Toronto fest fans give thumbs up to ‘Where Do We Go Now?’

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Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) programmer Thom Powers (left) poses with the Cadillac People’s Choice Documentary Award collected in place of director Jon Shenk for the film “The Island President,” TIFF programmer for African and Middle Eastern cinema Rasha Salti poses with the Cadillac Peoples Choice Award which she collected for director Nadine Labaki for her film “Where Do We Go Now” and Gareth Evans pose with his Cadillac People’s Choice Midnight Madness Award that he won for his film “The Raid” during the closing brunch of TIFF Sunday. — Photo by The Canadian Press

Moviegoers have crowned “Where Do We Go Now?” the favourite feature of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), giving the Lebanese picture a crucial bump in the race for box office dollars and awards season glory.

Nadine Labaki’s bittersweet movie, set in wartorn Lebanon and centred on a group of women and their unwavering friendship, is Lebanon’s entry into the best foreign language film category for the 2012 Academy Awards.

The Lebanese-Canadian writer and director was travelling in Europe when she heard the news, which was announced Sunday at a closing brunch for the 11-day festival.

Festival programmer Rasha Salti accepted on the filmmaker’s behalf, reading a statement Labaki sent from a German airport.

“I’m thrilled. I’m happy. I’m ecstatic. I’m excited — my day that had just started on the wrong foot because of a flight cancellation has just been turned upside down,” the statement read.

“I’m running around jumping up and down at the Frankfurt airport. Tomorrow we’ll be screening ‘Where do we Go Now?’ for the first time in Lebanon and I will be proud and happy to announce the news in front of my crew, my family and the Lebanese audience.”

“Where Do We Go Now?” claims the prestigious title — along with a $15,000 prize — over several star-packed contenders.

They include George Clooney’s two well-received films, “The Descendants” and “The Ides of March.”

Festival director Piers Handling noted it was a surprise triumph for a film that was often overshadowed by hype from Hollywood heavyweights.

“We have some very, very high-profile films here at the festival and ones that a lot of people are talking about and I’m sure will go on to awards,” said Handling.

“But Nadine’s film obviously connected with the public in a significant way because it was a clear, clear winner.”

The Cadillac People’s Choice award is voted on by festival audiences and has typically been regarded as a bellwether for Oscar acclaim.

Last year’s pick “The King’s Speech,” went on to take the academy award for best picture, as did 2008’s “Slumdog Millionaire.”

Other winners Sunday included the Quebec film “Monsieur Lazhar,” which earned the title of best Canadian feature and a $30,000 prize.

Philippe Falardeau’s tale follows an Algerian schoolteacher in Quebec and his relationship with two pupils.

The writer/director said his life has been a whirlwind since the festival premiere nearly one week ago, and he credited the prestigious showcase with spurring a frenzy of international sales.

“It has helped us to connect with audiences in Canada (and) across the world,” said Falardeau, whose film comes from the same producers as last year’s smash “Incendies.”

“After our first screening Monday, 24 hours after, our sales agent was going berserk — many deals were flying around, he was doing overtime. And when I heard how many countries were interested in the film I nearly fainted. I felt I had won the Stanley Cup. And this is the magic of TIFF.”

The best first Canadian feature award, which includes a $15,000 prize, went to Nathan Morlando’s period piece “Edwin Boyd,” starring Scott Speedman as the notorious Canuck bank robber.

“It’s a beautiful surprise. I’m really, really grateful for the film to have been acknowledged,” said Morlando, who added he planned to celebrate by going out dancing and then using the money to pay rent.

“Hopefully it’ll bring more attention (to the film). Every indie film needs as much attention as it can get. It’s hard to compete with the Hollywood cinema and Hollywood marketing campaign. Any help is great.”

Other people’s choice winners included “The Raid,” which topped the Midnight Madness slate, and “The Island President,” which was named favourite documentary.

“Where Do We Go Now?” premiered to raves at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year and follows Labaki’s feature “Caramel,” which was Lebanon’s entry for the 2007 best foreign language film academy award.

Organizations: Academy Awards.The, The King, Canuck bank Hollywood cinema

Geographic location: Lebanon, Toronto, Europe Hollywood Frankfurt Quebec Canada Cannes

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