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By Wolf Schneider

The Sisters, director Arthur Allan Seidelman’s contemporary update of Anton Chekhov’s play The Three Sisters, scooped up the Independent Spirit Award at the 6th annual Santa Fe Film Festival and proved the most in-demand film with distributors. Director Seidelman emphasized the importance of the film-festival circuit for films such as his, then promptly flew out of town while fielding bids from as many as 10 different distributors, according to festival executive director Jon Bowman. The Sisters stars Maria Bello and Erika Christensen in the heavily dramatic story of three sisters, their brother, and a fiancé.

Winning the Audience Award was Four Lane Highway, another drama, this one about four friends struggling with directionless lives, written and directed by Dylan McCormick.

Three films with distribution already in place built word-of-mouth buzz for Oscar season: Tommy Lee Jones’s The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Roger Donaldson’s The World’s Fastest Indian, and Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (which has been picking up Critics Awards left and right along with seven Golden Globe nominations). Brokeback screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana revealed they optioned Annie Proulx’s short story within a week of reading it in The New Yorker, had a script done three months later, then it took seven years to get the controversial picture made, with directors Gus Van Zant and Joel Schumacher attached to it before Lee. Closing night film The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, with its Cormac McCarthy-esque themes of friendship and social justice, was the standout of the festival--and possibly of 2005.

The Santa Fe Film Festival, which took place from December 8-11, 2005, showcased 220 films, including 60 features. Documentaries comprised a significant 40 percent of the program. Ticket sales were about 18,000, with 6,500 attendees, slightly down from the previous year. There were more than 1,000 submissions, slightly up.

A handful of documentaries gained momentum at the festival, most notably Shakespeare Behind Bars, a film of redemption focusing on inmates of a medium-security prison who mount a Shakespeare play, which will be distributed theatrically by International Film Circuit in March 2006 and on DVD by Shout! Factory, according to producer Jilann Spitzmiller; High Ambitions in the Himalaya, about a mountain-climbing expedition, which is fielding an offer from Santa Fe-based Zia Film Distribution; and documentary Dirt, about a season of dirt-car racing at the Devil’s Bowl Speedway in Mesquite, Texas, which, according to director-producer Jeff Bowden, has attracted interest from HBO/Cinemax, Spike TV, CS Associates from Boston, and NASCAR.

Industry attendees included Joe Matukewicz of Paramount Classics, Kent Cubena from 2929 Productions, Dylan Wilcox from Focus Features, and Richard Brandt, longtime chairman of Trans-Lux Theatres.

The festival dawned with frigid three-degree temperatures, but the visiting filmmakers weren’t daunted. Screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson of Paris, Texas fame, who was tributed with a lifetime achievement award, observed, ?It?s a very moving film festival. This is a moving place, Santa Fe, it feels like it?s open to the spirit. That doesn?t happen at every film festival.?

According to festival executive director Bowman, “There were overall more documentaries this year, and a number of documentaries with a comic edge, and more romantic comedies in the program.” Bowman revealed a deal with the soon-to-debut Documentary Channel to air four to six documentaries from the SFFF slate.

Other winners and categories included The Syrian Bride, Best of the Fest; Cowboy Del Amor, Best Documentary; The Hunter, Best Indigenous Film; English as a Second Language, Best Latino Film; Self Medicated, Best Southwest Film; and Fall to Grace, Best Screenplay.

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