We Live in Public, a sort of cautionary story about the Web's impact on our lives, grabbed one of the Sundance Film Festival's top honors Saturday, the Grand Jury Prize for documentary films.
The film was directed by Ondi Timoner, who gave CNET an inside look last week at the life of a filmmaker about to screen her work to an audience for the very first time. It covers a tumultuous decade in the life of Josh Harris, whom Timoner refers to as "the greatest Internet pioneer you've never heard of."
During the 1990s dot-com boom, Harris created the first Internet television network, Pseudo.com, and then an underground bunker in Manhattan where 100 people lived together on camera for 30 days before getting shut down as a millennial cult by authorities on New Year's Day 2000.
Harris' next experiment, which led him to a mental breakdown, was a six-month stint living with his girlfriend under 24-hour live surveillance online.
Timoner, who also won the Grand Jury prize for her 2004 rock 'n' roll documentary, Dig!, had been hired by Harris to film the underground bunker project, called Quiet. She continued to follow him over the years, as she was drawn by his character, even if she didn't quite understand his message.
It wasn't until spring 2006, when she started noticing people walking around, oblivious to the world typing into their BlackBerrys, or posting their every thought and move on social-networking status feeds, that Timoner realized that Harris was a true visionary.
Harris, for his part, said he doesn't plan to watch the film but that he is supportive of Timoner's mission. He was by her side for much of the festival.
There is no word yet on a distributor for the film, which skillfully culls more than 5,000 hours of footage, taking viewers on a crazy journey that leaves them with a lot to think about. Timoner has said she's contemplating handling the distribution herself via the Web so she doesn't have to give up creative rights.
Another top festival honor, the Grand Jury Prize for U.S. dramatic films, went to Push: Based on the novel by Sapphire, which was directed by Lee Daniels and blew audiences away with its dark storyline and surprising performances. (It also received the Audience Award for U.S. dramatic films.)
Push tells the redemptive story of Precious Jones, a young, overweight, awkward teen in Harlem who somehow musters the strength, despite all odds against her, to discover her own voice. The film is intense, hard to watch, and sticks with you. It has not yet been picked up for distribution.
Never to be forgotten is a performance by Mo'Nique, who got a special jury prize for her for her portrayal of Precious' mentally ill mother, who copes by mentally and emotionally abusing her daughter. The first audience question following Push's first screening last week was directed toward Mo'Nique: "What are you planning on wearing to the Oscars?"
Another impressive performance in the film was that of Mariah Carey, who plays a very plain and conflicted social worker.
The Audience Award for a U.S. documentary went to the buzz-generating The Cove, which this reporter was unable to see due to scheduling conflicts.
One of many environmentally themed documentaries at the festival, The Cove is about the peril of dolphins in a secret cove nestled off a small coastal village in Japan. Its main character is Rick O'Barry, the dolphin trainer from the TV series Flipper. O'Barry leads a group of activists who reveal--using an array of covert cameras--the plight of the creatures after they are captured by the world's largest dolphin supplier.
Here are a few other noteworthy Sundance awards: The World Cinema Jury prize for documentaries went to Rough Aunties, about women protecting and caring for the abused, neglected, and forgotten children of Durban, South Africa; the World Cinema Jury prize for dramatic films went to The Maid (La Nana), about a bitter and introverted maid who wreaks havoc on a Chilean household; the World Cinema Audience Award for documentaries went to Afghan Star, which is about the popularity of the Pop Idol TV show in Afghanistan and follows the stories of four contestants who risk their lives to sing; the World Cinema Audience Award for dramatic films went to An Education, in which a 16-year-old with sights set on Oxford University meets a handsome older man whose sophistication enraptures and sidetracks both her and her parents.