“The Waterdance,” the story of three paraplegic men who bond in a rehab ward and rebuild their lives, was the big winner at the Independent Spirit Awards Saturday. The film took home both the best first feature prize for co-directors Neal Jimenez and Michael Steinberg and best screenplay for Jimenez, himself a paraplegic.

“I guess we swept,” joked Jimenez. Steinberg good-naturedly added, “Looks like it’s time for a reissue.”

The Independent Feature Project/West spread its net wide in this year’s awards and demonstrated a liberal spirit of generosity. With 10 films cited in 11 categories, “Waterdance” emerged the sole multiple victor.

Robert Altman’s “The Player”– a vitriolic valentine to Hollywood — was named best picture of the year. It was the sole nomination for the film, which was one of the most commercially potent indie releases of 1992 and seemingly the most likely candidate for the IFP/W to embrace for its sentiment.

In accepting the award, co-producer Nick Wechsler was effusive in his praise of veteran filmmaker Altman.

Earlier, best supporting actress Alfre Woodard (“Passion Fish”), who had a small role early in her career in Altman’s “Health,” paid homage to him, stating , “I run to catch your spirit.”

Carl Franklin was named best director for “One False Move” and Harvey Keitel also proved a popular choice when he was named best actor for his performance in “Bad Lieutenant.””It’s important to have awards,” Keitel said in his acceptance. “We have to set a standard of work to pass onto future generations.”

Fast emerging as the “hip Oscars” since its inception in 1986, the Spirit Awards were held for the first time on Santa Monica Beach under a tent. One observer, who recalled the days when it was difficult to attract 200 people to a now-defunct restaurant for the awards, suggested the event be moved to a hangar at the Santa Monica Airport to accommodate its rapid expansion.

The new venue was not without its maiden glitches. Routing the crowd into seats and minor technical/logistical details extended the event by about an hour.

The presentation itself was sporadically marred by poor acoustics, which sent some of emcee Buck Henry’s best material — including vague and not-so-cryptic references to “The Crying Game’s” secret — into the ether.

However, rapt silence greeted “Game” writer-director Neil Jordan’s keynote address. In his galvanizing speech, he chronicled his own “physical/aesthetic journey” and noted that if an alien culture were to glean something about us based upon current movies and television, “It would learn sweet nothing of today.”

He labeled “the suits” as representing an industry afraid of itself. Then, referring to the best of independent filmmaking, he stated, “Audiences respond to simplicity and contemporary human truths. Never commit the sin of despair or you will sink into the abyss.”

In presenting the best foreign-film award, Richard Harris’ passion rose as he explained that “The Crying Game” is an Irish film, not British. “When I won the Cannes film award in 1964, the headlines in London read ‘British Actor Wins Major Award,’ ” he recalled. “Three days later, when I got into a scuffle with the police, the papers ran banners, ‘Irish Actor in Brawl.’ ”

There was no anti-climax when Harris opened the envelope and Jordan returned to thank his English producer and British distributor.

The IFP/W also bestowed a series of special awards in the course of the afternoon. Ronna Wallace of Live Entertainment, the video/production company of such films as “Reservoir Dogs” and “Light Sleeper,” received the Findie Award for continued support to indie filmmakers.

The producing/directing team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory were honored with the John Cassavetes Award for career achievement. Merchant, who has published a book on Indian cuisine, told the guests that with some advance notice, “I could have made you a better meal.” Ivory thanked the IFP/W and said without Merchant, “I would have been ground into the dirt” by the system.

The remainder of the event took on a decidedly political edge. Tributes were accorded to film programmer Doug Edwards and producer Brian Greenbaum, both recent casualties of AIDS. An award in the latter’s name was initiated this year to a young producer of note. It was won by Andrea Sperling, whose first film recently completed production.

The Special Distinction Award was given to Chris Munch for “The Hours and Times,” a fictional version of a real trip by John Lennon and Brian Epstein to Spain.

There was also a special presentation for IFP/W’s minority awareness program, Project: Involve.

Chairman Jonathan Wacks’ opening remarks centered on the organization’s assault on the Motion Picture Assn. of America’s Classification & Ratings Administration. Wacks dubbed CARA’s NC-17 category the “gulag of distribution.” He called it a ridiculous system and added, “Classification is de facto censorship.”

A complete list of winners follows:

Film: “The Player” (Fine Line).

First feature: “The Waterdance” (Samuel Goldwyn Co.).

Foreign film: “The Crying Game” (Miramax).

Director: Carl Franklin, “One False Move.”

Screenplay: Neal Jimenez, “The Waterdance.”

Actor: Harvey Keitel, “Bad Lieutenant.”

Actress: Fairuza Balk, “Gas Food Lodging.”

Supporting actor: Steve Buscemi, “Reservoir Dogs.”

Supporting actress: Alfre Woodard, “Passion Fish.”

Cinematography: Fred Elmes, “Light Sleeper.”

Score: Angelo Badalamenti, “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.”