One of the most controversial movies ever presented in the 31-year history of the Toronto International Film Festival took one of its most prestigious awards this weekend as the festival finished showing the last of the 352 films it had programmed for its 2006 edition.
A total of seven prizes -- five with a cash value totalling $75,000, two with no cash value -- were handed out at a luncheon Saturday afternoon to mark the completion of TIFF's 10-day run. Included among the winners was Bella, a small-budget first-time feature from Mexican-born director Alejandro Monteverde, that captured the always much-anticipated People's Choice Award, determined by a vote of regular filmgoers at TIFF.
Bella's win may have been a surprise to festivalgoers who followed the buzz on Hollywood products like the star-studded vehicle All the King's Men, or Ridley Scott's Provence comedy A Good Year. In Toronto, though, as a wise festival watcher observed, every movie has a chance to be recognized (or to dash studio hopes) because almost each one arrives unseen. Indeed, All the King's Men, starring Sean Penn, Jude Law and Kate Winslet, was panned, with Todd McCarthy, a critic for Daily Variety, calling it "overstuffed and fatally miscast." And A Good Year, starring Russell Crowe as a financier who inherits a vineyard in France, didn't match up to the expectations of a powerful director-actor combo.
The hottest debate generated by the winners list was not about the fate of the big budget movies, however, but about the triumph of Death of a President. Directed by the U.K.'s Gabriel Range, the 93-minute feature was awarded the 15th annual Prize of the International Critics (FIPRESCI) by a five-member panel who lauded the film for "the audacity with which it distorts reality to reveal a larger truth." In this instance, Range combines staged and archival footage to explore, in pseudo-documentary fashion, the fall-out from the imagined assassination of U.S. President George W. Bush in 2007.
The film came to TIFF as a world premiere, but had no distribution deal for Canada, the U.S. or Europe (it's to be shown on British TV next month) and was known only by a coy acronym, D.O.A.P., until just before the festival's Sept. 7 start. Thanks to TIFF, Range is heading home with important distribution deals for the North American market, a likely wide release in November and, of course, great dollops of media attention, pro and con.
While TIFF co-director Noah Cowan hailed the film as "breathtakingly original," some critics have labelled it "irresponsible" and "sensationalistic." A White House spokesperson told a Canadian broadcaster last week that he wouldn't "dignify the film with a response."
FIPRESCI general secretary Klaus Eder of Munich said it took only two hours of deliberation for his panel to decide to honour Range for a movie that, he said, "irritated us a lot."
It's "not the political message. Everyone can have a political message. No, it's because of the way it questions our conventions of making and seeing films."
The FIPRESCI prize, given to "an emerging filmmaker" for a movie having its world premiere in Toronto, has no cash value, but its clout and prestige value are enormous. Bella's People's Choice victory over Barbara Kopple's documentary Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing and Patrice Leconte's Mon meilleur ami, about a wealthy man's search for true friendship, should put Monteverde's tale of a day in the life of two New Yorkers on Oscar's radar. Last year's People's Choice topper, South Africa's Tsotsi, won the best foreign film Academy Award in February while the 2004 winner, Hotel Rwanda, earned three Oscar nominations. Other past recipients that have earned Oscar consideration include Chariots of Fire; The Big Chill; American Beauty; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Life is Beautiful and Amelie.
A five-member jury unanimously awarded Noël Mitrani's Sur la trace d'Igor Rizzi (On the Trail of Igor Rizzi) the $15,000 CITY-TV prize for best Canadian first feature film. The same jury gave Toronto documentarian Jennifer Baichwal a $30,000 cheque and a trophy for best Canadian feature for Manufactured Landscapes, her exploration of a recent trip to China by Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky. The award is co-sponsored by the City of Toronto and CITY-TV.
Reg Harkema's Monkey Warfare, starring Don McKellar, was named runner-up. Harkema, a B.C. native, said afterwards: "Gee, I guess I'm not gonna buy that huge hunk of hash [hashish] I was dreaming about," - an echo of director Bruce McDonald's statement that "$25,000 is going to buy me a chunk of hash," when his feature Roadkill took the Toronto-City prize in 1989.
Another Canadian prize, the $10,000 Short Cuts Canada Award for best short, went to Montrealer Maxime Giroux's 23-minute Les Jours.
The $10,000 Diesel Discovery Prize, voted by the festival media corps and given to a first-time or developing director, was awarded to Oslo's Joachim Trier for his feature Reprise. A new honour, the $10,000 Swarovski Cultural Innovation Award, was given by a three-member jury to Istanbul-born director Özer Kiziltan for his debut feature, Takva - A Man's Fear of God.