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The underdog is the people's choice. Just ask the film-festival audience

A scene from "Where Do We Go Now?"


Over in Cannes, gowned and tuxed and clutching their priority passes, the snobs and the swells are gathered on the Croisette. Leave them to it. Here, in a humble local theatre, we the people get to see the People's Choice.

I'm talking about Where Do We Go Now?, the little Lebanese film that won the People's Choice Award at last year's Toronto International Film Festival, and only now is showing up in commercial release on Canadian screens. But if the long wait has been atypical, the choice isn't. Take a quick look at the winners since the turn of the millennium, and the conclusion is clear: Almost invariably, the road to the people's heart is paved with adversity but ends in uplift – not necessarily complete triumph, yet never without a discernible ray of hope.

Actually, at TIFF, the full and proper name is the Cadillac People's Choice Award, which sounds funny because it is. Still, the oxymoron – a populist notion attached to a luxury brand – is perfectly in keeping with both the sort of folks who are doing the choosing and the type of flicks they choose. After all, they ain't the hoi polloi but people who (a) go to film festivals and (b) can be bothered to fill out the ballots. Naturally, this leads to an upscale populism tinged with civic duty, and the selected films are forged from the same mould. They tend to be pictures that have well-meaning social or political themes, featuring beleaguered protagonists who buck the odds.

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In the case of Where Do We Go Now?, it's a village of Muslim and Christian women who connive to deflect those bellicose men from their nasty habit of sectarian violence. In the three previous years' winners, it was a stuttering monarch in The King's Speech, an abused black woman in Precious, and impoverished kids in Slumdog Millionaire – different social classes, to be sure, but underdogs all.

That latter trio of films all went on to attract considerable Oscar attention, prompting a flurry of pride from TIFF officialdom in the prophetic acumen of their People's Choice Award. But that was a bit of an aberration. In truth, TIFF people are much more eclectic than Oscar in their taste and in their travel inclinations. Sure, sometimes they vote for the local hero – David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises. But they're also willing to venture far afield and to embrace films in a variety of places from an assortment of directors – to New York for Bella, to South Africa for Tsotsi, to Japan for Zatoichi, to New Zealand for Whale Rider. None of these movies are Cadillacs; instead, they're all sturdy compacts with some credible aesthetic horsepower and, inevitably, that hood ornament of hope.

Yes, the people have been touchingly consistent in their choices, as has TIFF in encouraging them. A non-competitive festival, it has from the inception flashed this democratic streak. Contrast that to old-world fests the likes of Venice or Berlin or Cannes, where fewer films make the invitation list, where only appointed juries confer distinction, where merit can be politicized or esoteric or both, and where the awards sidestep the plebian ticket-buyers to take their names from precious metal – Golden Palms, Golden Lions, Golden Bears.

That's not to suggest Toronto has the market cornered on mining the vox populi. Other polite Canadian festivals, like Vancouver's and Calgary's, do the same. For that matter, so does the Fort Myers Beach Film Festival, not to mention the Trinidad & Tobago Film Festival, as well as the Istanbul Film Festival – last year, Istanbulis, no doubt intrigued by the prospect of a woman living as a man, marked their preference for Albert Nobbs. Another underdog, of a fashion.

Of course, the people who go to movie festivals are but a fraction of the people who go to the movies, and those masses vote with their pocketbooks. Here, the only ballot box is the box office – the true people's choice award. This summer, based on that record-breaking opening weekend, the 15-Year-Old Boys' Choice Award indisputably goes to The Avengers. As for the broader demographic, the all-time favourites (judged by the same pecuniary standard) are no less obvious: James Cameron's Avatar, followed closely by James Cameron's Titanic.

Indeed, his boat picture is a fascinating example of populism at work, because its appeal cuts right across the usual boundaries of sex, age and class (even, I suppose, across the divide that separates festivalgoers from the multiplex throngs). Men went to see that big hunk of hubristic technology go down on its maiden voyage. Women went, repeatedly, to see that big hunk Leonardo deflower lovely Kate on her maiden voyage. Even better, she lived to tell the tale. Why? Because, as John Irving once wrote, and as People who make Choices well know, adversity sinks but "hope floats."

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Film critic

Rick Groen is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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