‘Slam’ dunk at Sundance

Prison film takes dramatic grand jury award

PARK CITY, Utah — Films exploring lives of confinement in prisons and on an Indian reservation took top honors at the 14th annual Sundance Film Festival, which wrapped Sunday.

The dramatic grand jury prize went to Trimark’s “Slam,” Marc Levin’s tale of a black poet incarcerated on minor drug charges.

The documentary grand jury prize was shared by Andrew Gurland and Todd Phillips, who directed and produced “Frat House” (review, page 10), an investigation into the horrors of fraternity hazing; and Jonathan Stack and Liz Garbus, the filmmakers behind “The Farm,” about a maximum-security prison located in Angola whose inmates are predominantly African-American.

Miramax’s “Smoke Signals,” Chris Eyre’s tale of a young Native American’s struggle to ensure the body of his estranged father receives a proper burial, won two dramatic prizes: the filmmakers trophy and the audience award. It was produced by Scott Rosenfelt and Larry Estes.

“The audience award was the one we really wanted,” said screenwriter Sherman Lexie during Saturday’s Sundance awards ceremony at the Park City Racquet Club. Sundance Institute founder Robert Redford could not attend the ceremony because he is editing his film “The Horse Whisperer.”

‘A humane experience’

Geoffrey Gilmore, director of fest programming, told the crowd that the changes made at Sundance this year — including the new Eccles Theater, the renovation of the Egyptian Theater and an improved transportation system — were part of the desire “to ensure that Sundance remains a humane experience.”

Grand jury prize winner “Slam” was produced by former New York nightclub owner Henri Kessler, Richard Stratton and Levin, who has directed numerous documentaries on street gangs, prison life and drug addiction. “This has been an amazing week,” Levin told Daily Variety. “I won a Columbia DuPont journalism award for ‘The CIA: America’s Secret Warriors,’ we sold ‘Slam’ to Trimark and now this.”

Stratton, the founder of Prison Life magazine who spent eight years behind bars for marijuana charges, wrote “Slam” along with three others — Levin, Saul Williams and Sonja Sohn. Stratton discovered Williams two years ago doing a reading at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in New York. Williams and Sohn also star in “Slam” along with Vibe magazine columnist Bonz Malone and Beau Sia.

“The Farm’s” Stack met his co-director through his legal battle with a right-wing religious group that tried to suppress his earlier docu “Damned in the U.S.A.” Stack’s attorney Martin Garbus won the case and introduced him to his daughter, Liz. The two found former prisoner-turned-author Wilbert Rideau, who acted as their guide at “The Farm.”

“Out of the Past,” the story of a Utah teenage lesbian’s battle to form a gay-straight alliance at her high school, won the audience award for documentary. It was directed and produced by Jeff Dupre.

The docu filmmakers trophy went to Steve Yeager’s “Divine Trash,” an in-depth look at the making of John Waters’ cult classic “Pink Flamingos.” Yeager produced the film along with Cindy Miller.

Easy as ‘Pi’

Darren Aronofsky’s black-and-white film “Pi” won the dramatic directing award. Earlier in the week, the sci-fi thriller, which was produced by Eric Watson, was bought by Live Entertainment.

Capturing the documentary directing prize was Julia Loktev’s “Moment of Impact,” which chronicles the changes that occurred in her family after her father became brain-damaged in an accident. Melanie Judd was producer.

Penelope Spheeris’ “The Decline of Western Civilization, Part III” won the freedom of expression award. Lisa Cholodenko, writer/director of October Films’ “High Art,” received the 1998 Waldo Salt screenwriting award.

Andrea Hart, the star of Benson Lee’s “Miss Monday,” was awarded a special prize for achievement by the dramatic jury, which consisted of Kayo Hatta, Owen Gleiberman, Paul Schrader, Chris Sievernich and Alfre Woodard.

The documentary jurors were Steven Asher, Christine Choy, Lisa Leeman, Pamela Yates and Nick Broomfield, whose film “Kurt and Courtney,” about singer/actress Courtney Love and her late husband rocker Kurt Cobain, was withdrawn from this year’s Sundance fest because of legal issues regarding music clearances.

Carlos Marcovich’s “Who the Hell Is Juliette?” took home the special recognition prize for Latin American cinema.

Debra Granik’s “Snake Feed” received a special recognition award for short filmmaking, while Jay Rosenblatt’s short film “Human Remains” received an honorable mention.