What the devil did they show?
As soon as the black-and-white festival banners went up along Michigan Avenue, Chicago’s moviegoing public braced for the coming onslaught of 101 features (and 42 shorts) from 34 countries, in this 41st cycle of the Chicago International Film Festival. With 2005 shaping up as America’s annus horribilis, a year that saw a great native city reduced to a FEMA-ville of trailers parked amongst the wreckage, its inhabitants scattered in every direction, and the national culture heedlessly bent on closing itself off from the world (except for buyers and sellers of its products), letting the vault door slam shut, this film festival acts as an essential foot planted in the door, an annual intervention to keep communication open with other cultures, their ways of seeing and their ways of thinking.
It’s no secret that, as characterized by the Dutch founder of Fortissimo Films (Wouter Barendrecht), the present climate of film distribution in the U.S. looks “appalling and miserable,” so Chicagoans seeking provocative fare against the grain welcomed this window to the world. Still, auteurists bristled at the absence of major works by such renowned masters as Alexander Sokurov, the Dardenne brothers, Philippe Garrel, Hou Hsiao-hsien (two films missing), and Wim Wenders (also two films unseen here), let alone films by the brightest up-and-coming directors like Shinji Aoyama, Carlos Reygadas, Im Sang-soo, Hong Sang-soo, Park Chan-wook, Wang Xiao-shuai, and Jean-Marc Vallee. And where is Adam Curtis’ The Power of Nightmares?
Nonetheless, for sixteen days, the festival provided marked relief from pasteurized content and mainstream manipulation, from Hollywood’s fear-based fantasies of power for the powerless. Instead, grownup entertainment of notable vision and style allowed the audience to participate by filling in the spaces of each film and prove that their hearts and brains have not dried out.
For the requisite marquee glitter, Susan Sarandon arrived to support Elizabethtown (and pick up an award), and Terrence Howard, Claire Danes, and Nicholas Cage all showed up too. Directors flew in from France (Patrice Chéreau), China (Stanley Kwan), Poland (Krzysztof Krauze), Iran (Mohammad Ahmadi), Hungary (Lajos Koltai), and Portugal (Manoel de Oliveira, accepting a Lifetime Achievement Award), joined by American confreres such as Andrew Bujalski, Scott McGehee and David Siegel, Caveh Zahedi, Gore Verbinski, and Cameron Crowe.
Once the films rolled, widespread positive comments accumulated for Alicia Scherson’s Play (Chile/Argentina/France), Roland Vranik’s Black Brush (Hungary), Andrew Bujalski’s Mutual Appreciation (U.S.), and Juan Taratuto’s It’s Not You, It’s Me (Argentina/Spain). This reviewer can also testify to the merit of Caroline Martel’s poetic slice of labor history The Phantom of the Operator (Canada), Mohammad Ahmadi’s graceful and bittersweet Poet of the Wastes (Iran), Emmanuel Carrere’s tricky reality-shifting La Moustache (France), Mang Zhong’s spare and surprisingly graphic Grain in Ear (China/South Korea), Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s moistly symbolist Innocence (France/Belgium/UK), Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s wrenching account of ghetto kids’ experience in Africa in The Boys of Baraka (U.S.), and above all Cristi Puiu’s moving yet ferocious black comedy The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Rumania).
What follows here are thoughts on nine additional festival offerings: one from the Focus USA segment (I Am a Sex Addict), another from the Documentary Competition (The Devil’s Miner), four from the International Competition (Magic Mirror , Everlasting Regret , Gabrielle, My Nikifor), a Special Presentation (Caché), two from the special section to honor Fortissimo Films (Carmen in Khayelitsha, Devils on the Doorstep), and one in the World Cinema category (October 17, 1961). Of course, with the festival treading so close to Halloween, it’s not surprising that demons backloaded themselves into the events, with the forces of darkness prowling their way into a number of the films below.
