Every spring, since 2003, the Tribeca Film Festival has brought fresh, international narrative films and documentaries to its audience of mainly hip, college-educated viewers. Established by actors Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal, this renowned festival’s mission is to help unknown filmmakers expand their viewership, while giving film-goers the opportunity to see new, independent films.

This year’s Tribeca Film Festival took its mission to a new level with online features: beyond awarding filmmakers with cash prizes and awards, Tribeca’s innovative third annual Online Festival effectively launched unknown films into viral stardom with free streaming of feature films and online voting (with extra features like unlocking the 10-minute short, Damned by Richard Phelan, when you hit Shift and X).

“As part of what Tribeca tries to do, we try to innovate,” said Geoffrey Gilmore, Chief Creative Director of the Tribeca Film Festival at the 2012 TFF Awards Show on Thursday.

Gilmore notably kicked off the evening (streaming live for an international audience) with the presentation of the Online Awards, spotlighting the newest addition to the festival this year where viewers could vote for their favorite Feature and Short Film. The winners were On the Mat by Fredric Golding, a documentary about a high school wrestling team, and CatCam by Seth Keal, starring an obsessively inventive cat owner who develops a camera to see into the life of his cat.

“It’s been so gratifying to see the audiences react so positively to the films, and our juries have been equally passionate,” said Nancy Schafer, Tribeca Film Festival’s Executive Director. “I celebrate these immensely talented filmmakers.”

One such talented filmmaker, Lucy Mulloy, seemed to be the juries’ favorite, taking home three awards for her film, Una Noche, a coming-of-age story about two restless Cuban teens. Fed up with catering to rich tourists while they live in poverty, the two young people begin devising a plan to leave Havana for Miami. The film won Best Cinematography, Best Actor, and Best New Narrative Director.

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“Lucy Mulloyʼs Una Noche rang the bell inside all of our little director hearts,” said actress Leelee Sobieski upon presenting the award to Mulloy for Best New Narrative Director. “We simply thought the film was awesome, and it only grew in our esteem as we spoke of it after. It is a film that immediately connects any audience member it can find to the undeniable, hopeful, and naive intentions of the young.”

“So, Lucy, we would like you to accept the 2012 Best New Narrative Director award, and please consider us for your next picture,” Sobieski added.

Like 15-year-old Congolese Rachel Mwanza (who won Best Actress for her stunning role in Kim Nguyen’s War Witch as an abducted child in the Democratic Republic of Congo forced to become a child soldier), both of the lead actors of Una Noche, Dariel Arrechaga and Javier Nuñez Florian, were untrained and local to the film’s setting.

(“Basically, they’re both really hot,” summed up American actress Patricia Clarkson before presenting Best Actor to Arrechaga and Florian.)

“The amazing first-time performances by young actors are a tribute to the creativity of the films and filmmakers,” said Frederic Boyer, Tribeca Film Festival’s Artistic Director.

Bryan Buckley’s Asad, winner of Best Narrative Short, also featured an untrained cast of actors from a Somali refugee camp.

“We got into something with passion, a world that we discovered when we were working for the UN in Kenya,” Buckley explained. “By happenstance, we ended up interviewing Somali refugees.”

Other awarded films included The Flat by Arnon Goldfinger for Best Editing in a Documentary, Wavumba by Jeroen van Velzen for Best New Documentary, Paraíso by Nadav Kurtz for Best Documentary Short, and Stitches by Adiya Imri for the Student Visionary Award.

“We salute the courage of the jury to award films that not only tell stories about real issues in the world, but are beautifully constructed and crafted,” Boyer said.

But despite the serious tones of the films, the hour-long, live awards ceremony also had its fair share of comic moments, including an awkward acceptance speech from the winners of Best Screenwriters, Sergio Dubcovsky and Daniel Burman of All In, via Skype; presenter Susan Sarandon reading the words “applause” and “enter” off of her script; and director Nisha Pahuja accepting her award for Best Documentary Feature and saying, “I was watching the other people who came on and they were kind of flubbing, and now I’m like, I get it!”

Much like the Academy Awards, the final Best Narrative Feature was perhaps the most anxiously awaited. Jane Rosenthal and a somber-looking Robert De Niro themselves took the stage to end the evening, presenting the award to War Witch.

“This indelible character study of a girl who becomes a woman before our eyes in the midst of harrowing war gives words to the unspeakable,” De Niro said. “Riveting, heartbreaking, vivid, and eloquent, the movie balances scenes of crazy enemy hatred with moments of luminous private love.”

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Taking the stage for the second time in a row (after accepting Best Actress for Mwanza, who couldn’t get a U.S. visa to attend the ceremony), Nyugen calmly thanked his team members and spoke of the real emotion that went into the film’s creation.

“I just have vivid memories of this endeavor — real poetic moments off and on the camera,” Nyugen said.

Though few of the many films featured in this year’s festival were actually awarded, none of the films could be considered “losers” with the hype surrounding every project. Next year is sure to continue Tribeca Film Festival’s success both with finding extraordinary new talent and using online tools as part of its overall mission, giving viewers outside of the New York area the chance to view some incredible new films.

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