And the Winners Are...
As I write this, a fresh blanket of snow has turned Park City, Utah into a veritable winter wonderland and, in an unprecedented occurrence, the jury and audience members of the 2006 Sundance Film Festival have proved unanimous in their assessment of the best of the fest. In the dramatic competition, both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award were presented to co-directors Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer's Quincañera, about an Echo Park teenager who gets a most unwelcome surprise for her 15th birthday — she discovers she's pregnant. Meanwhile, in the documentary competition, the double winner was God Grew Tired of Us, director Christopher Quinn's portrait of three Sudanese immigrants making new lives for themselves in America. As it happens, of the 30-odd movies I saw over the past 10 days, I managed to miss both of these, but the awards make me want to see them. The question is: Will I have a chance? And more to the point, will you?
What I'm getting at here, of course, is that while both Quincañera and God Grew Tired of Us can look forward to long futures on the film festival circuit, where they go from there is anybody's guess. As of awards night, neither film had sold to an American distributor and, while I don't doubt that they now will, it's worth remembering that last year's dramatic Grand Jury Prize winner, 40 Shades of Blue, came and went in the blink of a box-office eye (despite scads of strong reviews), while the documentary winner, Why We Fight, has just opened to tepid business in New York and L.A. Such, of course, are the increasingly harsh realities of the independent film marketplace. But as Sundance 2006 wound to a close on the same weekend that saw Steven Soderbergh's Bubble make its historic cross-platform release, the future of specialized film distribution seemed to reach new levels of intensity. Earlier in the week, IFC Films announced the deployment of a new experiment by which the indie distributor will, over the next 12 months, release a slate of 24 films (including Hou Hsiao-hsien's magnificent Three Times) simultaneously in select theaters and via on-demand cable television, while the Sundance Institute itself announced a partnership with 14 art-house cinemas across the country (from Hilo, Hawaii to Waterville, Maine) to exhibit a series of recent and classic independent films curated by the Institute. Of his venture, Josh Sapan, Presdient and CEO of IFC parent company Rainbow Media, commented, "Between the two cities of New York and Los Angeles, there is a vast country of indie film lovers who do not have access to the indie films they read about and want to see." Let's hope he's right.
Though I may have done a poor job of picking this year's Sundance winners, the festival nevertheless ended for me on a strong note, with the screening of A Lion in the House. For six years, co-directors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert trained their cameras on five pediatric cancer patients, their doctors and their families as they endured experimental treatments, remissions and sudden relapses, all the while attempting to carry on with their lives and remain courageous in the face of that inscrutable mystery that is the human body. Strongly recalling the great institutional documentaries of Allan King and Frederick Wiseman, A Lion in the House is strong, unforgiving stuff — a movie that affirms life while strongly cautioning against false hope and which, in one fell swoop, managed to make ten days of searching for cinematic diamonds in the rough seem unconditionally worth the effort.