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There’s a word in Japanese to describe “the hysterical belief that one’s penis is shrinking into one’s body,” though Caveh Zahedi needn’t worry from the account he gives in I Am a Sex Addict, his consistently witty and inventive autobiographical lark. Mischievous, and hardly the most reliable narrator, he presents this playful meta-vaudeville as part documentary, part dramatization with actors, and all narcissistic reflection on his life as a horndog. Narrating from the church vestibule where he is about to be married, Zahedi recounts with appealing wide-eyed insouciance three earlier relationships with women, paralleling his recovery from a dysfunctional obsession with prostitutes thanks to Sex Addicts Anonymous. Using home movie footage of the real women, he bends his narrative like rubber, employing actresses to play his lovers in Paris, Munich, and San Francisco, and then also plumbs the personal problems of these actresses too (whether or not the women involved would have a different take on these events remains unresolved).
Breaking and raising and breaking the fourth wall with dizzying impunity, he builds his film using men’s room graffiti, quotes from Godard’s Vivre sa vie, and an animated episode from The Odyssey, yet the result never feels confusing, as it is laced together by Zahedi’s considerable charm and wit (in cartoon form he played in one sequence of Linklater’s Waking Life). Nor does he hesitate to seat himself in the Lord’s position in “The Last Supper,” to nail himself on the cross, or to enact multiple orgasms with varying degrees of plausibility (claiming to have masturbated in every cathedral in Paris).
Zahedi optimistically attempts to disarm criticism by naming marriage as a cog in the capitalist system and monogamy as a form of private property, but among the prostitutes, he seems resistant to seeing the human being beneath the instrument of pleasure, or to appreciate that she is a performer not unlike himself rather than his plaything. Is it globalization when he approaches one streetwalker after another in four different countries with the same two questions (and receives almost identical answers)? Or is it just a universal situation where commerce stands ready to satisfy hunger? Willfully oblivious to the prostitutes’ social reality, Zahedi spends more time absorbed in his problem than theirs, and still more time worrying than actually transgressing. It is not for us to cast the first stone, of course, or even the second or third.
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In The Devil’s Miner, dawn breaks in infernal crimson through lowering black clouds over the “Mountain That Eats Men Alive.” That’s what Bolivians call the Cerro Rico, 14,000 feet up in Potosí, where it’s said that eight million people died in its mines over four centuries, extracting enough silver to build a bridge that would span the Atlantic Ocean. What gives this compelling and compassionate documentary its title are the unsettlingly primitive ritual altars with statues of the devil (called “Tio”) found in every mine, ready for periodic sacrifices of llamas, with miners painting both the idols and their own faces with blood. Above ground, they pray in churches with priests, but the underground is controlled by Satan and served by shamans.
Directors Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani follow 14-year-old Basilio, both a minor and a miner, who works double shifts of bruising labor to support his fatherless family, joining the estimated 800 other children who light the dynamite fuses and scramble to avoid the wagons without brakes that hurtle through the choking passageways. All laborers carry green plastic bags filled with coca leaves to re-energize them over twenty hours of work, as they move from cold, dizzying elevations to the hellish depths of the excavations, where temperatures reach one hundred degrees.
It’s a hard enough life when nature provides fearsome lightning storms, the mines hold arsenic and the miserable longterm silicosis that eats away the lungs, and gas explosions send the miners running, but Basilio’s family lives right at the mine entrance in a stone dwelling without heating or electricity, although they power a small TV by hooking it up to an auto battery (Mom likes zombie films).
For Basilio and his brother Bernardino, a half-day at school feels like a vacation, even though mining kids encounter discrimination as “dust-suckers,” but the annual carnival serves as a pressure valve for the working teams who dance down the mountainside in multihued costumes and fantastic masks, yet even here there’s no escape because their dance steps mirror their repetitive work movements.
In addition to tremendous sound captures of the roar inside the mines, the talented filmmakers wrest highly controlled visuals from their digital video, waiting as shadows slowly pass across a mountain, catching extraordinary colors and impressive low light quality thousands of feet below the surface. We can practically smell the brimstone.
