By Cameron French
TORONTO (Reuters) - "12 Years a Slave," the true story of a free black man sold into slavery in 1840s Louisiana, won the top prize at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sunday.
The film, by "Shame" director Steve McQueen and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, took home the BlackBerry People's Choice award for best film at the 38th edition of the festival.
Based on the 1853 memoir of Solomon Northup, the film has won widespread acclaim from critics and audiences in both Toronto and at the Telluride Film Festival, and has been touted as a top early contender for Oscars.
The Toronto award, which has in the past gone to Oscar best picture winners such as "The King's Speech" and "Slumdog Millionaire," and last year went to multiple winner "Silver Linings Playbook," will likely only increase the buzz around the film.
"It was just one of those stories that I felt needed to be told," McQueen, who like Ejiofor hails from Britain, told Reuters last week.
"The reason I got into the idea of the free man is that you could identify with him. ... When he is captured and put into slavery, you go on this journey with him," he said.
The runner-up for the prize, which is selected by festival audiences, was Stephen Frears' "Philomena," which stars Judi Dench as an Irish woman searching for the son she was forced by nuns to give up in the 1950s.
The People's Choice award for top documentary went to Jehane Noujaim's "The Square," which follows activists in Cairo's Tahrir Square in the wake of the 2011 overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
The film, which also won an award at the Sundance Film Festival in January as a work in progress, follows a handful of activists over the course of two years as what initially appears to be a clear road to democracy in Egypt instead turns into a battle of competing forces looking to take control.
"This is a film about people who relentlessly are fighting for their rights, even when there seems to be absolutely no hope and no light at the end of the tunnel," Noujaim told an audience of filmmakers, reporters and critics at the awards presentation.
The People's Choice award for top film in the Midnight Madness program - which tends to focus on horror or extremely offbeat films - went to Sion Sono's "Why Don't You Play in Hell?"
The best Canadian feature award went to "Asphalt Watches," directed by Shayne Ehman and Seth Scrivers.
BUILDING OSCAR BUZZ
Started in 1976, the Toronto festival now ranks with Cannes and Sundance as one of the world's top movie gatherings. The festival often serves as a launching point for films and performances that go on to win Academy Awards, as well as international films seeking distribution deals.
Even before its People's Choice win, "12 Years a Slave" was garnering Oscar buzz, with critics praising both McQueen and Ejiofor, but also Michael Fassbender's turn as a brutal slave owner.
Other films that have impressed critics during the 11-day festival include Alfonso Cuaron's astronaut thriller "Gravity," the star-laden "August: Osage County," and "Dallas Buyers Club," for which Matthew McConaughey dropped 30 pounds to play an AIDS-afflicted homophobic Texas rodeo cowboy.
However, while many films have been warmly received, the number of film deals fell from the year before, the festival said.
All told, 32 films were sold during the festival, including 21 sales to U.S. distributors. That was down from nearly 40 film sales in 2012, including 29 U.S. sales.
All told, 4,743 industry delegates were accredited for the festival, up 10 percent from last year.
(Reporting by Cameron French, additional reporting by Mary Milliken; Editing by Bill Trott and Jackie Frank)