Toronto festival hails its homegrown hero

5:00 AM PST 09/17/2007 by Etan Vlessing, AP

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One of Canada's finest took the top prize Saturday at the 32nd annual Toronto International Film Festival, where director David Cronenberg's "Eastern Promises" captured the audience award.

The Toronto native reunited with his "A History of Violence" lead Viggo Mortensen to make "Promises," a thriller about a Russian gangster crossing paths with an innocent midwife (Naomi Watts).

Focus Features bowed "Promises" during the weekend on 15 screens in the U.S., and the film grossed a resounding $552,676.

The Toronto victory for Cronenberg, an established filmmaker, contrasts with last year, when first-time director Alejandro Monteverde earned the audience award for his romantic drama "Bella."

Cronenberg, who was not at the awards luncheon — he was in the U.S. promoting "Promises" — beat two American indie movies for the best-liked movie at the festival. The first runner-up was Jason Reitman's "Juno," followed by "Body of War," a documentary about an Iraq War veteran turned social activist from co-directors Phil Donahue and Ellen Spiro.

The audience appeal for the Donahue and Spiro docu capped off strong political debate in Toronto this year as a number of war-themed movies generated buzz, including Roger Spottiswoode's Rwandan drama "Shake Hands With the Devil," Dutch filmmaker Klaartje Quirijns' "The Dictator Hunter," Sean Penn's "Into the Wild" and Gavin Hood's "Rendition."

Other juried prizes handed out Saturday included the Discovery Award going to "Cochochi," from Latin American directors Israel Cardenas and Laura Amelia Guzman, and the FIPRESCI critics prize, which went to Rodrigo Pla's "La Zona," which bowed here.

Homegrown movies coming away with trophies included Quebec director Stephane LaFleur taking the best Canadian first feature prize for "Continental, a Film Without Guns" and Guy Maddin earning the best Canadian feature film award for "My Winnipeg," a docu-fantasy about his hometown.

After receiving his trophy, Maddin praised Toronto as an impressive testing ground for indie films.

"Not that anything is proved with an award, as I assert by all the years I came here and lost to others," he said, "but (Toronto) feels like a great festival that's starting to kick into cruise control."

Elsewhere, Chris Chong Chan Fui won the best Canadian short film prize for "Pool," and Anahi Berneri won the Artistic Innovation Award for "Encarnacion," a film about an aging B-list actress returning to her hometown.

Festival co-director Noah Cowan rejected grumblings that too few indie films with commercial potential came to Toronto without U.S. distribution deals in hand and that the market activity this year was subdued.

"We're a festival, choosing films on artistic merit," Cowan said, before arguing that Toronto has no control over the "vagaries of the market" dictating the pace of film buying and selling.

Giulia Filippelli, head of the festival's sales and industry office, criticized the media for judging Toronto's market by the number of big-ticket sales and frenzied bidding wars.

"The press should learn how acquisitions work. Serious buyers are tracking down what's for sale well before the festival," she said.

Filippelli said buyers then wait until the festival starts to judge audience reaction and whether to put in bids.

"It's way more important if a smaller indie movie is sold in 20 territories, rather than 'Thank You for Smoking' selling for $6 million," she added, recalling Reitman's debut feature generating a memorable bidding war in 2005.

In all, 354 films unspooled in Toronto during the past 10 days on 28 screens in the city's downtown core.

Filippelli said the number of industry execs attending Toronto this year rose 15% to about 3,200 delegates, underlining the strength of the festival.

Toronto concluded Saturday night with a gala screening of Canadian filmmaker Paolo Barzman's "Emotional Arithmetic," followed by the traditional closing-night party.
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