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Introduced by a demonic violin passage, a character in Manoel de Oliveira’s Magic Mirror (O Espelho Magico) warns that “The devil’s among us!,” but she soon goes to her eternal reward in the Portuguese master’s enigmatic but comic nod to his contemporary Luis Bunuel. The pious, wealthy Alfreda can’t understand why the Virgin Mary won’t appear to her (“Why would she appear to those shepherds at Fatima and not me?”). In her spacious country estate complete with swimming pool, plush red-carpeted staircase, and a lavishly betailed white peacock, she has the leisure to visualize an Old Testament heroine as Cher and take comfort from a Biblical scholar’s theory that the mother of Jesus was “a rich lady, just like me!” So a pair of ex-cons, one a counterfeiter and the other a handsome young drug dealer, conspire to manufacture an apparition for her, though of course the narrative spins off in different directions that don’t respect storytelling conventions.
Showing more interest in the nature of reality than in sin and related emotional states, Oliveira lets the tension between opposing worldviews and attitudes grow through his typically uninflected, bracingly objective shots of people conversing. All the more surprising then when the camera turns subjective in a late burst of lyricism for a gloriously burnished glide through the canals of Venice and even a wholly mysterious white cobra. The aphorism-rich script gives a fair hearing to every character’s philosophy, from a nurse (“Saints are lazy. No one tells them to sacrifice themselves. They do it because they want to”) to a murderer who disposed of his entire family (“I’m never alone. I always have the hatred that’s inside me”). Ever slippery, Oliveira himself resists being pinned down, but it’s tempting to ascribe the following bon mot to him: “You don’t have to be rich to eat, but you have to be rich to savor.”
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The opening shot of Everlasting Regret (Changhen Ge) leads us to mistake a movie set for real life, but director Stanley Kwan might be accused of the same misjudgment. This Hong Kong native, who showcased his own birthplace effectively in 1988’s Rouge, with its restless ghost riding the trolley lines all night, here imports Hong Kong romcom stars Sammi Cheng and Daniel Wu for his dramatic evocation of the high life in Shanghai through the years, which looks even more posh than Wong Kar-wai’s 2046 (although Kwan sticks to the linear movement of the source novel). With Cheng enjoying the creamiest close-ups since the heyday of Linda Darnell at Fox, the story follows glamorous party girl Qiyao from catwalk success as Miss Shanghai of 1947 to bedroom success as the mistress of a rakish gangster (the charismatic Jun Hu, from East Palace, West Palace), then plows through China’s Cultural Revolution and the later disco years when the country turned to capitalism and black markets.
As the film heaves ahead in time via enclosed vignettes, including an arranged marriage to give her illegitimate child a respectable name and varying relationships with a handful of other men, Qiyao proves remarkable for her placidity and disinterest in the society transforming itself around her. Once the upheavals of the Red Guard period are underway (announced by the text “The songs of a new China gave people courage”), the film starts leaking credibility. Perhaps from censorship fears, Kwan lets his pleasure-loving heroine turn blank as she passes from hedonist to communist with little clue to any impact on her inner state. In a scene where she signs over the deed of her luxury art deco apartment to a kindly comrade, she pauses to caress the spider-veined marble one last time, but we wonder why she shows no regrets, even momentary, let alone everlasting, that might enliven her increasingly artificial and waxen close-ups.
If the first half, full of fashion posturing and seductive tangos and resplendent love scenes on peach satin, feels over-directed with editing that seems more complex than its subject, then the second half feels notably under-directed, like penance for all the voluptuous art direction. Despite a boldly dramatic stroke at the eleventh hour, the film lacks a convincing thematic backbone, while Cheng is unwisely allowed to reach her limits as a performer. In a head-banging outburst when she believes her lover has died, she falls and beats her fists on the floor wailing, but it comes as a shock that we are not engaged: we’ve been stranded outside the story.
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Bizet would surely approve of Carmen in Khayelitsha (U-Carmen eKhayelitsha), director Mark Domford-May’s translation of the operatic warhorse of amour fou into the Xhosa click language, where the grandeur and beauty of the soaring music seems to complement the setting of tin-roofed Capetown slums. Winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, this version seethes with life and color, adding speedboats and limousines, cell phones and condoms, facial tattoos and ululations, not to mention barbed wire and police brutality. Even as Seville becomes a construction project, Don José carries a cop’s walkie-talkie, and Escamillo turns into a famous opera star returning from New York fame (his Toreador aria plays out on a black-and-white TV set). Here, instead of Carmen turning up the ace of spades, her shaman throws bones and sees death in them.
