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PARK CITY, UTAH (Reuters) - Two films about people working to triumph over personal tragedy took the top prizes at the Sundance Film Festival on Saturday night as the key event for U.S. independent movies honored a new generation of stars.
"Frozen River," written and directed by Courtney Hunt, won the Grand Jury Prize for best film drama, and "Trouble the Water," from directors Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, was named best documentary among the entries in Sundance's U.S. competition.
Hunt's movie, "Frozen River," captivated the five-member jury that included director Quentin Tarantino and actress Marcia Gay Harden, with a tale of two women overcoming hardship and embarking on a scheme to smuggle illegal immigrants into the United States in order to better their own lives.
Tarantino said the film "took his breath away." It was "one of the most exciting thrillers I am going to see this year."
"Trouble the Water" was judged the best U.S. documentary by a five-member jury for its tale of New Orleans residents uprooted from their homes in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
"We couldn't have predicted the despair and outrage we felt" in making the movie, said Lessin. But she added "out of that, emerged a story that is all about survival and hope."
The Sundance Film festival, which is backed by Robert Redford's Sundance Institute for Filmmaking, is the top event for moviemakers working outside Hollywood's major studios, and its winners vault into top ranks of U.S. independent cinema.
One theme festival organizers have touted this year is the emergence of a new generation of filmmakers -- writers and directors born after the U.S. baby boom years -- who are now finding their own voices and offering stories to moviegoers.
"I'm struck by the profound sense of significance and emergence of these independent filmmakers," said festival director Geoffrey Gilmore. "This is a class of filmmakers we will remember years from now."
Along with the jury prizes, festival-goers also get to vote for their favorite films, and this year's Audience Award for best film drama went to drama "The Wackness," one of the highly touted films coming into Sundance 2008.
"Wackness" tells of one summer in the life of a teenage dope dealer and his psychiatrist, who also happens to be one of the teen's best marijuana clients. That friendship helps the teen come to a better understanding of his world.
Over the 10-day festival's opening weekend, "Wackness" director Jonathan Levine was one of the new generation of directors Gilmore singled out. He accepted his award thanking the movie fans who came out in droves to see his movie.
"I guess that is what this is about, making a relationship with the audience and not necessarily a (Hollywood) studio or an agent," Levine said.
The Audience Award for best U.S. documentary was claimed by environmental film, "Fields of Fuel," which follows director Josh Tickell's research and personal use of alternative fuels.
Sundance also is a key venue for international moviemakers, and in the festival's world cinema competition, "Man on Wire," from British director James Marsh, proved to be a big winner with both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award for best documentary. "Man on Wire" tells of Frenchman Philippe Petit's tightwire crossing of New York City's Twin Towers in 1974.
Sweden's "King of Ping Pong," a tale of a 16-year-old who is ostracized by his schoolmates and finds refuge in the game of ping pong, was picked best film drama by the world jury.
The Audience Award for world cinema drama went to Jordan's "Captain Abu Raed," telling of an airport janitor who delights children with fictional tales of his fantasy life as a pilot.
"With movies like this we can actually make the world a better place, I hope," said director Amin Matalqa.
Editing by Eric Walsh