A ‘Whale’ of a tale in Toronto

N.Z.-Teuton pic wins festival's choice honor

TORONTO — The 27th Toronto International Film Festival wrapped Sunday with the People’s Choice Award, chosen by fest auds, going to “Whale Rider,” a New Zealand-German co-production.

Pic, helmed by Niki Caro (“Memory and Desire”), is an adaptation of the 1987 novel by Maori author Witi Ihimaera about a girl struggling against her patriarchal New Zealand community.

Special mention for the award went to Michael Moore’s culture-jamming “Bowling for Columbine,” and Gurinder Gadha’s soccer-playing-girl film, “Bend It Like Beckham.”

The 11th annual FIPRESCI prize, selected by a jury of international critics, went to “Les Chemins de l’oued” (“Under Another Sky”), in which Samy (Nicolas Cazale) escapes a hit-and-run car accident by going off to stay with his family in Algeria.

Canuck award to ‘Spider’

The Toronto City award for best Canuck feature went to David Cronenberg’s psycho-thriller “Spider,” starring Ralph Fiennes. Best Canadian First Feature, a C$15,000 ($9,600) prize, went to Wiebke von Carolsfeld’s “Marion Bridge,” the Molly Parker starrer about three sisters coming together over the care of their dying mother.

The inaugural Visions award, an Independent Film Channel-sponsored prize for filmmakers who “push the boundaries of contemporary cinema,” went to “Russian Ark,” a Russian-German co-production from Alexandr Sokurov. The film is a single 96-minute shot moving through 33 rooms in Russia’s St. Petersburg Hermitage. The three-person jury also awarded special citations to Fernando Meirelles’ “City of God” and Gus Van Sant’s “Gerry.”

This year’s Discovery Award, selected by the international media, went to the U.K.-Ireland co-production “The Magdalene Sisters,” from Peter Mullan, about a group of young women, circa 1964, who are forced to live in an Irish Catholic convent. Miramax picked up rights for the Venice Golden Lion winner during the fest.

‘Skies’ a winner

The award for best Canadian short went to Anne Marie Fleming’s “Blue Skies,” with a special jury citation to Charles Officer for “Short Hymn Silent War.”

Fest director Piers Handling kicked off the awards presentation by expressing his relief at the positive energy in the room. “I think that everyone wanted closure for the festival and they didn’t get it last year,” he said, referring to the tragedy of Sept. 11, which scuttled the 26th festival and loomed large on the minds of attendees well into the 27th.

“There is a different tone this year, more respectful at every level,” he added.

Close to 350 films were screened over the festival’s 10 days in 20 cinemas. “It is clear there were some problems with the press screenings that we will work on,” an understated Handling told the audience, referring to crowding that prevented some reviewers from attending important screenings such as Todd Haynes’ “Far From Heaven.”

Miramax picking up rights to the Juliette Binoche starrer “Jet Lag,” Lions Gate taking “Irreversible,” and Strand Releasing buying rights to the Italian-language thriller “Gasoline.” United Artists took North American rights to the Chinese pic “Together.”