02 February, 2010

European Docs Shine At Sundance

by Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

In a somewhat strange convergence, European documentaries were the overall winners in all categories at the Sundance Film Festival, which announced its awards Saturday evening. While this is certainly a boon for European non-fiction makers, the European dramatic films in the World Cinema competition were uniformly snubbed. .

However, there was much love for European docs, which is certainly something to celebrate. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize in the World Cinema Documentary section was THE RED CHAPEL (Det Røde Kapel) by Danish director Mads Brügger. In this caustic expose of the totalitarian regime of North Korea, a journalist with no scruples and two Danish/Korean comedians travel to North Korea under the guise of a cultural exchange. On the pretext of being a small Danish theatre group, named The Red Chapel, they are allowed into the country, but unbeknownst to the North Koreans, cultural exchange is not really what they have in mind. Mads Brügger, the journalist; Simon, the straight man; and Jacob, the spastic, use humor to challenge one of the world’s most notorious regimes.

The Best Director prize in the World Cinema Documentary section was given to Swiss documentarian Christian Frei for the crowd-pleaser SPACE TOURISTS. In the film, Anousheh Ansari, who has dreamt of going into outer space since she was a child, is able too fulfill her dream with the help of the Russian space program. After paying the sum of $20 million, her dream is realized and she becomes the first female space tourist. The film follows as she rigorous training in Star City, Kazakhstan, and eventually is transported up to the International Space Station. Frei, best known for his film THE GIANT BUDDHAS, explores the impact of space tourism in the heavens while also examining the intersections of human enterprise and commerce in the final frontier.

Winning of the Best Editing prize in the World Cinema Documentary section was Joelle Alexis for her work in the German/Israeli co-production A FILM UNFINISHED, directed by Yael Hersonski. This powerful film unearths a long-lost time capsule…..the now-infamous Nazi-produced film about the Warsaw Ghetto. Discovered after the war, the unfinished work, with no soundtrack, quickly became a resource for historians seeking an authentic record, despite its elaborate propagandistic construction. The later discovery of a long-missing reel complicated earlier readings, showing the manipulations of camera crews in these “everyday” scenes. Well-heeled Jews attending elegant dinners and theatricals (while callously stepping over the dead bodies of compatriots) now appeared as unwilling, but complicit, actors. In a devastating counterpoint, the film pivots between the original footage and contemporary interview sequences with ghetto survivors and even one of the original cameramen.

Best Cinematography kudos in the World Cinema Documentary program was shared by Kate McCullough and Michael Lavelle for their work on the Irish documentary HIS & HERS, directed by Ken Wardrop. In this artful mosaic of a film, director Wardrop tells a 90-year-old love story through the collective voice of 70 ladies at different stages of their lives. The hallways, living rooms, and kitchens of the Irish midlands become the canvas for the film’s rich tapestry of female characters. The lush camerawork works like a microscope, capturing the essence of the cast of characters, women from young to old, rich to poor, married to widowed. The film celebrates ordinary but intimate moments in the lives of people who rarely have the opportunity to express their views of life, love and the meaning of existence.

Finally, a Special Jury Prize for the entire World Cinema program (for both documentaries and dramatic features) was won by co-directors Rob Lemkin and Thet Sambath for the UK/Cambodian co-production ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE. This bracing film recalls the terrible massacre of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia in the late 1970s, where nearly two million were slaughtered and millions more survived hellish conditions in “reconditioning” camps. The film is told through the eyes of Thet Sambath, an investigative journalist who spends a decade of his life gaining the trust of the men and women who perpetrated the massacres. From the foot soldiers who slit throats to Pol Pot's right-hand man, the notorious Brother Number Two, Sambath records shocking testimony never before seen or heard. Having neglected his own family for years, Sambath's work comes at a price. But his is a personal mission. He lost his parents and his siblings in the Killing Fields. Through this one man’s zeal for investigation and retribution, a terrible and still veiled part of world history comes to shocking life.

A separate article on the dramatic features that competed (but were ultimately not recognized) at the Sundance Film Festival will be posted here on Wednesday.