Toronto 2012: Films Casting Untested Child Actors Seize Festival Spotlight from Hollywood

Young newbies cast in lead roles are stealing the show at TIFF and winning critical attention for "Satellite Boy," "Inch'Allah" and "When I Saw You."

TORONTO -- Cue the loud applause and cries of "Bravo!"

The most unlikely candidates for dream debuts at the Toronto International Film Festival this week are unknown and inexperienced child actors from the other side of the globe.

Take first-time actor Cameron Wallaby, the 11-year-old the lead in Australian director Catriona McKenzie’s Satellite Boy, which had its world premiere Saturday at TIFF.

McKenzie knew she wouldn't find aboriginal boys for lead roles in her Australian outback drama through a casting agency -- she would have look far and wide to spot and sign them.

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So she and casting director Jub Clerc completed a nationwide search for two young leads: 10-year-old Pete, with Wallaby eventually cast in the role, and his friend Kalmain, played by Joseph Pedley.

“It's exciting to see different actors and be in a big city,” was how young Wallaby reacted this week to flying halfway around the world from his hometown of Kimberley for Saturday’s red carpet launch for Satellite Boy in Toronto.

McKenzie knows there are risks in casting newbies for lead roles.

“Without the main actor being right, the whole film will fall apart,” she conceded.

In the end, McKenzie pulled from Wallaby a breakthrough performance, fueled by raw emotion and an impish charm.

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“Cameron smiles and the whole world lights up, but he also has a real emotional intelligence,” she said.

Palestinian filmmaker Anniemarie Jacir also discovered a first-time actor on the streets of Jordan for a lead in When I Saw You, the follow-up to her prize-winning debut film Salt of the Sea.

She visited community centers, schools, refugee camps and theaters and auditioned 200 boys in all.

Tarak, the young character in When I Saw You, which has its world debut in Toronto, had to appear free, curious and open to the world onscreen.

But Jacir recalled mostly seeing young boys who were already self-conscious, closed and protective, not helpful for a drama about a young mother and son's journey from helpless victimhood to pursuing their dreams.

Then she found 13-year-old Mahmoud Asfa.

“First I saw a video of him. He had these amazing eyes," Jacir said. "I met him, and he was so much like the character: childlike and yet like an adult, way beyond his years."

After casting Asfa, the director’s next challenge was persuading the young boy to get out of his head and perform with his fellow actors in real time.

“He’d watched television, and a lot of Egyptian series are melodramatic, and he thought, 'That’s what I have to do,' ” Jacir said.

So the director and Asfa improvised and did scenarios outside of the film script to get the young boy to relax and be himself.

It took weeks of effort before one day Jacir praised Asfa’s performance at end of a scene.

 “And he answered, ‘But I didn’t do anything,’ ” the director said. “I said, 'Exactly, you didn’t do anything.' And he understood -- 'That’s what she wants.' ”

Elsewhere, Anais Barbeau-Lavalette, director of a third TIFF title, Inch'Allah, needed a young boy to help portray the absurdity of life for Palestians on Israel’s West Bank.

In the end, Barbeau-Lavalette found 11-year-old Hammoudeh Alkarmi during an open casting call in a refugee camp.

“He was one of the hundred or so little boys," the director said. "I noticed him right away, because he projected both a certain strangeness and a profound sweetness."

As with Satellite Boy andWhen I Saw You, in which the main characters face insurmountable odds in pressured and politically driven situations, the use of an unrecognized and unseasoned young actor lends levity and an innocence to Inch'Allah.

"[Alkami] gives a poetic touch to a film that’s otherwise grounded in realism," Barbeau-Lavalette said. "He is apolitical and dreams simply of flying across borders -- which he does, in his way."

The Toronto International Film Festival runs through Sept. 16.