Following 10 jam-packed days of screenings, panels, press events, and parties, this past Saturday, the jurors for the 2015 Sundance Film Festival announced the winners. The chosen films, both documentary and narrative, featured stories about freedom of expression and denounced the racism that plagues our society. As the filmmakers picked up their awards — all from different countries — they gave impassioned and emotional speeches.
In the World Cinema Documentary Competition, the film The Russian Woodpecker was awarded the Grand Jury Prize. Director Chad Gracia dedicated the award to jailed Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov. Even more powerful were the acceptance speeches by the film’s subject, artist Fedor Alexandrovich, and cinematographer Artem Ryzhykov, who called for the West to help Ukraine stop Russia’s military campaign.
Watch the entire 2-hour-long Sundance Closing Night Ceremony
Similarly heartbreaking were the words of those involved with the documentary 3 ½ Minutes, which took home the U.S. Documentary Competition Jury Award for Social Impact. The film focuses on African American teen Jordan Davis’ death and the terrible repercussions of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” laws. Although director Marc Silver wasn’t present, producer Minette Nelson was very moved by the recognition and decided to let Jordan’s parents, Ron Davis and Lucia McBath, take the stage. Mr. Davis finished his loving speech in honor of his son by chanting one of the most important lines of our time “Black Lives Matter!”
Especially noteworthy was the heavy presence of U.S. Latino and Latin American filmmakers as well as Latino-themed films among those who received awards. Miami-based director Kyle Patrick Alvarez received the Alfred P. Sloan Award for his latest feature The Stanford Prison Experiment, which explores the effects of Dr. Zimbardo’s infamous psychology study that simulated a prison. “I share this award with screenwriter Tim Talbott who’s been working on this script for over 10 years. One of our strong efforts with the film was to try to present the experiment as truthful and accurate as we could,” said Alvarez. The film also won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award, given to Tim Talbott. Alvarez accepted the award on his behalf and added, “If you’ve written something you believe in, and it’s there in a drawer, don’t let it go away. Keep on fighting, for good material will always rise up.”
In the World Cinema Dramatic Competition, the Brazilian Film The Second Mother received the Special Jury Award for Acting. Director Anna Muylaert and actress Camila Mardila accepted the award on behalf of Regina Case, who plays the protagonist. The director passed on a message from the actress, “Regina said ‘If we win an award I would like to say that my character represents the old Brazil, the one that is disappearing, and Camila’s character represents the new Brazil that’s coming up. I hope that in the new Brazil there is less social injustice, but don’t forget to be like my character, so loving and with so much passion.’ Thank you.”
Filmmaker Matthew Heineman dominated the awards in the U.S. Documentary Competition with his film Cartel Land, which took him and his crew to the trenches of Mexico’s drug-fueled violence. Heineman won both the Special Jury Prize for Cinematography and the Directing Award for U.S. Documentary. “It’s such an honor to be here. I want to dedicate this award to the victims of the senseless violence that has been perpetuated by the drug wars in Mexico. More than 80,000 people murdered and more than 20,000 people missing, my heart goes out to all of them. This award is for them,” said Heineman during his acceptance speech.
Undoubtedly, the big winner at the festival was Alfonso Gomez-Rejón, a filmmaker who grew up in Laredo, Texas, and whose parents are originally from Mexico. After working as a P.A. for numerous productions and wearing multiple hats on others, Gomez-Rejón finally got the chance to direct his debut feature in 2013 with The Town that Dreaded the Sun, a horror flick inspired by the 1976 classic by the same title. But this year with Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, the filmmaker’s career has taken an incredible leap. Incredibly achieved and emotionally affecting, the film, based on the novel by Jesse Andrews, was a hit with audiences, industry, and the festival’s jury. Fox Searchlight acquired the film for $12 million, a record breaking number.
And it gets even better, Gomez-Rejón won the two highest prizes for a narrative film at Sundance, the U.S. Dramatic Competition Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize joining films like Whiplash, Fruitvale Station, and Beasts of the Southern Wild. During his speech for the Audience Award Gomez-Rejón gushed, “This is an absolute dream. This week has been incredibly cathartic for so many reasons. This movie means so much to me. I want to thank you on behalf of all the artists that work on this film and I want to dedicate this award to all the young artists and filmmakers in Laredo, Texas, my hometown.” On his second opportunity to take the stage, while receiving the Grand Jury Prize, he took a more personal note, “This movie was about processing loss, and to celebrate the beautiful life of a beautiful man, which is my amazing father. This was in his memory and to celebrate him with humor.”
