TORONTO — Cord Jefferson’s “American Fiction,” a satire about race and personal agency, was the winner of this year's People's Choice prize at the Toronto International Film Festival.
The film stars Jeffrey Wright as an African-American novelist grappling with an industry that is limiting his work to trauma and poverty narratives.
Jefferson’s directorial debut, adapted from Percival Everett’s novel "Erasure," was among the films honoured at a TIFF awards breakfast Sunday morning, concluding 11 days of in-person film screenings and celebrations.
TIFF CEOCameron Bailey said the breakout win reflected the diversity of filmmakers who showed up this year.
“Jeffery Wright is such an underrated actor who has been incredible in so many different films and series over the years,”Bailey said of the actor, whose credits include "Westworld" and "The Batman." “There’s going to be a lot more about him this year.”
In a prepared statement from the director delivered by Bailey, Jefferson shared his appreciation for the accolade.
“My gratitude towards everyone who watched 'American Fiction' and discussed it afterwards among friends and colleagues is endless."
The People's Choice award is determined through online voting and is frequently considered a harbinger of success at the Academy Awards.
Last year's winner was Steven Spielberg’s coming-of-age ode to cinema “The Fabelmans," which went on to earn a best picture nod at the Oscars.
Other winners coming out of this year's festival include Sophie Dupuis’ “Solo,” a feature about a talented performer in Montreal’s drag scene, which was named best Canadian feature by a jury.
“With this film, we’re connecting everybody together, and I love it. I want to say thanks for this award because it will help us be seen more and help us connect with people more,” Dupuis said in her acceptance speech at the event.
"Solo" stars Théodore Pellerin as a makeup artist and drag performer who is navigating an exciting romantic relationship while also reconnecting with his estranged mother.
“With every step of this production, we confirm how important it is to make that kind of film – for queer representation, for queer people to see themselves and accept themselves and love themselves," Dupuis said.
TIFF's prestigious Platform prize, chosen by a jury for a bold directorial vision and worth $20,000, went to India’s Tarsem Singh Dhandwar and his feature "Dear Jassi" about two lovers kept apart by distance and family expectations.
Meanwhile, the People's Choice documentary award went to "Mr. Dressup: The Magic of Make-Believe," a reflection on beloved children's performer Ernie Coombs directed by Robert McCallum.
Director Larry Charles' "Dicks: The Musical" was named the People’s Choice Midnight Madness winner.
Other Canadian honorees include Henri Pardo’s “Kanaval,” which follows a young boy’s journey from a small town in Haiti to Quebec. The film took home the Amplify Voices award for best BIPOC Canadian feature.
“I’d like to salute Black and Indigenous and people of colour — we’re under-represented but we have so many wonderful stories to tell,” Montreal-based Pardo said while accepting the honour.
In an interview after the ceremony, he said presenting his film at TIFF has been a "beautiful" experience.
“It's been quite a ride. Landing here at TIFF … I feel like I'm on another planet."
The festival lacked its usual star power this year due to ongoing Hollywood strikes, and on-the-circuit chatter was dominated by filmmakers and international talent urging increased pay for industry workers and protections around the use of artificial intelligence.
Bailey acknowledged it's been a challenging year, but said the support from the film community and fans allowed the show to go on.
“The audience came out, and the filmmakers were here, and many actors were here as well. And the most important thing is that the films are well received,” he said in an interview.
He emphasized that the international diversity of TIFF contributed to the festival's success.
“One of our main strengths that I think gives us staying power through adversity is that we’re not just a North American festival, but we’re global,” Bailey said.
“A lot of people will pay attention to Hollywood stars that come here, but they are here alongside great new Canadian filmmakers and veterans like Deepa Mehta.
That’s part of what this city is about — the range and cosmopolitan nature of Toronto."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 17, 2023.
Noel Ransome, The Canadian Press