Some rough voices, with less than refined timbre, may displease purists but these simply add to the gritty texture, as do occasional interpolations of African drums and a capella singing as well as some notably rude lyrics (“piss off!”). No one, however, can downplay Pauline Malefane’s smoldering Carmen, a full-figured icon in a blue sweatsuit who commands the screen with iron confidence, whether impudently balancing a cup on her head as she sings the Habañera or, in one powerful sequence, wordlessly contemplating her face in a mirror held by a witch doctor as her aria accepting imminent mortality plays inside her head.
In a freshly invented flashback, Domford-May lays out a backstory that makes Don José his brother’s killer and Micaela his widowed sister-in-law, thus adding real weight to his mother’s message of forgiveness and helping to solve the problem of the protagonist as mama’s boy. If the film skimps on developing the love relationships, and appropriates certain filmmaking clichés (flashbacks in tinted high-contrast, circling 360-degrees around the lovers), adroit telephoto camerawork and editing precision do their job to rouse the senses. The “Flower Song,” conceived as a intimate exchange in a corner of a nightclub, with background chatter counterpointing the composer’s ravishing melody here, becomes thrillingly intense. What the narrator says to first introduce Carmen applies equally to the film: “for every fault she had a quality that came out from the contrast.”
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There are two coups de théâtre that make the audience cry out with shock in the course of Caché (Hidden), but from its very opening shot of a Parisian townhouse, Austrian auteur Michael Haneke is busy at work destabilizing our faith in the objectivity of the image on the screen. Five times he stages a surprise where the shot turns out to be mysteriously subjective, and what of the long-held closing image? Whose vision are we seeing? Are we looking through the eyes of a criminal in search of a victim?
Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche play an affluent couple, both public intellectuals who live enclosed by walls of books, wittily echoed by the décor of the husband’s television talk show, where guests are surrounded by walls of abstract books without titles. Mysterious phone calls, anonymous videos, and crude drawings stir up nightmares that point to how the present is shaped by the past, revealing painful questions about trust, memory, and lies, some playing out over TV reports of torture in Iraq that parallel concealed violence in the plot. Are the answers in those dark, near subliminal flashes of a boy smeared with blood? Can the veteran Annie Girardot (star of Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers) provide a clue, in that bass-baritone voice that rasps with every cigarette she ever smoked?
Not a single frame of Haneke’s work can be accused of sentimentality, so people who do not respond to this director’s narratives of non-specific dread like Code Unknown or Time of the Wolf are poor candidates to like this one either. Ungenerous with narrative payoffs, Haneke nevertheless offers the pleasures of rigorous precision and passionate devotion to truth-telling, here leaving the guilty party with drapes drawn, shrouded in darkness.
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With its leading man boldly declaiming, its fin-de-siècle characters emerging from shadows, its attack on a mansion staircase, and its transformations with erotic undercurrents, Patrice Chéreau’s Gabrielle comes to suggest a classic horror movie wrested from one of Strindberg’s toxic male-female power confrontations (although the film expands a story by Joseph Conrad).
Both husband and wife are monsters here. He is a self-satisfied social climber, proud of his salon for epigram-spouting artists and confident of wife Gabrielle: “I know her secrets” and “I love her as a collector loves his most-prized possession.” When she punctures his smug self-regard by leaving him for a lover, Gabrielle then exacerbates his anger by almost immediately returning. Why did she come back and what does it mean for their relationship? The threat to his perceived position consumes him (“Everyone will know that I am a fool. If you had died, I would at least get condolences”), but this monster of egotism is greedy to know the identity of her lover (“this man who’s bound up with us now”), why she wanted him, how far they went, and what drove her back. As we might expect, her replies provide no satisfactory answers and less comfort as she affirms their icy bond (“We’re alone, Jean. Don’t you see?”).
In his inchoate rages and despair, Chéreau regular Pascal Greggory makes a highly theatrical contrast with the cinematic minimalism of the fearless Isabelle Huppert, who effortlessly supports huge close-ups at once “intimate and distant, intelligent, cold, burning,” in the director’s words. Gabrielle is no paragon either, as she mistreats and condescends to her unsophisticated and tongue-tied maidservant, as the director underlines their class distance.
