Mazel Tov, Toronto Jewish Film Festival! If you were American you would be old enough to drink in this your 21st year of bringing the finest (and really not always holiest) films from people and subjects of Jewish interest to Toronto! Expanding to four locations this year with the new addition of the theatre at the Royal Ontario Museum , the festival is poised to be bigger than ever. Here is a look at just a small amount of the numerous films and shorts playing out across the festival, kicking off tonight (Thursday, April 11th) through Sunday, April 21st.
For a full list of films, programmes, information, and so much more, visit the extremely comprehensive festival website at tjff.com.
Cowjews and Indians: How Hitler Scared My Relatives and I Woke Up in an Iroquois Longhouse – Owing the Mohawks Rent
This year’s TJFF kicks off with a documentary that’s far more interesting in concept than in execution. Director Mark Halberstadt initially set out to demand from the German government that the land that was taken from his Jewish family during World War II be given back to them as reparations. Sensing his own hypocrisy, he remembers that his mother – and the place where he grew up in upstate New York – resides on land seized originally from Native Americans that are also deserving of similar reparations. With several Native American leaders in tow, Mark returns to the hamlet of Altenstadt, Germany asking that the money just be paid directly to the Native Americans instead.
It’s not that Halberstadt doesn’t have a good story or that he isn’t making an interesting argument (the parallels between treatment of Indians and Jews at the hands of the Catholic church are particularly telling), but he’s just not that good of a filmmaker. The results are scattershot and more often than not, repetitive. There’s about 40 minutes of good material here dragged out to 93, and quite needlessly since he feels the need to underline and highlight the same points over and over again to a point where it becomes tiresome to listen to. And it’s a shame because buried within the film is a pretty interesting and great story. (Andrew Parker)
Thursday, April 11th, 8:30pm, Bloor Hot Docs Cinema
The Cutoff Man
Facing the prospect of unemployment, Gabi (Moshe Ivgy) reluctantly takes a job cutting off the water supply of people who can’t pay their bills. The job is treacherous and openly vilified as Gabi frequently becomes the victim of their rage, suffering verbal and physical abuse. His only solace is his son who dreams of becoming a professional soccer player in order to avoid joining the army.
The Cuttoff Man is the study of a man forced to provide for his family by depriving others. The only job that Gabi can get is this terrible paying bane of most other’s existence. Moshe Ivgy is excellent as the put upon Gabi, never standing completely upright and proud unless he is watching his son play soccer. His trial and tribulations make up the meandering narrative and the film is more ‘slice of life’ than a standard tree act scripted affair. Ivgy is more than prepared to shoulder the load here. The rest of the characters outside of Gabi’s family are mere pedestrians in the story as Gabi’s focus remains constant.
Things slowly start to unravel as an incident threatens the future of Gabi’s son and well-being, but by the end the film delivers a satisfying portrayal of the perseverance and strength that someone desperate to provide for his own family must exhibit merely to survive. (Kirk Haviland)
Friday, April 12th, 3:15pm, Cineplex Odeon Sheppard Cinemas
Monday, April 15th, 2:45pm, Innis College
Neil Diamond: Solitary Man
Neil Diamond: Solitary Man is a slick documentary chronicling the famed singer songwriter’s success story from a shy Jewish Brooklyn kid to a magnetic stage performer sometimes called the “Jewish Elvis”.
Produced originally for the BBC, director Samantha Peters takes us through his life and times with relative ease and manages to condense a fair bit of information into the film’s short running time. It’s every bit an authorized biography with extended interview clips featuring the man himself, as well as plenty of music and archival performances.
It’s hardly a shocking expose of the man’s life and times, as his relationships with his two ex-wives and children are simply glossed over. There’s also some aspects and his creative career that it would be interesting to see more of, particularly the recording of his iconic live album Hot August Night and his recent work with producer Rick Rubin that put him back at the top of the charts. Instead the film simply skims the surface of his long list of accomplishments for adequate yet still entertaining results.
This free screening that will also feature a performance from the appropriately named The Hot August Nights. (Dave Voigt)
Saturday, April 13th, 7:00pm, Innis College
Short in length, but huge in laughs and overall grotesquery, Didi Lubetzki’s Israeli zombie comedy cribs gleefully and wisely from some of the all time genre greats, but never at the disservice of a winning story and probably the most sympathetic figure of its kind since Simon Pegg wasted stitches with a cricket bat.
Looked down upon by his peers for never being able to measure up to his war hero father, Danny Aharonivitch (David Shaul) works as a janitor at a military base trying his best to stay out of everyone’s way. A bad batch of vaccines delivered by the woman of his dreams ends up turning almost everyone on the base into cannibalistic zombies, adding up to a Passover they won’t soon forget.
Gleefully gory and filthy minded, Lubetzki wisely cribs more from action films like Die Hard and Assault on Precinct 13 than every zombie film ever made. It makes the eventual jokes feel a lot fresher, and the claustrophobic nature of the film brings out more sympathy for an already likable lead. It could stand to be a little longer than 50 minutes, but it’s debatable if the added length would really bring much to the table other than padding. It feels pretty great as is. (Andrew Parker)
Saturday, April 13th, 10:00pm, Innis Town Hall (preceded by Cats on a Pedal Boat)
Cats on a Pedal Boat
Cats on a Pedal Boat is a pleasant surprise to say the least. This ultra low budget comedy/ fantasy/ horror from Israel makes up what it lacks in production value with a wealth of humour and creativity.
