmmaking: DEATH TO THE TINMAN, directed by Ray Tintori; THE FIGHTING CHOLITAS, directed by Mariam Jobrani; MARDHA HAMDIGAR RA BEHTAR MIFAHMAND / MEN UNDERSTAND EACH OTHER BETTER, Iran, directed by Marjan Alizadeh; MOTODROM, Germany, directed by Joerg Wagner; SPITFIRE 944, directed by William Lorton; and t.o.m., United Kingdom, directed by Tom Brown and Daniel Gray

Alfred P. Sloan Prize: (for independent feature filmmakers tackling compelling ideas and issues in science and technology) DARK MATTER, directed by Chen Shi-Zhen

Sundance/NHK International Filmmakers Award: (to support emerging filmmakers with their next screenplays–one each from the United States, Japan, Europe, and Latin America) Lucía Cedrón, AGNUS DEI from Argentina; Caran Hartsfield, BURY ME STANDING from the United States; Tomoko Kana, TWO BY THE RIVER from Japan; and Dagur Kári, THE GOOD HEART from Iceland

 

Jury, Independent Film Competition - Documentary: Alan Berliner, Lewis Erskine, Lauren Greenfield, Julia Reichert, and Carlos Sandoval

Jury, Independent Film Competition - Dramatic: Catherine Hardwicke, Dawn Hudson, Pamela Martin, Elvis Mitchell, and Sarah Polley

Jury, World Cinema Competition - Documentary: Raoul Peck, Juan Carlos Rulfo, and Elizabeth Weatherford

Jury, World Cinema Competition - Dramatic: Carlos Bolado, Lynne Ramsay, and U-Wei Bin Haji Saari

Jury, Shorts Competition: Jared Hess, Daniela Michel, and Mark Elijah Rosenberg

Jury, Alfred P. Sloan Feature Prize: Darren Aronofsky, Ann Druyan, Brian Greene, Howard Suber, and John Underkoffler

The Little Matchgirl by Roger Allers
West Bank Story by Ari Sandel
The Little Match Girl (top, © Disney Enterprises); West Bank Story (bottom)

Oscar Shorts screenings

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will present the program “Shorts!,” featuring the ten Academy Award nominees in the Animated and Live Action Short Film categories. The screening will be held on Tuesday, Feb. 20, at 7:30 p.m. at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills.

Hosted by producer-director Taylor Hackford, who won an Oscar for the 1978 live action short Teenage Father, “Shorts!” will feature onstage discussions with the nominated filmmakers (subject to availability).

The screening films are:

The Danish Poet by Torill Kove

Short Film (Animated)

  • The Danish Poet, Torill Kove, director (the tale of a Danish poet who travels to Norway to meet a celebrated writer)
  • Lifted, Gary Rydstrom, director (alien abductor-in-training tries to get a sleeping farmer onto its spaceship)
  • The Little Matchgirl, Roger Allers, director; Don Hahn, producer (Hans Christian Andersen's sad tale of the little girl and her matches)
  • Maestro, Geza M. Toth, director (a singing bird gets ready for its grand performance)
  • No Time for Nuts, Chris Renaud and Michael Thurmeier, directors (while trying to bury a nut in the Ice Age, Scrat discovers a time machine)

Ramon Barea, Maribi Bilbao, Alejandro Tejerias in Eramos pocos

Short Film (Live Action)

  • Binta y la gran idea / Binta and the Great Idea, Javier Fesser, director; Luis Manso, producer (a seven-year-old African girl talks about her father, who has an idea he believes will change the world)
  • Éramos Pocos / Too Few of Us (above), Borja Cobeaga, director (after his wife leaves him, Joaquín enlists his son to get this ex-wife's mother to help them keep house)
  • Helmer & Son, Soren Pilmark, director; Kim Magnusson, executive producer (a man must go to a rest home to deal with his father, who has locked himself up inside an armoire)
  • The Saviour, Peter Templeman, director; Stuart Parkyn, producer (a Mormon evangelist finds himself in love with a married woman)
  • West Bank Story, Ari Sandel, director (a musical comedy set in the falafel stands of the West Bank)

According to the Academy's press release, free advance tickets to “Shorts!” are necessary to secure admission. Tickets will be available beginning February 1 at the Academy's ticket office at 8949 Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills. Free parking is provided at the garages located at 8920 and 9025 Wilshire Boulevard. There is a two ticket per person limit. For ticket order information, call (310) 247-3600, or visit www.oscars.org/events.

Doors open at 6:30 p.m. All seating is unreserved.

The 2007 Oscar ceremony will be held on Sunday, February 25 at the Kodak Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center.

13th Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards- 2006

The 13th Hong Kong Film Critics Society Award winners were announced on January 24, 2007.

Johnnie To's Election 2, a follow-up to Hong Kong Film Critics Society 2005 winner Election, revolves around more power struggles among the denizens of Hong Kongs organized crime underworld. To also took the best director prize, but for Exiled, the tale of a Macau hitman pursued by two other hitmen.

Best Film: Election 2

Best Director: Johnnie To, Exiled

Best Actor: Jet Li, Fearless

Best Actress: Gong LiCurse of the Golden Flower

Best Screenwriters: Wong Jing and Gary Tang Tak-hei, Wo Hu

Films of Merit: After This Our ExileConfession of PainExiledFearlessThe Heavenly KingsHeavenly MissionOn the EdgeWo Hu


         
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