Painting another largely two-character canvas as he did in Intimacy, Chéreau invariably commits himself to harrowing displays of compressed emotions bursting forth, whether from causes historical (Queen Margot), societal (Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train), or fraternal (Son Frère), leading to readjustments and re-evaluations of relationships. In Gabrielle, all the pent-up violence turns tangible with wine flung in a character’s face and a cut-glass decanter smashing to the floor, but at the moment the bottle breaks, the director extends the duration, doubling back to repeat it much like Battleship Potemkin‘s sailor smashing the same plate again and again.
Aided by Eric Gautier’s sensationally fluid camerawork that alternates between monochrome and cool beiges and blues (as in The Motorcycle Diaries), Chereau applies his laser-focused style to this elegant, chiseled chamber piece, making artful use of whiteout transitions, onscreen text spelled out in giant letters, and a brilliantly focused sound design to support Fabio Vacchi’s hair-raising score, all dissonant broken waltzes and richly threatening strings. All these elements aid us to accept a narrative told by someone who has completely vanished by the end, like a ghost.
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Not exactly an artist biopic but nevertheless a true story, the heartfelt and handsomely produced My Nikifor (Moj Nikifor) covers only the last few years of Poland’s premier outsider artist, the self-taught and illiterate “Nikifor.” First glimpsed as a dark speck on the snowscape as he totters through the drifts to sell his handdrawn postcards in his native town of Krynica, this male artist is credibly portrayed by the venerable actress Krystyna Feldman, complete with chin stubble and great tufts of ear hair, in an award-magnet stunt performance. However, the story is seen from the viewpoint of a struggling young artist who finds himself becoming the caretaker of this pariah, shunned as eccentric (he always speaks of himself in the third person), arrogant (“Don’t paint saints: you don’t know them”), and probably contagious as his lung problems are suspected of bringing disease to this resort spa.
Eventually, the humble younger man sacrifices his own career and family life to take full charge of Nikifor, giving him injections, even washing his feet, yet the film never clearly articulates his motives. Artistic aspirations? Good Samaritanism? Orders from the party apparatus? In the end, the actor holds our interest more than the story, thanks to the sincere performance by Roman Gancarczyck, rightly honored with the acting award of the Chicago International Film Festival. (And why not Krzysztof Ptak’s expressive cinematography of Krynica’s snow-feathered mountains and Krakow’s summertime splendor of elaborate fountains and baroque architecture?)
Still, as the top festival prize-winner, the film edges perilously close to cutesy when the cantankerous Nikifor asks, “Are there radio sets in heaven?” and when this outcast displays the clairvoyance of very special people in cinema, predicting a happy reunion for the artist and his wife, which then happens almost immediately. Notwithstanding a final Andrei Rublev-like outburst that showcases all Nikifor’s art crowded with tiny figures and mad with detail, the film’s ambitions seem disappointingly conventional, content to be on the outside looking in. How much more compelling the movie would be if the filmmakers had taken the leap of imagination to tell the tale through Nikifor’s eyes!
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Devils on the Doorstep (Guizi Lai le) looks like no other Chinese film seen in the West. Jiang Wen’s rollicking comedy about earthy peasants trying to survive the Japanese Occupation in 1945 presents in a New Wave widescreen black-and-white that makes exquisite chiaroscuro out of available light. Whether shooting a lighthouse beam sweeping over a valley or sunshine breaking in shafts through bathhouse steam, nervy cinematographer Gu Chang-wei (Red Sorghum) recalls the freewheeling camerawork of Kalatozov’s I Am Cuba, using a repertoire of extreme close-ups, vertiginous angles and whip pans (and even a miraculously diffused shot from inside a burlap bag). The director — who also plays the cocky everyman Dasan, proving himself to be a terrific farceur — matches the visuals with what-the-hell staging (one scene plays upside down, then sideways) plus aggressive editing in crisp rhythms that cut on every slap or thwack.
