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by Wolf Schneider

The Zookeeper, a wartime drama set in a Balkan city under siege, won the top prize at the 2002 Taos Talking Picture Festival--the Land Grant Award, which consists of five acres of land atop rugged Taos Mesa in northern New Mexico. The European production directed by Ralph Ziman stars Sam Neill as the custodian of a small zoo who refuses to leave his post as his city is evacuated during civil war.

Former Land Grant winner Chris Eyre wended his way back along the Rio Grande River to this mountain hamlet with his new film Skins, which drew a beyond-sold-out crowd that crouched in the aisles to see his redemptive drama of two brothers on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation--a police lieutenant (a strong performance by a matured Eric Schweig, virtually unrecognizable as the sensitive young brave from The Last of the Mohicans) and a ravaged alcoholic (Graham Greene). "It's damn funny and it's damn real," commented Wes Studi--who isn't in the film, but stars in Eyre's upcoming TV movie Skinwalkers--of such wry dialogue as, "Showing off is not a Lakota virtue." The first film to shoot on the Pine Ridge Reservation, the $2.5 million production will inevitably be compared to the more Hollywood-ized Thunderheart, which also told of events on that reservation, as well as to Eyre's breakthrough Smoke Signals.

While the fest, which took place April 11-14, 2002, is primarily known for its media consciousness and thought-provoking films, Hollywood star power was evident too, with Julia Roberts (a sometimes-local) presenting the fest's Maverick Award to Susan Sarandon." This is a time of a lot of pain and hatred and fear out there, and I hope that among us we can find people who will proceed with whatever it takes to heal," said Sarandon, advocating "justice without revenge"-a remark that the crowd embraced.

Although acquisitions folks were scarce, Danny Schecter's documentary Counting on Democracy was spontaneously acquired for public television by one buyer during the Q&A that followed its screening.

Also garnering strong buzz were The Slaughter Rule (with a standout performance by David Morse, playing a Montana football coach, that one industry exec deemed Oscar-worthy), Home Room, Devil's Playground, The Shaman's Apprentice, Made-Up, and Rare Birds.

A media forum called The Talking Couch, in which Eyre and Native comedian Drew Lacapa mocked clips of Native-themed Hollywood films, gave a packed crowd some inside perspective on the ironies of Native humor. The footage from Dances With Wolves drew such inside quips from the duo as "Oh, Mister Casino" (of Kevin Costner) and "That great Native-American Irish music" (of its soundtrack), while John Wayne ("It's George W. Bush") took a dunking along with John Ford.

Disney sneak previewed Moonlight Mile (previously titled Goodbye Hello) to good response, eliciting comparisons to In The Bedroom but with a more upbeat ending.

Last year, a late spring snowstorm pelted this Western-vibed mountain town during the April festival, but this year the eighth Taos Talking Picture Festival was held in warm golden light under sapphire skies as Goldie Hawn, John Sayles and Maggie Renzi, Bruno Barreto, Haskell Wexler, and Erika Christensen mingled with artists and cowboys at this convivial gathering that uses its secluded, bohemian setting for creative re-charging. In all, 8,400 attendees came to see 135 films, videos and shorts from 25 countries, culled down from about 1,700 submissions.

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