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Benh Zeitlin, First-Time Filmmaker, Wins Top Sundance Award

1Benh Zeitlin, a first-time filmmaker, won the top prize at the Sundance Film Festival for his stirring picture “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”

“This project was such a runt, this sort of messy-hair, dirty, wild child, and we just have been taken care of and just eased along until we were ready to stand up on our own,” he told reporters after the ceremony. “It’s just great that it happened here. This is the right place for the world to meet the film.”

Quvenzhane Wallis, a third grader, stars in the film. She plays an eight-year-old girl who lives in Mississippi River delta in Louisiana. Her world comes apart when her father contracts a mysterious illness.

Sundance Film Festival Winners

U.S. Awards

Drama directing: Ava DuVernay, “Middle of Nowhere.”
Documentary directing: Lauren Greenfield, “The Queen of Versailles.”
Drama screenwriting: Derek Connolly, “Safety Not Guaranteed.”
Documentary editing: Enat Sidi, “Detropia.”
Documentary cinematography: Jeff Orlowski, “Chasing Ice.”
Drama special jury prize for producing: Andrea Sperling and Jonathan Schwartz, “Smashed” and “Nobody Walks.”
Documentary special jury prizes: “Love Free or Die,” “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.”

World Cinema Awards

Drama directing: Mads Matthiesen, “Teddy Bear.”
Documentary directing: Emad Burnat, Guy Davidi, “5 Broken Cameras.”
Screenwriting award: Marialy Rivas, Camila Gutierrez, Pedro Peirano, Sebastian Sepulveda, “Young & Wild.”
Editing award: Lisanne Pajot, James Swirsky, “Indie Game: The Movie.”
Drama cinematography award: David Raedeker, “My Brother the Devil.”
Documentary cinematography award: Lars Skree, “Putin’s Kiss.”
Drama special jury prize: “Can.”

Short film audience: “The Debutante Hunters.”
Best of NEXT audience: “Sleepwalk With Me.”

Beasts won the grand jury prize in the U.S. dramatic competition and won the prize for the best cinematography. Sundance had a stake in the film as well. Zeitlin spent three years on the project at the Sundance Institute and labs.

“We had more freedom to make this film than any first-time filmmaker has ever had,” said Zeitlin, in accepting the award. “I hope this movie is a flag that goes up to producers to allow filmmakers to explore just not creatively, but to go to the bottom of the earth.”

The film picked up a distributor in Fox Searchlight, which acquired it earlier in the week.

Zeitlin has also produced a number of short films, including “Egg,” which premiered at the 2005 Slamdance Film Festival and 2008’s “Glory at Sea,” which premiered at South-by-Southwest. It’s about a group of people struggling to survive in post-Katrina New Orleans.

Eugene Jarecki’s documentary “The House I Live In” won the grand jury prize for best documentary. It probes the social, human and financial costs of the war on drugs. Jarecki is a two-time winner. He won the award in 2005 for “Why We Fight.”

Jarecki called the war on drugs “tragically immoral, heartbreakingly wrong and misguided” during his acceptance speech. “If we’re going to reform things in this country, putting people in jail for nonviolent crime, in many cases for life without parole, for possession of a drug, for sentences longer than is now given for murder in this country, must end,” he said.

Director Charles Ferguson, a member of the U.S. Documentary jury, said “The House I Live In” was “a film that made us think and feel in a new and powerful way about this problem,” according to the Salt Lake Tribune.

“The Invisible War,” a documentary about rape in the military, and drama “The Surrogate,” won audience awards.

“The Surrogate” stars John Hawkes as a paralyzed man who hires a woman, played by Helen Hunt, to help him lose his virginity. “I don’t think most people have ever seen this sort of story before,” Lewin said. “I think it was very new and unexpected… From the experiences I’ve had seeing it with an audience, it seems to be a real emotional ride.”

“The Surrogate” also won a special jury prize for its ensemble cast.

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