Here is the full list of Latino filmmakers and Latino-themed films that took home prizes…
U.S. Grand Jury Prize, Dramatic
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Director: Alfonso Gomez-Rejón
Greg Gaines is an awkward, self-deprecating high school student determined to coast through his senior year as anonymously as possible. Avoiding social interactions like the plague, Greg spends most of his time remaking wacky versions of classic movies with his only friend, Earl. Greg’s well-meaning mother intervenes, forcing him to befriend Rachel, a classmate who’s been diagnosed with leukemia. Against his better judgment, Greg concedes. Both Greg and Rachel are surprised—even shocked—to find out that they actually like each other. Tentative at first, this unlikely duo becomes inseparable. But when Rachel gets sicker, Greg’s well-fortified world is changed forever.
Audience Award, U.S. Dramatic
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Director: Alfonso Gomez-Rejón
Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize
The Stanford Prison Experiment
Director: Kyle Patrick Alvarez
It is the summer of 1971. Dr. Philip Zimbardo launches a study on the psychology of imprisonment. Twenty-four male undergraduates are randomly assigned to be either a guard or a prisoner. Set in a simulated jail, the project unfolds. The participants rapidly embody their roles—the guards become power-hungry and sadistic, while the prisoners, subject to degradation, strategize as underdogs. It soon becomes clear that, as Zimbardo and team monitor the escalation of action through surveillance cameras, they are not fully aware of how they, too, have become part of the experiment.
The screenwriter, Tim Talbott, also won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award, U.S. Dramatic.
World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Acting
Regina Casé and Camila Márdila
Film: The Second Mother
Val is the kind of live-in housekeeper who takes her work seriously. She wears a crisp maid’s uniform while serving perfect canapés; she serves her wealthy São Paulo employers day in and day out while lovingly nannying their teenage son whom she’s raised since toddlerhood. Everyone and everything in the elegant house has its place until one day, Val’s ambitious, clever daughter Jessica arrives from Val’s hometown to take the college entrance exams. Jessica’s confident, youthful presence upsets the unspoken yet strict balance of power in the household; Val must decide where her allegiances lie and what she’s willing to sacrifice.
U.S. Grand Jury Prize, Documentary
Director: Crystal Moselle
Locked away from society by their Peruvian father in an apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the Angulo brothers learn about the outside world through the films that they watch. Nicknamed the Wolfpack, the brothers spend their childhood re-enacting their favorite films using elaborate homemade props and costumes. With no friends and living on welfare, they feed their curiosity, creativity, and imagination with film, which allows them to escape from their feelings of isolation and loneliness. Everything changes when one of the brothers escapes, and the power dynamics in the house are transformed. The Wolfpack must learn how to integrate into society without disbanding the brotherhood.
Directing Award, U.S. Documentary
Film: Cartel Land
Country: USA, Mexico
When your government cannot provide basic safety from murderous organized criminals, is it acceptable to take the law into your own hands to protect your family, your land, and your country? That is the question at the heart of Cartel Land, a powerfully visceral journey of two modern-day vigilante movements.
In the Mexican state of Michoacán, Dr. Jose Mireles, a small-town physician known as “El Doctor,” shepherds a citizen uprising against the Knights Templar, the violent drug cartel that has wreaked havoc on the region for years. Meanwhile, in Arizona’s Altar Valley—a narrow, 52-mile-long desert corridor known as Cocaine Alley — Tim “Nailer” Foley, an American veteran, heads a small paramilitary group called Arizona Border Recon, whose goal is to halt Mexico’s drug wars from seeping across our border.
Matthew Heineman also took home the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Cinematography
U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Vérité Filmmaking
Bill Ross and Turner Ross
Country: USA, Mexico
For generations, all that distinguished Eagle Pass, Texas, from Piedras Negras, Mexico, was the Rio Grande. But when darkness descends upon these harmonious border towns, a cowboy and lawman face a new reality that threatens their way of life. Western portrays timeless American figures in the grip of unforgiving change.