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OUR SCHOOL directed by Mona Nicoara and Miruna Coco-Cozma

AFI-Discovery Channel Silverdocs Documentary Festival announced its distinguished award winners, culminating the weeklong festival activities that included the screening of 108 films representing 52 countries, a free outdoor screening, live performances and a five-day professional documentary conference.  The Festival hosted 27,000 attendees, including more than 1,500 filmmakers, film and television executives and media professionals celebrating the art and business of documentary filmmaking.

This year’s Sterling Award for Best US Feature goes to OUR SCHOOL directed by Mona Nicoara and Miruna Coco-Cozma.  Shot over the course of four years, the film follows the attempt to integrate isolated rural Roma (or gypsy) children into the mainstream school system of Romania.  Focusing on seven-year-old Alin, 12-year-old Beni and 16-year-old Dana, this fascinating film takes an unflinching look at the challenges of a longstanding tradition of prejudice.  The prize is accompanied by a $5,000 cash award.

The Sterling US Feature Jury noted: “The cinematic quality of this film, the filmmaker’s vision and power of the story’s core issue impressed the jury, revealing an intimate depiction of a marginalized and underrepresented community, whose voice is seldom heard.  The filmmaker brings to light a timely human rights issue with compassion and intimacy.”

A Special Jury Mention went to THE BULLY PROJECT, directed by Lee Hirsch, which tackles the timely topic of bullying in this sensitive examination of an urgent crisis in American society.  The film follows five children and their families over the course of one school year as their lives are affected in different ways by bullying.

The Jury noted: “Set in the heartland of America, this film takes a sensitive and volatile issue and brings it to light in a no-holds barred style that is visually stunning and deeply compelling.  This tortuous experience of youth is shared by many, but is bravely revealed in this film through characters who confront their experience and work to reclaim their dignity.  The filmmaker’s access shows the enormous trust established with his subjects. The result is a film that doesn’t reduce people to their worst experience, but rather elevates them to a level of marginalized heroes and sheros we should all aspire to emulate.”

A Special Jury Mention also went to WHEN THE DRUM IS BEATING directed by Whitney Dow. The film reveals Haiti’s complex history and the resilience of its people in the stories of Septentrional, the country’s most celebrated band, whose unique beats and rhythms continue to thrill its people after six decades.

The jury noted: “An ambitious, multi-dimensional articulation of the identity of a country seen through layers of history, inter-generational, political and natural disasters set against a lyrical and poetic narrative backdrop.  The synergy of place is the motif in this beautifully crafted ode to a people.  Both historical and contemporary, this film offers a lens to history through cultural expression, which affords a glimpse at the past, present and future of a complex and fascinating place and its people.”

This year’s Sterling Award for Best World Feature went to FAMILY INSTINCT directed by Andris Gauja.  A unique chronicle of family gone awry, this film is an unsparing exploration of a Latvian household built on the incestuous relationship between Zanda and her imprisoned brother Valdis, whose pending homecoming creates tremendous frisson.  The prize is accompanied by a $5,000 cash award.

The Sterling Award World Jury noted:  “A slice-of-f#@ked-up-life portrait, the director of this film clearly had fly-on-the-wall access to his subjects, but some scenes, shot from multiple angles, are so formally composed as to seem staged.  That’s not a bad thing: For all the desperation and depravity of the story, the filmmaker rescues a narrative of deep sadness and yearning that’s as touching as the circumstances are shocking.”

A Special Jury Mention went to POSITION AMONG THE STARS directed by Leonard Retel Helmrich.  The film is the conclusion of his in-depth three-part portrait of Indonesia as seen through the eyes of one family living in the slums of Jakarta.  The Shamuddin family’s anxieties, hopes, and frequent, often hilarious fights culminate in a poignant mosaic of Indonesian life today.

The Jury noted: “A special jury prize for persistence of vision for the third film in a trilogy that explores a multi-generational family at the cusp of societal upheaval.  It is the culmination of a filmmaker’s aesthetic, thematic and philosophical mission.  This is a film that exemplifies a sustained and consistently maturing vision.”

The Sterling Award for Best Short Film was given to GUANAPE SUR, directed by János Richter.  The film explores a barren island off the coast of Peru that is the breeding ground for thousands of sea birds, its sole inhabitants.  Once every eleventh year, hundreds of men make their way to the island to harvest the birds’ dried excrement, which is then used as valuable fertilizer.  The prize is accompanied by a $2,500 cash award.

