Sundance prizes split

PARK CITY, Utah–Prizes snowed down upon an unusual number of films at the awards ceremony for the 1993 Sundance Film Festival Saturday night, as the juries were split in both the dramatic and documentary categories.

Before a turn-away crowd indicative of the jam-packed nature of the entire festival, the Grand Jury Prize for best dramatic feature was presented to Victor Nunez’s gentle character study “Ruby in Paradise” and Bryan Singer’s political melodrama “Public Access.”

Top honors in the documentary category were shared by “Children of Fate: Life and Death in a Sicilian Family,” a look at poverty over a 30-year interval by Robert M. Young, Michael Roemer, Andrew Young and Susan Todd; and “Silverlake Life: The View From Here,” a devastatingly intimate portrait of the AIDS epidemic by Peter Friedman, Tom Joslin and Mark Massi.

In a festival that generally served up soft narrative features, attention focused on a number of acclaimed docus, a healthy selection of regional works and numerous films by directors in their 20s. A combination of popular faves and sleepers walked off with the prizes.

Taking the coveted audience awards were Robert Rodriguez’s low-budget actioner “El Mariachi” and Emma Joan Morris’ hourlong docu “Something Within Me.”

Latter film, about a South Bronx grade school with a music-oriented curriculum, was actually the biggest winner of the evening, carting off the Filmmakers Trophy, voted by the filmmakers in attendance, and a Special Jury Award of Merit, in addition to the audience plaudit.

Filmmaker Trophy in the dramatic section went to Steve Gomer’s “Fly by Night, ” about a group of rappers in New York City.

Other Special Jury Prizes went to Leslie Harris’ “Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.,” about a pregnant black teen, for a first feature; David Williams’ “Lillian,” a docu-like fiction centering on a black woman who takes care of many people, for distinction; and Bill Couturie’s ecological docu “Earth and the American Dream” for technical, or craft, achievement.

The Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award was given to Tony Chan’s “Combination Platter,” which concerns an illegal immigrant working as a waiter in a N.Y. Chinese restaurant.

The new Freedom of Expression Award, given to a docu “which best investigates an issue of social concern and informs the public about it,” went to “Silverlake Life.”

Nods for cinematography went to Judy Irola for the dramatic “An Ambush of Ghosts” and to Robert M. Young and Andrew Young for “Children of Fate.”

There are years when the awards seem very much in tune with the view of audiences and participants, and others when films few people had been talking about are suddenly thrust into the limelight by some unexpected awards.

There was an element of the latter phenomenon this year. “Ruby in Paradise,” with its contemplative approach to a working-class life and lovely central performance by newcomer Ashley Judd, was widely tipped for the top award.

But few had anticipated kudos for “Public Access,” a troubling, technically proficient but dramatically unclear film that shows directorial talent but can scarcely be considered a fully realized work.

Reportedly, the jury was split right down the middle, with film critic Dave Kehr and producer Christine Vachon opting for “Ruby” and director-writers Percy Adlon and Charles Lane backing “Public Access.”

Similar split on the docu side prompted some talk at the big closing-night party that an odd number of jurors might be preferable in future to avoid such deadlocks.

Sitting on the docu jury were filmmakers Rob Epstein, Barbara Kopple, Ron Mann and Renee Tajima.

As for other dramatic features,Rob Weiss’ streetwise “Amongst Friends” divided audiences but had a vitality that excited many in the trade. Keva Rosenfeld’s “20 Bucks” also had equal shares of adherents and detractors, but was relatively popular with the public.

Among other dramas, of which there were 16 in all, were Jennifer Lynch’s generally dismissed “Boxing Helena,” Everett Lewis’ stunningly made “An Ambush of Ghosts,” Michael Steinberg’s attractive but lightweight “Bodies, Rest & Motion” and Rod McCall’s pleasant “Paper Hearts.”

Docu lineup was considered unusually strong. Along with the winners, among non-fiction pix to inspire upbeat responses were Nick Broomfield’s “Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer,” Frank Perry’s “On the Bridge,” Roger Weisberg’s “Road Scholar,” Bill Day’s “Saviors of the Forest” and Berry Minott’s “Harry Bridges: A Man and His Union.”

Fest had more out-of-competition and international selections than ever before, and pix eliciting healthy support included Sally Potter’s “Orlando,” Ron Mann’s “Twist,” Michael Lessac’s “House of Cards,” Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson’s “Black Harvest,” Leos Carax’s “Lovers on the Bridge,” Alison Maclean’s “Crush” and Rusty Cundieff’s “Fear of a Black Hat.”

Robert Redford made a surprise appearance at the awards ceremony to trumpet the fest’s diversity. Seymour Cassel was the affable m.c., and fest programming director Geoffrey Gilmore, marketing director Saundra Saperstein and managing director Nicole Guillemet, among others, took well-deserved bows for pulling off an ambitious fest.