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Israeli cinema chalked up an impressive achievement in Park City, Utah, yesterday when two of its representatives won prizes at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival: "Sweet Mud," directed by Dror Shaul, was the first Israeli film ever to win a grand jury prize for a feature film, and "Hot House," directed by Shimon Dotan, was the first Israeli film to win a special jury prize in the documentary film competition.

The Sundance festival, which is intended mostly for independent films, has four categories: documentaries, feature films, international documentaries and international feature films. The Israeli films won prizes for non-American productions in the latter two categories.

"This is exciting and unprecedented. We didn't expect this at all," said Shaul yesterday, two hours after the awards ceremony. "This is a very tough festival, excellent films were shown here and we came here without expectations. Our main aim was to sell the film."

Shaul developed the screenplay for "Sweet Mud," which tells a boy's coming-of-age story on a kibbutz in the 1970s, at Sundance's 2003 screenplay workshop. He says the prize can help sell and distribute the film internationally. "But our real prize was on Saturday, the day before the closing ceremony, when we came to the festival's fourth or fifth screening of the film, which was intended for the general public," he relates. "We had planned to pass through the hall to check that everything was okay and to have coffee, and suddenly we were astonished to see that the 450-seat hall was bursting at the seams, full of Americans who had come to see the film, and the reactions were excellent. It's heartwarming to see something you made in Hebrew, in a different culture, also works so well with the audience here. As far as I'm concerned, that was the real prize."

Dotan, the director of "Hot House," says he also was surprised when his film won a special jury prize. "It was nice and surprising," he says. "This is a very important festival that attracts the best films from all over the world. I saw some of the films that were screened here, and they were wonderful. The fact that in a group like that they recognize our film as good is very nice."

"Hot House" follows Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons before the February 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections, in which Hamas came into power. In his film, Dotan examines the prisoners' political positions, documents the Palestinian leadership developing among them, airs chilling confessions by people who planned and implemented terror attacks, and reflects the deepening schism between Fatah and Hamas.

According to Dotan, thus far "Hot House" has earned positive reviews in the European press, but winning the prize at Sundance is now transforming it into an "international event." However, he notes that he is still very tense and is attributing this to the planned screening of the film on Israeli television next Sunday (9:45 P.M. on Channel 1).

"This is a film about a very sensitive subject, and the way my colleagues and friends react to it interests me greatly," he explains. "When I was making the film, I was curious about how the Israeli audience would react. What is happening with it abroad is important to me professionally, of course, but it is of secondary importance emotionally."

Both of the winning films are co-productions. "Sweet Mud" was funded by the Israeli Film Foundation, Keshet Broadcasting, Yes and Kolnoa Hashkaot as well as investors from Germany and Japan. "Hot House" was funded by the New Fund for Film and television, the Marc Rich Foundation, the French Arte channel and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

"The fact that the festival has awarded two prizes to Israeli films is a great thing," Shaul says. "In my opinion, this is a statement. Maybe this is a sign that in Israel nowadays we are doing deeper and more courageous things. I hope that Joseph Cedar will make a big splash with 'Beaufort' (the film will compete in the Berlin festival that begins February 8 - N.A.) and that all of this will boost Israeli films that are now in the pipeline and help them become co-productions."

Other films that won key prizes this year are "Manda Bala" ("Send a Bullet"), directed by Jason Kohn, which documents corruption in Brazil through the eyes of the wealthy and won the documentary film competition; "Padre Nuestro," directed by Christopher Zalla, which tells the story of an adolescent boy's journey from Mexico to Brooklyn to follow his lost father and won the feature film competition; and the film "Enemies of Happiness," directed by Eva Mulvad, which follows the first Afghani woman to enter parliament, Malalai Joya, and won the international documentary film competition.