The village, situated where China’s Great Wall descends into the sea, contains an assortment of ribald but slaphappy villagers, elders who are either cranky or downright cracked, and the hero’s shamefully pregnant girlfriend. When they receive the surprise task of guarding two hostages, a hardline Japanese soldier swollen with patriotic fervor and his hapless Chinese translator, the villagers enact a scheme to trade them for grain from the Imperial Army. Despite much hilarious bootlicking, the exchange turns inauspicious when a Chinese donkey impulsively mounts and services a Japanese horse.
The Samurai-like commander stages a huge drunken multicultural New Year’s party where a Chinese villager sings, “You and I are an egg. I’m the white, you’re the yolk,” but the celebration turns into a fight and then a massacre. With the village in flames and Chinese beheaded, incinerated, or drowned, the survivors listen to the radio broadcast of Emperor Hirohito’s surrender, but there’s a further coda where gum-chewing Yanks guard the Chinese nationalist commander and this unflaggingly inventive, all-systems-go film reddens into color. From the time it won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2000, China has banned this film (partly for its rich and enthusiastic cursing, plausibly rendered in the lively English subtitles as “turtle-fucker” and “pig-brain”), so its long belated release in the U.S. must be welcomed and supported.
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If life were fair, Alain Tasma’s October 17, 1961 (Nuit Noire) would be catapulted into every multiplex, but that unfairness constitutes part of this movie’s message. Stripping away the persistent official silence that still conceals the events of that hellish autumn night in Paris, when a police riot led to a massacre of unarmed Algerian protestors, this dramatization employs the step-by-step procedural structure familiar from The Battle of Algiers and Bloody Sunday, summoning up every bit of the torn-from-the-headlines immediacy of those films. Using primary research and critical narratives from both Parisian police and Algerian immigrant sources, Tasma recreates the tensions that led from outrageous police abductions and murders of North African immigrants to retaliatory firebombing of gendarmeries and spot assassinations of police officers, all with the volatile Algerian independence movement churning in the background. There are few heroes here, with the police side contaminated by active cells of rabid nationalists and a Police Commissioner who gave orders to shoot to kill, while the Algerians endured shakedowns by Arab gangsters and were ordered by their leadership exiled in Germany to join the planned peace march but with no weapons. The ensuing bloodbath, grippingly staged here with brutal gauntlets and dog attacks and stranglings, involves sympathizers and reluctant participants on both sides, but the evidence for this stain on French history has been suppressed no less than Japan’s coverup of its Imperial Army’s atrocities in China and Korea. Tasma shows police seizing film right off a running projector, but there are still eyewitnesses (“I heard the bones breaking,” says one). Today this must-see film speaks to the false dichotomy of terrorists and anti-terrorists, which hides world-class racism and a willful disregard for basic human rights, and becomes only an excuse to wage endless warfare in unwinnable conflicts.
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In comparison to festivals in London, New York, and Toronto, Chicago’s recurrent weak spot continues to be its meager retrospectives. Apart from Devils in the Doorstep, only three films of the past were shown, chosen and presented by local critics, but none from the first half-century of cinema and all available in home screening form. Michael Wilmington of the Chicago Tribune reached deepest into the vault to show Max Ophüls’ opulent 1955 masterpiece Lola Montès, Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times celebrated Errol Morris’s 1978 pet cemetery study Gates of Heaven, and Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader opted for Jia Zhang-ke’s 2000 Chinese censor-tester Platform.
When all was said and done, My Nikifor won the Gold Hugo for Best Film, as well as the Silver Hugo for Best Actor (Roman Gancarczyk), The Death of Mr. Lazarescu took the Special Jury Prize, La Moustache took the FIPRESCI Prize for a New Director, The Boys of Baraka went home with the Gold Hugo for Best Documentary Feature, while The Devil’s Miner received the Silver Hugo in the same category. The Audience Choice Award went to Niki Caro’s drama North Country, about women miners winning the first U.S. sexual harassment case. This year the festival also released a list of the nine runners-up favored by the public:
The Boys of Baraka (US), Border Café (Iran), After Innocence (U.S.), Mrs. Henderson Presents (UK), The Devil’s Miner (U.S.), Transamerica (U.S.), October 17, 1961 (France), Fateless (Hungary), and How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It) (U.S.).