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2018 Sundance Film Festival

Global Reach: Dramatic Jury Winner Christopher Zalla

Christopher Zalla, the writer/director of this year’s Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic PADRE NUESTRO [] is an American independent filmmaker with a global perspective. His film, a neo-realist primarily Spanish-language thriller in which a case of identity theft awkwardly brings together a mismatched quartet of outsiders in New York, highlights the immigrant populations that make up New York with an empathy that makes them feel completely American.

For Zalla, the film begin on 9/11: “I was living downtown and woke up to people running by my window. Then I saw the buildings on fire.” Zalla smuggled himself onto Ground Zero, where he worked shoulder to shoulder with volunteers digging for survivors. At the time, Zalla was in his second year of his MFA program at Columbia Film School developing a project on a feuding families in Appalachia. “Everything felt so riduculous, so superfluous,” remembers Zalla, “that I need to make a film about the city.”

Rather than transpose his feelings about 9/11 literally into a dramatic story, Zalla started with a single, strange image. “My feelings attached themselves to this image of a man sitting with a pile of money,” he remembers. The man turned into the father in his film, a man who had come from Mexico some 20 years ago, saving everything and spending nothing, so that in his miserable hovel he had stored away a tidy sum of money. The next part of the story came in the shape of two younger men: one being the old man’s son traveling to New York to meet for the first time the father he had dreamed about; the other man, a stranger who steals the son’s identity, first for the money, and then for the promise of a family that he has also never had. For Zalla, the connection to and desire for family was a key part of his experience of 9/11. “From this horror came this outpouring of sympathy so that everyone became a family,” recounts Zalla.

While Zalla has always been connected to his family, he has also found home in many different places. Born in Kenya and raised in over 21 countries by the time he was 18, Zalla developed a keen sense of connection to people all over the world.

Before turning to film, Zalla had started several careers. As part of his family’s tradition, he had learned to do rough carpentry by the age of 14, and was working as a commercial salmon fisherman in Alaska during college. But at Oberlin college, he fell in love with film. “During my third year I was seeing all of the great European films — all of Bergman [] and Fellini [] films like 8 1/2 [] and NIGHTS OF CABIRIA []. I love the playfulness of those films, while dealing with what morality is.” It was the work of the Italian neo-realists, like de Sica’s [] THE BICYCLE THIEF [], that serve as aesthetic inspiration for PADRE NUESTRO

After college, Zalla moved to New York, working in film production both on set and in the back office, before finally deciding that he needed to go to film school. And it was there at Columbia University, that he experienced 9/11 and found the inspiration for his award-winning first feature.

Peter Bowen

Senior Editor, Filmmaker Magazine