Set in 1994, perhaps to complement its low-fi aesthetic, Cats turns the bedtime story motif on its head by having the yarn spun by a grandson tired of hearing the same old stories from his grandfather. Looking very much like I did in 1994 (prepubescent chubby kid w/ long hair and oversized heavy metal t-shirts), Yotam is at that awkward age between being a kid and a teenager, making him a conscious observer of the adult world. In the opening scene of the film he engages four bullies who turn on him and are about to steal his skateboard before a young couple comes to his aid. The story he then concocts revolves around the young couple attempting a romantic afternoon on a pedal boat that gets interrupted by carnivorous radioactive cats dwelling just beneath the surface of the water.
The funniest bits come from the bullies once they’ve entered Yotam’s story as a ragtag team of ‘Sea Scouts’ commissioned to help the couple. An outrageous comedy that owes a lot to American schlock yet brings with it its own unique charm, Cats on a Pedal Boat is like that student film that the rest of the class wishes they’d made. It brings a bit of midnight movie charm to this year’s festival, and it’s definitely slotted appropriately in the line-up to do so. (Noah Taylor)
Saturday, April 13th, 10:00pm, Innis Town Hall (Screens with Poisoned)
A Universal Language
In its World Premiere screening, director Igal Hecht takes us to the homeland in A Universal Language. It’s a story led by Yuk Yuk’s founder Mark Breslin and six Canadian stand-up comedians. Jews and non-Jews alike tour the Holy Land of Israel, Palestine and the surrounding areas, eager to perform their material in new surroundings and bridge potential cultural gap. It isn’t long before they’re up against religious, cultural and political sensitivities very different from what they’re accustomed to.
Basically a PR stunt film for Yuk Yuk’s, it’s at the very least an interesting one, as we see how comedy, particularly the ethnic kind, plays there as opposed to here. These comics connect with their surroundings it’s and react in different ways to being on the other side of the globe. Sometimes their jokes work and sometimes they don’t, but the film is ultimately a chronicle of how the performance artists constantly have to evolve and adapt.
Hecht runs though the material at break neck speed, but there’s ample opportunity to see each of the performers and Breslin himself have their own reactions to the social differences and sometimes monumental historical significance of some of the places that they’re visiting, underlining just how certain jokes won’t play all that well.
It’s a decent fly on the wall type social experiment and some kudos are deserved because as the old saying goes you never know until you try, and they add an entirely new context to the word “bombing” in that part of the world. (Dave Voigt)
Sunday, April 14th, 8:30pm, Bloor Hot Docs Cinema
The Two Faces of Auschwitz
This documentary is the incredible story of two albums filled with photographs taken at Auschwitz-Birkenau in May 1944. One was recovered in 2007 from an SS officer and contains photographs depicting moments of leisure enjoyed by officers responsible for the camp, while the other shows the arrival of Hungarian Jews a few hours before most of them would be executed. When Auschwitz is liberated, a young Jewish girl discovers this latter album and finds that it contains images of her now-deceased family members.
Told entirely through archival interviews, personal journals, photos, film and news reels, The Two Faces of Auschwitz can hardly be described as entertainment. Dense and sombre it’s filled with knowledge that in some cases has only fully come to light in the last 6 years since the discovery of the SS officer’s photo album and journal. The film moves from the camps, with very detailed descriptions of mass exterminations and camp conditions, up to the trials of the officers conducted years later and a archived interview of the survivor responsible for protecting and keeping the ‘occupants’ photo album Lili Jacob.
The film feels more like a history lesson than a piece of entertainment, a television special as opposed to feature documentary. But there is no denying the imagery on screen is profoundly moving. (Kirk Haviland)
Monday, April 15th, 1:00pm, Innis Town Hall
Friday, April 19th, 2:00pm, Cineplex Odeon Sheppard Cinemas
Oma & Bella
It played last year at Hot Docs, but this charmer returns to the city for a rightful second go around that’s as moving as it is potentially hunger inducing.
Director ALexa Karolinski travels to Berlin to spend time with her elderly grandmother, Regina, and her best friend, Bella, as they reminisce about their friendship and their lost years during to the Holocaust, often while cooking traditional Jewish dishes or out on the town.
It’s a very simple concept and it really is for the most part just two people talking to each other or to the director, but these women have a lot of heart and wit, and their stories are absorbing and touching. Also, the food looks fantastic. (Andrew Parker)
Wednesday, April 17th, 3:15pm, Innis Town Hall
Thursday, April 18th, 4:00pm, Cineplex Odeon Sheppard Cinemas
Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir
In 2009, Andrew Braunsberg, producer, collaborator and friends through thick and thin with Roman Polanski, approached the Swiss abode where the acclaimed director was under house arrest. He says to the camera that he and Roman are going to have a conversation, “and whatever happens, happens.” That’s usually preluded to an interview gone wrong, or one full of drama, contempt and closed doors. Such is not at all the case with Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir, a filmed interview full of closed doors, but the sensation that no one even wiggled the handles.
