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"Precious" wins top Toronto film festival prize

 Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry arrive at the
Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry arrive at the 'Precious' film screening during the 34th Toronto International Film Festival, September 13, 2009. REUTERS/Mark Blinch
— image credit: Reuters

By Cameron French

TORONTO (Reuters) - "Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire" won the top award at the Toronto International Film Festival Saturday, giving the Oprah Winfrey-produced film some early momentum heading into Oscar awards season.

The film, a gritty tale of the abuse and redemption of a teenage girl in Harlem, captured the festival's People's Choice award, which is voted on by filmgoers. Last year it went to best picture Oscar winner "Slumdog Millionaire."

Critics have roundly praised "Precious" since its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January, and audiences in Toronto warmly received the film, which is directed by Lee Daniels and will hit theaters in November.

"I made this film for every person out there who ever looked in the mirror and felt unsure about the person looking back," Daniels, who is traveling in Spain, said in a statement read out at an awards reception in Toronto.

In addition to "Slumdog Millionaire," past winners of the award that have gone on to win the best picture Oscar include "American Beauty" and "Chariots of Fire."

The festival, which wraps up later Saturday with a red-carpet screening of "The Young Victoria," a look at the British queen's early years, was notable this year for a lack of distribution deals signed as the independent film industry remains mired in a near two-year funk.

More than one-third of the more than 330 films screened entered the festival without distribution deals, and barely a handful were announced during the event's 10-day run.

Festival co-director Piers Handling said he expects more deals involving Toronto-screened films to soon be announced, but said the days of festival bidding wars were likely over.

"It's a combination of just an increasingly conservative marketplace in North America, the recession, as well as a glut of product," he told Reuters after the awards presentation.

"I think there will be fewer films being made."

Other winners included critics' awards for "The Man Beyond the Bridge," an Indian production featuring the little-used language of Konkani, and "Hadewijch," a French film that looks at the possibilities and consequences of a devoutly religious life.

The audience award for top documentary went to "The Topp Twins," which tells the story of a New Zealand lesbian country and western singing duo.

(Reporting by Cameron French; Editing by Xavier Briand)

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