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Traverse City Film Festival names top honors

TRAVERSE CITY, MI — A multi-layered story about Dearborn’s Fordson High School football team, and a film that holds up a mirror to show the human side of researchers exploring whether a chimpanzee could be taught sign language earned top documentary film honors at the Traverse City Film Festival, held July 26-31.

University of Michigan faculty members from the screen arts and cultures department served as panelists, moderators and jurors at the 7th-annual film festival, which featured more than 150 films and attracted more than 100,000 visitors to the picturesque northern Michigan venue. Film categories included U.S. documentary, world documentary, world fiction, U.S. fiction and short film.

“Fordson: Faith, Fasting, Football” received top honor for best U.S. documentary. The film follows the Dearborn high school football team – largely consisting of Muslim players – during the last 10 days of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan as they prepare for the season’s biggest game against their archrivals at Dearborn High School. During Ramadan, the student-athletes practiced while not eating or drinking from sun up to sundown. Ostensibly, a story about a football team, the documentary reported by ESPN high school sports expert Rashid Ghazi, follows the stories of an Arab-American community struggling to gain acceptance post 9/11.

Philip Hallman, senior associate librarian at U-M’s screen arts and culture department, served as juror for the U.S. documentary along with Denise Kasell of Coolidge Corner Theatre in Boston and the Art House Convergence, and Russ Collins, executive director of the Michigan Theatre in downtown Ann Arbor,  a popular venue for U-M film showings and lectures. The jurors viewed 19 films in the U.S. documentary category during the festival.

“The film has special relevance for Michigan,” said Collins. “Two of us on the jury are from Michigan and we thought we might be too close to the subject, but the third juror loved the film – and doesn’t know anything about football.”

A documentary starring a chimpanzee named “Nim” looked at how a Columbia University researcher aimed to prove that if the chimp was raised as a child, it could be taught to communicate through sign language. After following Nim’s several ill-suited handlers, the film turns its focus on the human behavior of the researchers and handlers. “Project Nim” won the festival’s top world documentary honor.

“The film does a very good job of constructing a narrative about the chimp’s life,” said Colin Gunckel, a juror in the world documentary category and U-M assistant professor of screen arts and culture. “The structure was particularly compelling, and there’s a lot of emotional resonance.”

U-M faculty members also served as jurors in the short film category.

For a complete listing of the Traverse City Film Festival winners, please visit: