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'Whale' of a film wins top prize

TORONTO--"Whale Rider," a film from New Zealand that arrived unheralded at the Toronto Film Festival, won the coveted AGF Peoples' Choice Award as the most popular of 345 films.

Michael Moore's "Bowling for Columbine," a documentary about America's fascination with guns, placed second, and third place went to Gurinder Chadha's "Bend It Like Beckham," about a young British girl of Indian descent who plays soccer despite the disapproval of her family.

"Whale Rider," directed by Niki Caro, received a standing ovation after both of its screenings; John Clark of the Los Angeles Times wrote that the cheering prompted actor Sam Neill "to give a speech of thanks to the filmmakers, which reduced Caro and much of the audience to tears."

The Peoples' Choice award, a statistically balanced result of voting by filmgoers, has a way of singling out little films that go on to big things. Previous winners include "Chariots of Fire," "Life is Beautiful," "Shine," Moore's "Roger & Me" and "Chariots of Fire."

"Whale Rider" stars Keisha Castle-Hughes, a 12-year-old of Maori descent, playing a girl named Pai. Tradition dictates that in her tribe the chief's son always becomes the next chief. The chief's son fathers twins, Pai's twin brother and mother die in childbirth, and she lives. Her father is not interested in leadership, so the responsibility falls to Pai, over her grandfather's strong objections.

One of the most controversial recent films won the Volkswagen Discovery Award, voted on by journalists at the festival. The winner was "The Magdalene Sisters," the story of four women imprisoned in "Magdalene convents" operated until the 1970s by the Catholic Church in Ireland, where "fallen women" could be committed by their families or priests. The movie, which won this year's Venice film festival, has been condemned by the Vatican, but the filmmakers say it is based on well-documented events within recent memory.

David Cronenberg's "Spider," starring Ralph Fiennes, won the $25,000 Toronto-City Award, given by the city and CityTV to the best Canadian feature film. Fiennes plays a man so scarred by his childhood that he has withdrawn into a lifetime of fear. The CityTV award for best first Canadian feature went to Wiebke von Carolsfeld's "Marion Bridge."

Alexandr Sokurov's "Russian Ark," an astonishing visual achievement, won the Independent Film Channel Visions Award. It consists of an unbroken 96-minute shot, taken inside the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, which traces 300 years of Russian history. Special mentions went to Fernando Meirelles' "City of God" and Gus Van Sant's "Gerry."

The Fipresci Award is given every year by a jury of members of the international film critics' association. It went this year to "Les Chemins de L'Oued," by Gael Morel of France.

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