"Where Do We Go Now?" a bittersweet comedy set in war-torn Lebanon, bested two well-received entries starring George Clooney to win the people's choice award Sunday at the Toronto International Film Festival.
The Cadillac People's Choice award, which also includes a C$15,000 cash prize, is voted on by festival audiences and has typically been regarded as a bellwether for Oscar success.
Lebanese-Canadian director-actress Nadine Labaki's feminist film about village women bent on keeping their hotheaded men out of a religious war was chosen earlier this month as Lebanon's 2011 entry in the best foreign language film category for the Academy Awards.
Labaki, who also stars in the film, was traveling in Europe when she heard the news, which was announced Sunday at a closing brunch for the 11-day festival.
Festival programmer Rasha Salti accepted the award on the filmmaker's behalf, reading a statement sent by Labaki from an airport in Germany.
"I'm thrilled, I'm happy, I'm ecstatic, I'm excited — my day that had just started on the wrong foot because of a flight cancellation has just been turned upside down," the 37-year-old Labaki said in her statement.
"I'm running around jumping up and down at the Frankfurt airport. Tomorrow we'll be screening 'Where Do We Go Now?' for the first time in Lebanon and I will be proud and happy to announce the news in front of my crew, my family and the Lebanese audience."
Festival director Piers Handling noted it was a surprise triumph for a film that was overshadowed by heavily promoted, star-studded Hollywood films. These included Clooney's two films, "The Descendants" and "The Ides of March."
"We have some very, very high-profile films here at the festival and ones that a lot of people are talking about and I'm sure will go on to awards," said Handling. "But Nadine's film obviously connected with the public in a significant way because it was a clear, clear winner."
Last year's fans' pick, "The King's Speech," went on to take four Oscars, including best picture, and the 2008 people's choice winner, "Slumdog Millionaire," took best picture and seven other Oscars.
Quebec director Philippe Falardeau's "Monsieur Lazhar," about an Algerian schoolteacher in Quebec and his relationship with two students, won the award for best Canadian feature and a C$30,000 prize.
The best first Canadian feature award, which includes a C$15,000 prize, went to director Nathan Morlando's period piece "Edwin Boyd," starring Scott Speedman as the notorious Canadian bank robber.
"Where Do We Go Now?" garnered rave reviews at this year's Cannes Film Festival, where it screened on the margins of the official competition. It follows Labaki's feature "Caramel," a sweet love story set in a Beirut beauty salon, which was Lebanon's entry for the 2007 best foreign language film Oscar.
Set in a remote village where the church and the mosque stand side by side, "Where Do We Go Now?" follows the antics of the town's women to keep their blowhard men from starting a religious war. Women heartsick over sons, husbands and fathers lost to previous flare-ups unite to distract their men with clever ruses, from faking a miracle to hiring a troop of Ukrainian strippers.
Labaki wrote the screenplay for the film which was shot on location in three remote Lebanese villages with a cast made up almost entirely of nonprofessional actors. Labaki, who is married to the film's compoer, Khaled Mouzannar, also included a handful of old-school song-and-dance numbers that buoy the mood.