In the universe of film there are few directors who have suffered as much tragedy and trouble as Roman Polanski. Responsible for some of the greatest films and one of the most troubling affairs in Hollywood. Victim to one of the most infamous crimes and one of the most horrendous wars. In this casual chat with Andy, he recalls each chapter, some more intimately than others.
The murder of his wife Sharon Tate, for which he was across an ocean during, and his surreal war torn childhood in Poland, are the best illustrated, the latter feeding directly into The Pianist, the most discussed film, not to mention bringing Roman to tears. His infamous hang-ups with the law are more explained than explored, and given that this was filmed when he awaited possible extradition to the States, it may have been a touchy subject (we all wanted to hear about).
Static, ungracefully editing with fade cuts and devoid of criticism (which isn’t that shocking since it’s largely directed by Spielberg protégée and frequent EPK creator Laurent Bouzereau), A Film Memoir is a bit too friendly. That’s not to say it isn’t intimate. It should make for some interesting background material for Polanski fans. (Zack Kotzer)
Wednesday, April 17th, 4:00pm, Cineplex Odeon Sheppard Cinemas
Sunday, April 21st, 3:15pm, Innis Town Hall
An undeniably powerful and suspenseful drama, Meni Yaesh’s film about a gang of thugs who hide proudly behind their religion went over very well at Cannes and the Israeli equivalent of the Oscars last year and with great reason. It’s a genre film that holds a mirror up to some very hard to broach topics including what actually defines becoming an adult and how cultural identity plays into personal development.
In many respects Yeash evokes Scorsese in some of the best possible ways. This story of several extremely proud, young Jewish men that have taken it upon themselves to protect their block and it’s religious dignity at any cost isn’t that far removed thematically from anything one would find in a film about the Irish or Italian mafia or even from an urban American crime saga in modern day. The emphasis is place squarely where it should be: on how identity shapes perception and humility.
Things take a turn to the unpredictable when the group’s leader gets sweet on a non-religious girl that his boys look down on, but the real thrust here comes from the contradiction of the group itself. They are as westernized as can be despite busting up bootleggers, shaking down store owners for opening on the Shabbat, or calling out immodestly dressed women. They think they are old school, but they aren’t cognizant of how they’ve been moulded into something different and almost equally unholy. It’s an electric film to watch and ponder over. (Andrew Parker)
Wednesday, April 17th, 8:30pm, Cineplex Odeon Sheppard Cinemas
Saturday, April 20th, 9:15pm, Bloor Hot Docs Cinema
An American Tail
Yes. This is a film that’s showing during this year’s TJFF as a free screening, and if you have seen it, you’ll know very well why I need to talk about it and probably why it’s such a great fit for the festival. If you haven’t, you should probably hurry out and see one of the most touching, intense, and thoughtful animated films to come out in the last 40 years and the crowning achievement in the career of master animator Don Bluth and one of the best Steven Spielberg productions of the 1980s. That says quite a bit right there.
Young Fievel Mousekewitz is a Jewish mouse forced to flee with his family from their homeland in Russia due to an invasion of cats. They make their way to America where there supposedly aren’t any, and the young Fievel becomes separated from his family in a harsh and uncaring city.
A shockingly thorough retelling of the immigrant experience, Bluth’s film all but traumatized youngsters while enthralling them at the same time. Next to Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant, it might be the most underrated animated film in the history of the medium. Bluth’s mantra when it came to making films for kids was that they could handle anything as long as you reassure them that everything will be fine at the end. This is a film showcasing his work at its most poignant, and any time it plays somewhere it’s reason enough to take note and celebrate. (Andrew Parker)
Saturday, April 20th, 2:00pm, Innis Town Hall
Hava Nagila (The Movie)
If you had told me that the funniest and most interesting film I would have watched from this year’s festival would have been an examination of the most prevalent Jewish folk song ever created, I probably would have looked at you like you had two heads. Yet, this year’s closing night film is about just that and, well, here we are with probably the biggest delight of the festival.
Roberta Grossman tracks the origins and roots of the biggest Jewish hit to ever get a party started from it’s Eastern Russian origins as a reminder to be happy to better serve God, through more modern day ownership over who actually created it, and through the eyes of some of the most famous performers to ever make a hit out of it (Regina Spektor, Harry Belafonte, Glen Campbell), the film is more than just a simple origin story. It’s a really engrossing pop culture history lesson the likes of which don’t come around very often. It even goes into how the song found its way into the 60s Civil Rights movement and takes a really loving look on how some comedians appropriated the song as a joke shortly thereafter.
And did I mention that more often than not, it’s laugh out loud hilarious? That’s something that’s very hard for any doc – let alone a specifically ethnic one with an extremely narrow focal point – to pull off. It’s a charming blend of the academic and the silly and a great way to cap off the festival on a really high note. (Andrew Parker)
Sunday, April 21st, 8:00pm, Bloor Hot Docs Cinema