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‘Whiplash,’ ‘Hill’ win big at Sundance ‘This is a small film but it’s got a big heart’

LOS ANGELES, Jan 26, (Agencies): Musical drama “Whiplash” and documentary “Rich Hill,” about inhabitants of a poverty-stricken rural US town, took top honors at the Sundance Film Festival awards on Saturday, a key accolade for independent films to find a wider audience. “Whiplash,” the opening night film starring Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons, enticed audiences with its heart-racing story of a jazz drummer in an obsessive pursuit of perfection in his craft. The film won both the audience and grand jury awards in the US drama competition. The awards were a big win for 28-year-old writer-director Damien Chazelle, who won the US fiction short film grand jury prize last year at Sundance with a short version of “Whiplash,” which he then made into a feature film for this year.

“I remember my first time here was with a short, and the whole reason we made a short was because of my experiences as a drummer,” Chazelle said. “No one wanted to finance the film because no one wants to make a film about a jazz drummer, surprising,” he added with a laugh. The film has been snapped up by Sony Pictures Classics for $3 million, and could follow the path of its Sundance predecessors such as 2010’s “Winter’s Bone” and 2012’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” which both won the grand jury dramatic prize and subsequently landed Oscar nods. The grand jury US documentary prize went to “Rich Hill,” which explored the lives of three adolescent boys living in the rural Missouri town of Rich Hill, who try to overcome the struggles of poverty.

“This is a small film but it’s got a big heart and we dedicate it to the families of Rich Hill, Missouri, and the families in this film; the three boys and their families who were so brave and so lovely to let us into their lives and to trust us and reveal some stuff that was so tough,” co-director Tracy Droz Tragos said. The US documentary audience award went to “Alive Inside: A Story of Music & Memory,” which explores the effect of music on elderly patients suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. “This has been an overwhelming experience for me,” director Michael Rossato-Bennett said. “I just made this film because it moved me, I didn’t realize how big a topic it was.” The Sundance Film Festival hands out 28 awards at a ceremony broadcast live online, this year hosted by comedian couple Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally. The annual Sundance Film Festival, backed by actor-filmmaker Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute, is the top US independent film festival. This year’s edition began on Jan. 16 and will wrap on Sunday.

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In the world film competition categories, Chilean-French entry “To Kill A Man” picked up the grand jury prize for drama. Syrian-German entry “Return to Homs,” a story of two young men whose lives are turned upside down by the Syrian civil war, landed the grand jury documentary prize. Other notable wins at Saturday’s awards included “Dear White People” filmmaker Justin Simien landing the jury prize for breakthrough talent. The film, a contender in the US drama competition, is a satirical narrative based on the Twitter feed of the same name. “I feel so grateful to be here and have a platform for this film, and these characters and these stories that have been under-served for so long in film,” Simien, a former film publicist, said. Filmmaker Cutter Hodierne, who like Chazelle won a special jury prize for his short film “Fishing Without Nets” and then returned to Sundance this year with a feature-length version, won the US drama directing award.

Both Hodierne and Chazelle’s success show growing attention being placed on Sundance’s short film winners. Filmmakers can use the Sundance boost to gain financing to make feature-length versions of their films. This year’s short film audience prize, sponsored by video-hosting site YouTube and based on the number of online views the films garnered, went to “Chapel Perilous,” described as a “metaphysical comedy” about a man who is visited by a salesman with nothing to sell. The grand jury prize for short film, handed out earlier in the festival, went to documentary “Of God and Dogs,” and the US short drama jury prize was awarded to “Gregory Go Boom.” The dramatic story of a drummer who pursues excellence at all costs won top honors at the Sundance Film Festival. “Whiplash” collected both audience and jury prizes for American dramatic films Saturday at the festival’s awards ceremony.

The musical drama by writer-director Damien Chazelle opened the independent film showcase last week and rode a wave of positive buzz throughout the 10-day event. Chazelle made his Sundance debut last year with a short version of “Whiplash” intended to gain financial support for the feature-length film. The feature stars 26-year-old Miles Teller as an aspiring jazz drummer and veteran actor J.K. Simmons as his unforgiving instructor. Chazelle thanked his actors “who really made this movie work.” The 28-year-old filmmaker drew on his personal experiences as a member of a high school jazz band as inspiration for the film. The documentary “Rich Hill,” a coming-of-age story about the inhabitants of a tiny town in Missouri, won the jury award for US documentary. The American documentary about music’s healing effects on dementia, “Alive Inside: A Story of Music & Memory,” won the audience award. Actors Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally hosted the ceremony at the Basin Recreation Fieldhouse in Park City, Utah. The 30th Sundance Film Festival wraps on Sunday.

Other winners Saturday:
* US documentary directing: “The Case Against 8.”
* US drama directing; “Fishing Without Nets.”
* US documentary cinematography: “E-Team.”
* US drama cinematography: “Low Down.”
* US documentary editing: “Watchers of the Sky.”
* US documentary, special jury award for use of animation: “Watchers of the Sky.”
* US drama special jury award for intuitive filmmaking: “The Overnighters.”
* US drama special jury award for musical score: “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter.”
* US drama special jury award for breakthrough talent: “Dear White People.”
* Waldo Salt screenwriting award: “The Skeleton Twins.”
* World cinema grand jury prize, documentary: “Return to Homs,” Syria.
* World cinema grand jury prize, drama: “To Kill A Man,” Chile.
* World cinema audience award, documentary: “The Green Prince,” Germany, Israel.
* World cinema audience award, drama: “Difret,” Ethiopia.
* World cinema documentary directing: “20,000 Days on Earth,” United Kingdom.
* World cinema drama directing: “52 Tuesdays,” Australia.
* World cinema documentary cinematography: “Happiness,” France, Finland.
* World cinema drama cinematography: “Lilting,” United Kingdom.
— World cinema documentary editing: “20,000 Days on Earth,” United Kingdom.

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