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By Jeffrey Hodgson
Sun Sep 18, 2011 4:50pm EDT
TORONTO (Reuters) - A film about the struggles of a village in war-torn Lebanon took the People's Choice award at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sunday, an audience trophy that has often been a harbinger of Oscar glory.
"Where Do We Go Now", by Lebanon-born Nadine Labaki, tells the story of village inhabited by both Muslims and Christians. When a wider inter-religious conflict threatens to seep into the village, its women go to inventive and sometimes extreme ends to prevent violence.
The film, which debuted at Cannes earlier this year, is already Lebanon's official entry into the Foreign Language Film category at for next year's Academy Awards.
A festival official said Labaki wrote the film in Beirut in 2007 when armed clashes had broken out. Pregnant at the time, she began thinking about what she could do to change the world as a filmmaker.
"I'm running around jumping up and down at the Frankfurt airport," Labaki said of her win at Toronto in a message read to the awards ceremony's audience.
Last year's winner of the People's Choice award was "The King's Speech", which went on to win the Oscar for best picture. "American Beauty," "Crash," and "Slumdog Millionaire" also won the award at Toronto before going on to Oscar glory.
The runner-up for the audience prize was "A Separation", a portrayal of a marriage in crisis by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi. The movie had already won the Golden Bear for best picture at the Berlin film festival in February.
The Toronto audience award for top documentary went "The Island President" about Mohamed Nasheed, leader of the Maldives. It follows the politician, whose island nation could disappear if sea levels rise, as he travels the world fighting against climate change.
"I hope it inspires people to reduce carbon pollution and help save the Maldives," Nasheed said in a statement read by organizers.
The 36th edition of the festival had an unusually strong lineup of documentaries, including opening night film "From the Sky Down" -- the U2 documentary by Davis Guggenheim and new films from Werner Herzog, Morgan Spurlock, Wim Wenders and Alex Gibney.
OSCAR BUZZ BUILDS
Launched in 1976, the Toronto festival now ranks with festivals such as Cannes and Sundance as among the world's top movie gatherings. It often serves as a launching point for films and performances that go on to win Academy Awards, as well as international films seeking distribution deals.
Movies exiting this year's festival awards buzz included "The Descendants" from "Sideways" director Alexander Payne, which stars George Clooney as a soul-searching father.
"The Artist", a French film set in Hollywood's silent era that is shot in black-and-white without dialogue, has also won critical acclaim.
Highly praised performances include Michael Fassbender as a sex addict in "Shame", which already picked up an acting prize at the Venice film festival, Woody Harrelson as a corrupt cop in "Rampart" and Glenn Close as woman in 19th-century Dublin who passes herself off as a male butler.
While many films won praise, distribution deals got off to a slow start in Toronto, but picked up some steam toward the end of the event. Organizers said that by the weekend more than 30 films had been sold.
"The debt crisis of the past few months has made people exercise a little more caution, so perhaps the sales figures, the actual dollar figures that they sell for, may not be as high as in past year. But distributors need movies," said festival co-director Cameron Bailey.
Films acquired in Toronto including "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen", "Americano", "Elena", "In My Mother's Arms", "Always Brando", "The Oranges", "Michael" and "The Day".
(Editing by Bob Tourtellotte)
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