After 11 days of packed with movies, stars and cinematic exploration, the Toronto International Film Festival comes to a close today with a final day of screenings and its influential awards ceremony, handing the top prize, the People's Choice Award, to the harrowing historical drama 12 Years a Slave.
Directed by British filmmaker Steve McQueen, the much-anticipated movie chronicles the little-known tale of Solomon Northup — a freeborn 19th-century African American man kidnapped and sold into slavery before miraculously regaining his freedom. The star-studded cast includes Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays Northup, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti, Alfre Woodard and Benedict Cumberbatch.
"This award is a fantastic honour. I'm so happy with the response of the audience," McQueen, who has returned to his home in Amsterdam, said in a statement read by TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey.
"At a festival that has shown so many brilliant films, I cannot be more thrilled to receive this award. I'm deeply grateful to all the people who've worked on this film and that their amazing work has been recognized. Once again, I'd like to thank the Toronto audience who have supported my work ever since I was able to show my first film there."
Festival organizers will hold a free screening of 12 Years a Slave at Toronto's Ryerson Theatre Sunday night at 6 p.m. local time.
"It's a very emotional film. Anybody who sees it will tell you it really hits you in the gut and you feel it and you think about it and it stays with you for a long time," Bailey told CBC News after the awards luncheon.
"To have that be reflected back by all the hundreds of people who saw it at the Toronto International Film Festival, it was a thrill and to see they actually embraced it as the top winner, the People's Choice Award winner, was amazing."
The TIFF awards have increasingly become a bellwether for further movie world success — from kudos at the Oscars and Golden Globes to recognition by industry peers, like the Screen Actors Guild, Producers Guild and Directors Guild. Past winners that have gone on to further industry glory include Silver Linings Playbook, Slumdog Millionaire, Precious, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and American Beauty.
The People's Choice prize for best documentary went to Jehane Noujaim's The Square, which documents activists amid the unrest and revolution in Egypt's Tahrir Square in Cairo.
"We are completely, completely thrilled. This is a film about people who relentlessly are fighting for their rights even when there seems to be absolutely no hope and no light at the end of the tunnel. The people we followed challenged me every day and gave me a new definition of what it means to fight for what you believe in," Noujaim said, before dedicating the award to Canadian filmmaker John Greyson and his colleague, physician Tarek Loubani. The two men have been imprisoned in Cairo for nearly a month without any formal charge.
- Writers, filmmakers demand Egypt free detained Canadians
- TIFF doc The Square wins People's Choice award
"People in Egypt decided to take history into their own hands. They decided to be participants and to write their own history. Our characters, the message they want to send to everyone in Toronto and around the world is be active, participate, write your own history and allow for the voice of the people to speak. There's no award we'd rather receive than this," said The Square producer Karim Amer.
Other winners included:
- Best Canadian Short Film: Noah, directed by Walter Woodman and Patrick Cederberg.
- Best Canadian First Feature Film: Asphalt Watches, directed by Shayne Ehman and Seth Scriver.
- Best Canadian Feature Film: When Jews Were Funny, directed by Alan Zweig.
- International Critics' Prize (FIPRESCI) for Discovery: The Amazing Catfish, directed by Claudia Sainte-Luce.
- International Critics' Prize (FIPRESCI) for Special Presentations: Ida, directed by Pawel Pawlikowski.
- People's Choice Midnight Madness Award: Why Don't You Play in Hell, directed by Sion Sono.
- NETPAC Award: Qissa, directed by Anup Singh.
Earlier in the festival, two prizes were announced. Gia Milani's drama All the Wrong Reasons, one of Cory Monteith's final films, won the Film Works Discovery Award (sponsored by Grolsch), while Cristoph Rainer's Requiem for a Robot triumphed in the Emerging Filmmakers Competition (sponsored by RBC).
The next edition of the Toronto International Film Festival will run September 4-14, 2014, said TIFF CEO and director Piers Handling.