Sundance Film FestivalAny documentary filmmaker will tell you that getting a film into Sundance is a Herculean achievement in itself, but some also come away with an award. The prizes are more akin to a feather in one’s cap, secondary to the real prize most are hoping for at the festival — a sweet distribution deal — but no one’s going to knock it. Awards give credit to filmmakers who’ve toiled for years behind a camera or in an editing bay, so let em’ have it!

They certainly do so in spades at Sundance, doling out no less than thirteen documentary prizes, as it did over this weekend, which marked the end of the 2012 film festival. The U.S. jury — Fenton Bailey (Inside Deep Throat), Heather Croall (Sheffield Doc/Fest), Charles Ferguson (Inside Job), Tia Lessin (Trouble the Water, Michael Moore films) and Kim Roberts (Editor on Food, Inc., Waiting for Superman) — and World Cinema jury — Nick Fraser (“Storyville”), Clara Kim (Walker Art Center), and Jean-Marie Teno (Sacred Places, Clando) — were typically A-list, so there must also be a large measure of personal pride in being recognized by one’s esteemed peers.

The winner of the top award, the Grand Jury Prize, went to The House I Live In, directed by Eugene Jarecki, who won the same honor for his Why We Fight in 2005. Jarecki’s latest is a personal look into the war on drugs.

The U.S. Audience Award was won by Kirby Dick’s The Invisible War, a film about the epidemic of rape in the military. Both films deal with subjects that don’t necessarily ring 2012 — they each could have been made two decades ago, and for that reason, they deserve all the more attention because they address issues that have been festering in our society for too long.

In the World category, the top prizes went to The Law in These Parts, directed by Ra’anan Alexandrowicz, which won the Grand Jury, and Searching for Sugar Man, which nabbed the Audience Award. The Law in These Parts is about the legal system in occupied Palestinian territories — not exactly a subject that will put a lot of butts into theater seats, so the films needs all the publicity it can get. On the other hand, Sugar Man, about a 70s rock icon, won the same popularity contest as last year’s Senna, which did very well at the box office, so that’s a good sign.

In terms of prestige, the next best award is the Directing nod, and Lauren Greenfield won her first, for The Queen of Versailles, about a real estate empire under pressure during the recession. Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi won the directing prize in the World category, for 5 Broken Frames. Burnat, a Palestinian farmer-turned-filmmaker, who documents the conflict in his hometown, won over crowds with his humble acceptance speech.

Technical awards in documentary filmmaking are a delight to see. The importance of great editing and cinematography ought to be honored in documentaries. (Academy Award committee, take notice!) Those prizes went as follows: In the U.S. category, Chasing Ice’s Jeff Orlowski won Excellence in Cinematography while Enat Sidi won the Editing Award for Detropia. In the World section, Lars Skree won for cinematography for Putin’s Kiss and Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky won for editing Indie Game: The Movie.

And, in a sign to the world that this is not your grandpa’s film festival, organizers awarded some funky prizes, including a U.S. Special Jury Prize for Grace Under Pressure, to Macky Alston, for Love Free or Die. Malik Bendjelloul won the Celebration of the Artistic Sprit award for Searching for Sugar Man. And Alison Klayman won the Special Jury Prize for Spirit of Defiance for her Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.

Appropriately enough, considering the award, during her accepting speech, Klayman asked the audience to extend their middle fingers at her while she took a photo, a very Weiwei thing to do, which she planned to send to the Chinese dissident artist, who lives in Beijing.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen