Sundance Film Fest 1993: Jury and Audience Awards–Ruby in Paradise; Public Access; Silverlake Life; El Mariachi

As the country’s major showcase for American independent films, the Sundance Film Festival performs many important functions. Celebrating new talent and dedicated to the filmmakers (rather than actors or stars), Sundance has served as a cinematic Mecca for young aspiring writers and directors.


But ever since the discovery of Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape in 1989, Park City has become an alluring spot for Hollywood agents and executives scouring the noted ski resort for “hot” talent.

Two years ago, Sundance featured many films by new African-American directors. Last year, there were an unprecedented large number of gay directors, intent on creating a radical “queer” cinema by changing the stereotypical portrayal of gays and lesbians in mainstream Hollywood movies and television programs. You may have seen Gregg Araki’s The Living End, made for only 20,000 dollars, about two gay lovers, both HIV-positive, on the run. Or Tom Kalin’s stylish Swoon, which reexamined the case of Jewish killers and lovers Leopold and Loeb in the 1920s.

Last year, considered by many critics the best for American independent pictures, Sundance debuted The Waterdance, Gas Food Lodging, Reservoir Dogs, Zebrahead, In the Soup, all films praised on these pages. Of the 20 films that made up my Ten Best and Runners-Up lists, about one third were independents. Is there any better indication of the coming of age of the independent cinema.

The 1993 Sundance festival consisted of exciting events, tributes, and seminars for aspiring filmmakers. Over 100 films were screened in the different series: World Premieres, Regional Premieres, Dramatic Competition, Documentary Competition, European Independents, Special Screenings, Park City at Midnight. Suffice is to say that during the ten-day-festival, I saw 31 films, averaging three a day.

Redford Press Lunch

On the first Saturday, Robert Redford, who established the Sundance Film Institute in 1980, and in 1985 took over the floundering Park City Festival, invited members of the press to a fancy brunch at his institute.

I have met Redford before, but I was surprised by how informal and casual he was this time around. Wearing blue jeans and cowboy boots, as befit the stunning landscape, he talked about the state of the Sundance Festival, its measure of success, and future challenges, as the festival is getting more and more popular (most of the shows were sold out in advance).

There have been temptations and even pressures to expand the festival’s operations. But Redford said, “When you start expanding on something, you run the risk of losing quality. If it goes much bigger, you begin to lose control.”

At the same time, one of Redford’s visions is that “selected pieces of the festival will travel, like a Freedom Train, across the country–and outside the US. The popular movie star and director stressed again that Sundance is not “anti-Hollywood,” favoring the image of his festival as a “bridge to Hollywood.”

As expected, the quality of the films shown in and outside the competition varied. But if there was a unifying theme to many of the new films, it concerned young people having to face maturation and adulthood in the 1990s. The themes, values, preoccupations, and anxieties of the younger generation were explored in these features by directors who are themselves twenty-something.

Jury Awards

Surprisingly, this year two dramatic and two documentary films split the Grand Jury Prizes–ties of this sort are rare in festivals. Ruby in Paradise, the most touching and beautiful work I saw at the festival, marks the accomplished return of director Victor Nunez, whose Gal Young Un had won a Grand Jury Prize at the 1981 festival. In his new film, a young woman, Ruby (stunningly played by screen debutante Ashley Judd), escapes from the backwater of a Tennessee town and sets out on an exterior and interior odyssey, which takes her to the coast of Florida. Like Nunez’s earlier films, Ruby is imbued with a strong sense of place, building its own distinctive rhythm as the intimate story unfolds.

Bryan Singer’s Public Access, which tied with Ruby, explores the ways in which Brewster, a typical middle-American town, is driven to the brink of paranoia and fascism by Whiley Pritcher, a young man who regards himself as the town’s moral center and transmits his preachy sermons through his TV program, “Public Access.”


Children of Fate: Life and Death in a Sicilian Family and Silverlake Life: The View From Here were selected by the documentary jury, which was headed by Barbara Kopple, the Oscar-winning documentarian of Harlan County, USA and American Dream.

Like Michael Apted’s landmark documentary, 35 Up, Children of Fate is a sociological follow-up study. Begun in 1961, by Robert Young and Michael Roemer, and continued by Young’s son Andrew and his wife Susan Todd, Children of Fate traces the history of a Sicilian slum family and its strong, courageous matriarch, Angela, over a thirty-year period. This moving documentary seamlessly interweaves the l961 black-and-white footage with contemporary color sequences to create a vivid portrait of a family entrapped by their horrifying past.

A highly personal film, Silverlake Life traces the death journey of filmmaker Tom Joslin and his longtime companion Mark Massi, who filmed their own ordeal, from diagnosis to death. Completed by Joslin’s former student, Peter Friedman, the film captures the everyday realities of living with AIDS. I doubt whether this painful documentary will get major theatrical release, but I hope it will be aired on public or cable television.

Audience Award

Quite predictably, this year’s Audience Awards went to the drama El Mariachi, made by Texan Robert Rodriguez for a mere $10,000 dollars, and the documentary Something Within Me, which also received the Filmmakers Trophy for best documentary. Something Within Me provides a delightful profile of a very unique school, St. Augustine’s elementary school in the South Bronx, where music and art form an essential part of the curriculum. Producer Jerret Engle and director Emma Joan Morris have created a truly uplifting film about what education can be with dedication and imagination.

Finally, I was personally gratified when a former student of mine, Tony Chan, won the Best Screenwriting Award for his directorial feature debut, Combination Platter, a naive if honest and charming portrait of an illegal Hong Kong immigrant, trying to assimilate to American culture.