The World Before Her, the film by Nisha Pahuja that explores deep divisions in Indian culture, has been named best Canadian feature at the Hot Docs Festival in Toronto.

The World Before Her contrasts the wide-eyed ambitions of 20 hand-picked contestants determined to win the title of Miss India with the behind-the-scenes reality inside Hindu fundamentalist camps for young girls, run by the women's wing of a militant movement. It won the $10,000 top prize at Hot Docs Friday.

A jury hailed the film as a “brave and provocative exploration of the roles of women at its two extremes in contemporary Indian society.”

Toronto-based Pahuja won the top documentary film award two weeks ago at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Pahuja, whose previous credits include TV doc Diamond Road, said it took two years for her to gain access to the Hindu fundamentalist camp to make her film and that she often had to renegotiate access with both the camp and the pageant after organizers became nervous.
“To me it reveals one of the key divisions in the country. India is at a kind of precipice — it's kind of deciding whether it's going to become modern and secular — it is secular but not quite — or whether it is going to back to tradition and have religion play a key role in politics,” she told CBC News. “I was looking at the way women were being used to create these two ideas of Indian identity.”

Peace Out, a feature that explores the high costs of energy development along Canada’s pristine Peace River, won the $5,000 special jury prize.

The best international feature was Call Me Kuchu, a film by Malika Zouhali-Worrall and Katherine Fairfax Wright that follows Ugandan gay rights activist David Kato. Kato is battling an anti-homosexuality bill in his homeland. The jury recognized Call Me Kuchu "for its wrenching yet inspiring depiction of people trying to succeed as humans and as activists in the face of hatred."

Other prizes presented Friday:
  • Inspirit Foundation Pluralism Prize ($10,000): The Boxing Girls of Kabul, by Ariel J. Nasr, about young Afghan women training as boxers.
  • Special jury prize, international feature ($5,000): The Law in These Parts, by Ra’Anan Alexandrowicz, about how the law is applied in the Gaza strip.
  • HBO Emerging Artist Award: shared by two films; Tchoupitoulas by Bill and Turner Ross of the U.S., Meanwhile in Mamelodi by Boris Frank of Germany and South Africa.
  • Best mid-length doc ($3,000): My Thai Bride, by David Tucker of Australia.
  • Honourable mention: Nessa, by Loghman Khaledi of Iran.
  • Best short doc: Five Fragments of the Extinct Empathy, by Anna Nykyri of Finland.
  • Honourable mention: Family Nightmare, by Dustin Guy Defa, U.S.
  • Don Haig Award (for a unique voice): Mia Donovan, the Montreal director who created Inside Lara Roxx.
Quebec filmmaker Michel Brault, director of Les Ordres and cameraman for Kamouraska and Mon Oncle Antoine, was honoured with the outstanding achievement award.