By Belinda Goldsmith
CANNES (Reuters) - A documentary using small clay figures to tell the story of how Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh's family perished under the Khmer Rouge regime won the top prize in the second most important competition at the Cannes film festival on Saturday.
"L'Image Manquante" (The Missing Picture) was among the 18 films that premiered in the Un Certain Regard category that was set up to encourage emerging and innovative filmmakers and run alongside the main competition at the world's top film festival.
Panh, 49, a prolific filmmaker whose films concentrate on the brutality in Cambodia when an estimated 1.7 million people were killed during the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge regime, said the prize was important for his country.
"For a country that has emerged from its difficulties and years of war, it is important to say we are still alive," Panh told Reuters after receiving his award at a red carpet ceremony in the French Riviera resort.
The jury led by Danish director Thomas Vinterberg, whose film "Jagten" (The Hunt) won Mads Mikkelsen the best actor award at Cannes last year, described the documentary as "one of the most powerful films I have seen in many years".
The runner-up was "Omar" by Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad, a political thriller involving Palestinians living under Israeli occupation in which a young baker, Omar, is tortured by Israel's secret police to betray his friends.
"Omar", which was shot in the West Bank and Israeli-Arab town of Nazareth last year, received a standing ovation at its premiere as the first film fully funded by the Palestinian cinema industry.
"It is the only festival that I think still cares about different films," said Abu-Assad, known for the 2005 award-winning film "Paradise Now", as he received his award.
Another director in Un Certain Regard to get a standing ovation was Iran's Mohammad Rasoulof who was jailed in 2010 for anti-regime propaganda but came to Cannes this year with "Manuscripts Don't Burn", shot in secret in his home country.
The non-professional actors of "La Jaula de Oro" (The Golden Cage), a film about three young Guatemalans trying to cross the Mexico-U.S. border from director Diego Quemada-Diez won an award for best cast.
(Additional reporting by Alexandria Sage and Rollo Ross)