The Sterling Award Short Jury noted: “We were won over by the stark beauty of the images, which take us into a world of extreme hardship.  The formal restraint of the filmmaking coupled with complex sound design create a poetic yet unflinching meditation on human beings’ constraint by their environment.”

An Honorable Mention?went to STILL HERE, directed by Alex Camilleri.  In the film, Randy Baron has been living with HIV for over two decades.  In that time, he watched as AIDS ravaged his partner and many friends whose lives were lost to a diagnosis that was considered a death sentence in the 1980s.  The film documents his efforts to carry on and dedicate his life to education and activism.

The Jury noted: “A powerful portrayal of loss and grief, this film is a testament to one man’s resilience. Visually rich and capturing raw emotions, it stays with you long after watching.”

The Sterling Award winners were chosen by an eminent Festival jury, including:

Sterling US Feature Jury: Claire Aguilar, Programming VP, Independent Television Service (ITVS); Chico Colvard, Filmmaker (FAMILY AFFAIR); Shannon Kelley, Head of Public Programs for the UCLA Film and Television Archive. 

Sterling World Feature Jury: Sean Farnel, former Programming Director, Hot Docs; Eugene Hernandez, Director of Digital Strategy, Film Society of Lincoln Center; Karina Longworth, Editor, LA Weekly.

Sterling Short Film Jury: Sadie Tillery, Programming Director, Full Frame; Eva Weber, Filmmaker (STEEL HOMES); José Rodriquez, Program Associate, Tribeca Film Institute.

“We are thrilled to celebrate the best that documentary cinema has to offer and to congratulate all of our award winners.  We thank our Jurors who brought their passion and commitment to the challenging process of selecting winners amongst so many great films,” said Sky Sitney, AFI-Discovery Channel Silverdocs Festival Director.

Other Awards include:

The Cinematic Vision Award went to LIFE IN A DAY directed by Kevin MacDonald.  The film explores what happens when a team of renowned producers put out a call for people professional filmmakers and non-professionals alike to document what is going on in their lives, whether its epic or benign, on July 24, 2010.  The mesmerizing film is culled from more than 4,500 hours of videos submitted from 192 countries.  The prize comes with $4,000 in-kind services from the Alpha Cine Labs in Seattle.

The WGA Documentary Screenplay Award went to THE LOVING STORY written by Nancy Buirski and Susie Ruth Powell.  Mildred and Richard Loving never imagined that their unassuming love story would be the basis of a watershed anti-miscegenation civil rights case.  But in 1967, when this soft-spoken interracial couple are exiled from Virginia—the only home they have ever known—for the mere crime of falling in love and getting married, they feel they have no choice but to fight back.  The Prize is accompanied by a $1,000 cash award, and a five-year membership in the WGAE Nonfiction Writers Caucus.

The inaugural Whole Foods Market and Silverdocs Grant for Works in Progress go to two filmmakers: Margaret Brown for THE GREAT INVISIBLE exploring the effects of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill and its impact on her hometown of Mobile, Alabama and the Gulf of Mexico.  The film looks at the global oil economy through the lens of characters that work in the oil and fishing industries on the Gulf Coast.

The second grant goes to Ian Cheney for BLUESPACE, which explores the degradation and renewal of urban waterways.  With more than half the world’s population now crammed into cities, the way we use water – as a place to grow food, as a method of transportation, as a source of renewable energy – will plunge viewers into the midst of the struggle to rethink this most overlooked resource.  The prize is accompanied by a $25,000 cash grant to each filmmaker for a total of $50,000.

The Tribeca Film Institute and Silverdocs Transmedia Lab Pitch award goes to Amir Bar-lev for THE TILLMAN STORY INTERACTIVE EDITION, to develop a cross-platform interactive project that will allow audiences to actively participate in the acclaimed 2010 documentary THE TILLMAN STORY while viewing it; a navigable platform through which audiences can view outtakes, investigate documents, interact with others, and keep up-to-date on the latest developments in the Tillman controversy.  The prize is accompanied by a $5,000 cash award.

The Audience Award winners will be announced on Monday, June 27, 2011.

[ via press release – Silverdocs]

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