By Brian Brooks | Indiewire February 15, 2010 at 1:17AM
The U.S. debut of "Exam," Finland's "Letters to Father Jaakob" and doc "Enemies of the People" were among the top winners Sunday, capping the 25th Santa Barbara International Film Festival, with winners unveiled at a morning brunch in the picturesque California seaside enclave. Stuart Hazeldine's "Exam," starring Luke Mably and Nathalie Cox, won SBIFF's Panavision Spirit Award for Independent Cinema, which recognizes a feature made "outside mainstream Hollywood."
Klaus Haro's "Letters to Father Jaakob" (Postia pappi Jaakobille) took the festival's Best International Film Award, while the U.S. premiere of "The Winds of Journeys" by Ciro Guerra received the Nueva Vision Award for best Spanis/Latin American film. Rob Lemkin's UK/Cambodian production "Enemies of the People" took Best Documentary. The film also received the "Fund for Santa Barbara Social Justice Award Sponsored by The Fund for Santa Barbara," which includes $2,500. Jooh-ho Bong's "Mother" (Madeo) won the event's Best East Meets West Cinema Awward. Peter Strickland's "Katalin Varga" took Best Eastern Bloc Award.
In other prizes, "Ana's Playground by Eric D. Howell took the Bruce Corwin Award for Best Live Action Short Film Under 30 Minutes; "Urs," directed by Moritz Mayerhofer received the Bruce Corwin Award for Best Animation Short Film.
"This year's films proved once again the caliber of filmmaking is higher than ever," commented SBIFF executive director Roger Durling in a statement. "The jury was truly challenged in making the final determination."
The festival closes Sunday night with the World Premiere of "Middle Men," directed by George Gallo. Starring Giovanni Ribisi, Luke Wilson, James Caan, Kelsey Grammer and Kevin Pollack, the film chronicles Jack Harris, one of the pioneers of internet commerce, as he wrestles with his morals and struggles not to drown in a sea of conmen, mobsters, drug addicts, and pornstars.
Top winners with descriptions provided by SBIFF:
"Exam" (The Panavision Spirit Award for Independent Cinema): Eight talented candidates have reached the final stage of selection to join the ranks of a mysterious and powerful corporation. Entering a windowless room, an Invigilator gives them eighty minutes to answer one simple question. He outlines three rules they must obey or be disqualified. Tensions rise as the clock steadily descends towards zero, and each candidate must decide how far they are willing to go to secure the ultimate job.
"Letters to Father Jaakob" (Best International Film Award): Leila Sten has spent a large part of her life in a Finnish prison. When her life sentence is pardoned, Leila is left homeless. She goes to live with an old priest, who promises to provide for her in return for her help. Father Jaakob finds solace in the letters he receives daily from burdened souls requesting his prayers, and since he is blind, Leila's task is to read these letters to him. When the letters stop, Jaakob questions the role that God has chosen for him, and Leila finds herself facing a dilemma.
"Enemies of the People" (Best Documentary Film Award): The Khmer Rouge slaughtered nearly two million people in the late 1970s, yet the killing fields of Cambodia remain unexplained. Until now.
"The Wind Journeys" (Nueva Vision Award): The film is a deceptively simple story: two men on a journey, each with common quests but finding unexpected truths.
"Katalin Varga" (Best Eastern Bloc Award): In the beautiful, otherworldly Carpathian Mountains a woman is traveling with a small boy in a horse and cart, looking to punish those who once abused her. For years, Katalin (Hilda Péter) has been keeping a terrible secret. Hitchhiking with two men, she was brutally raped in the woods. Although she has kept silent about what happened, she has not forgotten, and her son Órban serves as a living reminder. When her village discovers her secret, Katalin's husband rejects her. With nothing to lose, she is free to seek revenge on the perpetrators.
"Mother" (Best East Meets West Cinema Award): The film centers on a mother who desperately searches for the killer that framed her son for a horrific murder.