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In a tight vote, Mexican helmer Ricardo Benet’s “Noticias lejanas” (News From Afar) took the top prize at the 21st Mar del Plata Film Festival, Latin America’s only FIAPF category one event, which wrapped Sunday.

The story of a boy’s journey to the city to improve his family’s livelihood won the Golden Astor in a vote in which two of the seven jurors abstained.

Another big winner was “Derecho de familia” (Family Law), a father-and-son drama by Argentina’s Daniel Burman. It won the audience vote and the approval of Signis, the Catholic communications org. It also tied with Brazilian Marcelo Gomes’ outback buddy movie “Cinema, Aspirins and Vultures” for the Iberian and Latin American film award.

“Molly’s Way,” a Poland-set drama by Germany’s Emily Atef, fetched the jury’s special prize, while jury mentions went to Singapore helmer Eric Khoo’s “Be With Me,” about a deaf-blind woman, and diner-set “Border Cafe” by Iran’s Kambozia Partovi.

Portugal’s Marco Martins won director for “Alice,” the story of a father’s search for his daughter. William H. Macy picked up the actor award for his role in Stuart Gordon’s “Edmond,” about a businessman fleeing boredom.

Justine Clark took the actress nod for her performance in “Look Both Ways,” an Australian film. Director-scribe Sarah Watt won for her screenplay of the ironic tale of mischance.

Argentinean helmer-scribe Miguel Pereira (“The Internal Debt”) was fest director for a fourth year, and saw attendance surge by 15% from 2005, with some 150,000 tix sold for 200 features and shorts over 10 days.

The buzz at the event was the crisp organization, strong lineup and greater participation of the local community thanks to more information stands and special events including a lineup of 30-minute chats to the public given by Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, Michael Winterbottom and other industryites.

Organizers cut the lineup to 200 films from 310 in 2005 and put greater focus on Latin America, with more than 10 local features making their world preem.

Mar del Plata, Pereira said, has “the sufficient merits to be the festival of Latin America,” replacing Havana’s Film Festival of New Latin American Cinema, which has been declining in importance in recent years.

Argentinean films dominated pitching, which was brisk during the second edition of a four-day film market. Attendance surged 60% to 400 participants from 250 in the previous event.

Other than “Edmond” and “Molly’s Way,” hot products for buyers were homegrown pics including Homero Cirelli’s “Porno” (Porn), Juan Pablo Pires’ “Sudamerica” (South America) and Javier Vazquez’s “Amando a Maradona” (Loving Maradona).

It is another sign of the growing reputation of the local industry for fresh ideas, styles and lensing techniques, buyers said.

“The organization improved a lot; it was good for showing material, talking business and arranging meetings,” said Luis Ignacio Perez Endara, head of Compania General de la Imagen, a Buenos Aires production and distribution company.

Most business was at a forum to promote co-production deals for Latin American projects, the first held at the fest. Eighty projects — 60 from Argentina and 20 from elsewhere in the region — were presented to 100 local and 30 foreign companies including Filmax, HBO Latin America and the Shanghai Film Group.

And the nominees are…

FILM
“News From Afar,” Ricardo Benet, Mexico
DIRECTOR
Marco Martins, “Alice,” Portugal
ACTOR
William H. Macy, “Edmond,” U.S.
ACTRESS
Justine Clark, “Look Both Ways,” Australia
SCREENPLAY
Sarah Watt, “Look Both Ways,” Australia
IBERIAN-LATIN AMERICAN FILM
“Cinema, Aspirins and Vultures,” Marcelo Gomes, Brazil
“Family Law,” Daniel Burman, Argentina
JURY’S SPECIAL PRIZE
“Molly’s Way,” Emily Atef, Germany
JURY MENTION
“Be With Me,” Eric Khoo, Singapore
JURY MENTION
“Border Cafe,” Kambozia Partovi, Iran

Other awards:
AUDIENCE AWARD:
“Family Law,” Daniel Burman, Argentina

WOMEN AND FILM SECTION:
Byambasuren Davaa’s “The Cave of the Yellow Dog”

JURY MENTION, DIRECTOR:
Annie Griffin, “Festival,” U.K.

ARGENTINE ASSN. OF FILM CRITICS (ACCA) AWARD:
“Border Cafe,” Kambozia Partovi, Iran

ARGENTINA SHORT:
“Medianeras” (Side Walls), Gustavo Taretto, Argentina

FOREIGN SHORT:
“Bitter Kas,” Eduard Grau, Spain

FIPRESCI AWARD:
“Alice,” de Marco Martin, Portugal

SIGNIS AWARD:
“Family Law,” Daniel Burman, Argentina

SICA (ARGENTINE CINEMA UNION) AWARDS
LATIN AMERICAN DOCUMENTARY:
“500 Almas” (500 Souls), Joel Pizzini, Brazil
LATIN AMERICAN FILM:
“Madeinusa,” Claudia Llosa, Peru