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DISPATCH FROM LOS ANGELES: International Stories Take Top Prizes as AFI Fest Wraps

DISPATCH FROM LOS ANGELES: International Stories Take Top Prizes as AFI Fest Wraps

One week after announcing its U.S. distribution deal at the American Film Market, Jasmila Zbanic‘s “Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams” won the narrative grand jury prize at AFI Los Angeles International Film Festival. Winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlinale in February, the film is Bosnia and Herzegovina’s official entry for the 2006 Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award and Strand Releasing is planning a 2007 release of the acclaimed feature film. Set in a contemporary Sarajevo still reeling from the aftermath of war, the film is the story of a single mother who lives with her rebellious twelve-year-old daughter in the Grbavica district of Sarajevo, a neighborhood used as an internment camp during the conflict in the nineties. Unable to survive on government aid and hoping to provide for her daughter, she takes a day job in a shoe factory and a night job as a waitress in order to pay for her daughter’s school trip, and along the way, her daughter discovers a dark secret. The jury singled out Peter Schonau Fog’s “The Art of Crying” with a special mention at the festival.

International films and international stories were honored with all of the feature prizes at a festival that has distinguished itself as a key showcase for new international work. And on Sunday night in Hollywood the world premiere of Zhang Yimou‘s anticipated “Curse of the Golden Flower” closed the festival one month prior to its domestic release from Sony Pictures Classics.

“Foreign language feaures are hard [to bring] to the United States,” said “Grbavica” director Jasmila Zbanic, thanking the festival for its focus on foreign language films Sunday, while accepting her prize, “AFI is giving a chance for people to see foreign language feature films [and] doing a very great job bringing us together.”

Mark Verkerk‘s “Buddha’s Lost Children” was awarded the documentary grand jury prize. It is the story of a Thai boxing champion’s journey to save childen from the impoverished Golden Triangle region of the country. The jury presented a special mention to J.B. Rutagarama’s “Back Home.”

The audience award for best documentary was shared by Carla Garapedian‘s “Screamers” and Lucy Walker‘s “Blindsight” (tie, documentary). “Screamers” looks at rock band System of a Down’s battle to preserve the memory of the Armenian genocide, while “Blindsight” offers a moving chronicle of a group of Tibetan blind children’s quest to climb Mt. Everest. The prize will boost the coming release of “Screamers,” which will be distributed by Maya Releasing, while Walker’s well-received “Blindsight” is still seeking a U.S. deal as it lines up other key festival dates for early next year. Among narrative films, Switzerland’s Oscar foreign language entry “Vitus,” by Fredi M. Murer, won the audience award.

Short fim award winners included Stephanie Burke‘s “Disappearing” winning the grand jury prize, with a special mention to Chris Shepherd for “Silence Is Golden” and Michael Dreher‘s “Fair Trade” winning the short film audience award.

Chatting casually with indieWIRE Sunday afternoon shortly after the awards brunch, Variety correspondent Robert Koehler found it noteworthy that the American Film Institute‘s festival has developed such a distinct focus on world cinema, given that AFI was founded in 1967, in the words of the organization, “to train the next generation of filmmakers and to preserve America’s fast-disappearing film heritage.” In other words, U.S. president Lyndon Johnson and AFI founders (George Stevens, Jr., Gregory Peck, Francis Ford Coppola, Jack Valenti and others) sought to counter the rise of cinema from overseas.

AFI Fest certainly offered an eclectic mix of films and a valauable showcast, but the sixteen best foreign langauge Oscar submissions and a handful of documentaries seemed to be the best received movies on the nearly 150 film roster. The event drew good-sized crowds to its Hollywood screenings, despite the constant challenges of making a film event stand out in this busy movie town. Industry response to the festival, however, remained muted at best, with insiders only appearing for showcase screeings of previously acquired films they were launching at the fest.

Despite a continually hyped partnership between AFI Fest and the American Film Market in Santa Monica, industry attendees seemed to stay out west near Santa Monica, skipping AFI Fest screenings, but catching some of its films at AFM showings. Finding a way to lure more insiders to events in Hollywood would seem to be a key challenge for AFI festival organizers, and a number of observers noted that adding a third screening of competition films or repeat showings of higher profile new work for the second half of the festival might lure some industry types once AFM wraps up at AFI Fest’s midpint. This would offer attendees a chance to catch the films that generated the most buzz.

[Links to indieWIRE’s coverage of AFI Fest 2006 is available in a special section at indieWIRE.com.]

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