EYES ON THE PRIZES
THE MOVIES HAVE CANNES, TELEVISION HAS BANFF-AN ANNUAL SPRING FESTIVAL HONORING THE BEST SHOWS AROUND THE WORLD. HERE'S A LOOK AT SOME OF THIS YEAR'S WINNERS
If there’s one television mini-series this year I’d recommend without reservation, it’s The Boys of St. Vincent, a startling, exceptionally well- acted new TV movie about the sexual and physical abuse of young boys by priests in a Canadian Catholic school for orphans. St. Vincent, a film inspired by a real-life scandal, doesn’t exploit its explosive subject or prey upon any feelings of homophobia. Too bad you’ll probably never see this powerful chunk of television in the U.S., where its sex, violence, and religious themes would undoubtedly inspire vehement protests and make it virtually impossible to broadcast. The only reason I saw St. Vincent was that I recently spent two weeks in Alberta as the American judge for the 14th annual Banff Television Festival, a gathering that awards prizes to the best TV programming throughout the world. Last year, the Banff Festival’s Grand Prize went to the British thriller Prime Suspect, seen here on PBS; this year, The Boys of St. Vincent took that award, which was given on June 7. A couple of other prizewinners may surprise American television-watchers. The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, low rated and recently canceled by ABC, won a Banff award in the Best Continuing Series category. Most of my six fellow jurors, who came from the United Kingdom, Denmark, Can-ada, France, Japan, and the Czech Republic, loved the way George Lucas’ show mixed ripping yarns with real-life history. Bonds of Love, a TV movie starring Treat Williams as a mentally handicapped – young man, aired in the U.S. on CBS earlier this year to mild praise and middling ratings, but it took the Banff prize for Best Made-for-TV Movie. And a British documentary about a veteran American performing duo-We Sing and We Dance: The Nicholas Brothers-was the Arts Documentary winner. The jury had to choose from 136 semifinalists, which meant that every day we started watching television at 9 a.m. and didn’t finish up until 8, 9, or 10 p.m. These deliberations, and the festival itself, are held in the town of Banff, in the Canadian Rockies, but most of the time, we only saw the snowcapped mountains from a hotel-room window. In that sense, it was no vacation, but in another way, it was: For a little while, I escaped most of the predictable fare of American TV programming and saw what the rest of the world watches. Two generalizations emerged while we screened the finalists and divvied up awards in 10 categories. American entertainment shows-sitcoms and hour-long dramas-are the best-made, most sophisticated stuff in the medium, but nearly everything else we do pales in comparison with its foreign counterparts. Television outside the U.S. may lack some of our polish and technology, but other countries seem able to assume more knowledge of history on the part of their viewers (dramas and documentaries about earlier centuries are common and downright popular). You don’t realize how much U.S. television is weakened by its obsessions with ratings, advertising, and pressure groups until you watch foreign productions that are free to take up obscure, downbeat, or controversial subjects. And so while I didn’t see a single show that made me laugh harder than I do every week at Seinfeld or Roseanne, nowhere on the recent American television landscape has there been a news documentary as informative as France’s Shackled Children, a shocking report on the brutal use of kids worldwide as cheap labor, which won the Best Social & Political Documentary award. Then too, America airs tons of nature documentaries, but none I’ve seen is as unusual or suspenseful as Harvesters of Honey, a Japanese-made look at a small group of villagers in the Himalayan mountains who risk death to climb sheer mountains in pursuit of the ”golden nests” of the Himalayan honeybee. And in the important area of children’s programming, the U.S. often opts for glitzy lectures (a prime example among the finalists: the overrated Beakman’s World) while the rest of the world tells its young people vivid stories free of sanctimonious lessons. The winner here was The Little Sparrow, a poignant German movie about a girl’s effort to raise an abandoned baby bird. (Alas, my own favorite in this category-a sweet puppet show from Holland called The Little Rabbit of the Dunes, whose pretty yet darkly existential theme song includes the line ”The world is a dangerous place”-failed to win over my colleagues. ”I like my little rabbit with onions and carrots,” said juror Robert Villeneuve, a French television programmer. They’re tough, over there in Jerry Lewis-land.) But, bottom line, now: Which bit of TV fare was most popular with the jury? Maybe it was the excessive work-load, maybe it was something in the Canadian water, but the entry that was rescreened most frequently was a good ol’ made- in-the-USA effort you’ve probably caught between Aerosmith and Arrested Development videos on MTV. Joe’s Apartment, a three-minute film about one man’s relationship with thousands of cockroaches, reduced most of the jury to hapless giggles and won the Best Comedy award. Next time your mom says to turn off that MTV noise, tell her you’re watching an international award winner.