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Moore takes top award for 'Fahrenheit 9/11'

CANNES, France -- Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," a documentary denouncing the presidency of George W. Bush, won the Palme d'Or here Saturday night as the best film in the Cannes Film Festival. It was the first documentary to take the Palme since 1956, and was a popular winner; at its official screening it received what the festival director said was the longest ovation in Cannes history.

"What have you done?" an emotional Moore asked the jury headed by Quentin Tarantino. "The last time I was on an awards stage, all hell broke loose." That was at the 2003 Academy Awards, when Moore turned cheers to boos as he shouted, "Shame on you, Mr. President." This time he did not mention Bush, quoting instead Abraham Lincoln: "If you just give the people the truth, the Republic will be safe."

Immediately after the awards, Tarantino told me backstage: "This prize was not for politics. It won because it was the best film."

And indeed in the daily tallies of critical opinion conducted by the trade papers at Cannes, "Fahrenheit 9/11" was at or near the top.

The film, produced by Miramax, has been surrounded by controversy since Disney president Michael Eisner ordered his subsidiary not to distribute it. Miramax president Harvey Weinstein, leading the cheers after the victory, says an alternative distribution deal will be announced soon.

Onstage, Moore joked that with the signing of an Albanian deal, "every country in the world can see this film except us."

Tarantino's jury dropped another bombshell by awarding the coveted Jury Prize to Chicago-based actress Irma P. Hall, who starred in the festival entry "The Ladykillers." Hall, who is 66, has been in rehabilitation after a nearly fatal auto accident in January. Among her other credits are "Soul Food," the movie and the TV series.

"We thought she was the best thing in the movie," jury member Jerry Schatzberg told me backstage. "We loved her."

Hall planned to make the trip to Cannes, but complications from the accident put her back in a Chicago hospital just before she was to leave. She learned of the Jury Prize from her manager, Harrise Davidson, who was notified by the Chicago Sun-Times.

"She was breathless," Davidson said. "She was thrilled, and said to tell the jury, 'Merci beaucoup.' "

Tom Hanks, who starred in "The Ladykillers," was at the festival; he has kept in frequent touch with the convalescing Hall.

Hall shared the Jury Prize with Apichatpong Weerasethakul's "Tropical Malady," the first Thai film ever entered at Cannes.

The winner of the Grand Prize, which is one step down from the Palme, was Park Chan-Wook's Korean film "Old Boy," a violent revenge story that jury watchers predicted would win Tarantino's backing. Park's acceptance speech thanked the live squids whose consumption is one of the less-watchable passages in the film.

Maggie Cheung won as best actress for Olivier Assayas' "Clean," a Canadian-French-British co-production in which she played a onetime rock star, then a drug addict, who tries to raise her son with the aid of her American father-in-law, played by Nick Nolte.

For best actor, the jury chose 12-year-old Yagira Yuya, star of Hirokazu Kore-Eda's "Nobody Knows," from Japan. After he and three younger siblings are abandoned by their mother, they try to survive on their own, hiding from the welfare system. Accepting the award, Kore-Eda said his star "had to return to Japan for his exams."

The best screenplay prize went to France's Agnes Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri, for "Comme une Image" ("Look at Me"), one of the festival's most popular films. Jaoui directed and Bacri played a womanizing writer and publisher who ignores his plump grown daughter and is a monster of male egotism.

Best director was Tony Gatlif of France, for "Exils," the story of a young couple who decide to travel through Spain and Morocco to Algeria, the homeland of their parents.

The grand prize in Un Certain Regard, the sidebar to the official festival, went to one of my favorite films, "Moolaade," by Ousmane Sembene of Senegal. Sembene, at 81 known as the father of African cinema, tells the story of a village torn by opposition to the custom of female circumcision. I was not alone in thinking that "Moolaade" belonged in the official competition.

The Camera d'Or award is given to the best film by a first-time director. Its jury, headed by British actor Tim Roth, split the prize between Yang Chao's "Passages," from China, and Mohsen Amiryoussefi's "Bitter Dream," from Iran.

The awards ceremony glittered with stars, including this year's Oscar winner Charlize Theron, who presented the Palme d'Or, and Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd, who introduced the Grand Prize in respectable French. They co-starred in the closing night film "De-Lovely," based on the life of Cole Porter.

The members of Tarantino's jury included Scots actress Tilda Swinton, American actress Kathleen Turner, French actress Emmanuelle Beart, the Haitian-born U.S. writer Edwidge Danticat (who whispered French translations into Tarantino's ear), directors Schatzberg and Hong Kong's Tsui Hark, Belgian writer Benoit Poelvoorde, and Finnish critic Peter Von Bagh.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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