Toronto Jewish Film Festival 2014

By Marc Glassman

The spring film festival season is still upon us as April showers become, well, May showers. Intersecting with Hot Docs’ final weekend and continuing for another week is the ever-popular Toronto Jewish Film Festival (TJFF). Like all fine festivals, the TJFF offers a plethora of cinematic choices ranging from classic Yiddish features (The Dybbuk) to tough Holocaust fare (Reporting on the Times: The New York Times and the Holocaust); from new Israeli movies (Cupcakes) to Canadian Jewish TV dramas and docs (Tviggy); and from the latest international festival winners (The German Doctor) to carefully chosen archival films (The Unvanquished). From May 1 through the 11th, 116 films from 23 countries will be screened at venues ranging from the Hot Docs Bloor Cinema to Cineplex Cinemas Empress Walk. To delve into the complete programme, please check their website.

With such a wide range of films to view, it seems appropriate to concentrate on one cinematic form—documentaries—-and explore what the TJFF has chosen to programme in that area.

Life Sentences is a contemporary Israeli feature, which won the best documentary prize at the 2013 Jerusalem Film Festival. It’s already being touted as a main contender for the Israeli selection for next year’s Academy Awards. And it’s partially set in Montreal!

Directed by Nurit Kedar and Yaron Shani, Life Sentences explores the complex identity that is Israel through the story of a son of Palestinian man and a Jewish woman, who married, against objections from both families, in the 1960s. After the Six Day War in 1967, Fawzi al Namir reacted to the humiliating defeat suffered by the Arab countries by becoming a terrorist in Israel. Captured after over 20 successful—and often fatal—attacks, Fawzi was sentenced to a multiple lifetime prison sentence. Faced with extreme hostility, Fawzi’s Jewish wife eventually took their two children, a boy and a girl, to Montreal, where they were raised as Orthodox Jews.

Momi, the son and main character in the film became Shlomo in Montreal. The family covered up their past until, unexpectedly, Fawzi was released and sent to Tunisia in a deal set up by the PLO. There, he reestablished his relationship with his kids, especially his daughter, until she turned her back on him and became a Hasidic Jew and emigrated to Israel. He then turned his attention to Shlomo, who became intrigued with Arabs, in particular one young woman, whom he fell in love with and eventually married. At that point, Momi/Shlomo became Namir, a name that he uses today.

This complex and curious story, with its twists and turns, seems to embody the many dilemmas of the Middle East. Momi/Shlomo/Namir’s tale illustrates the possibilities of finding love in both cultures despite each religion opposing such unions. And who is he? At one point, he observes that Jews follow a matrilineal line to establish religious identity while Muslims look to the patriarch for proof of lineage. So—is he both or neither? Amidst all the brutal fighting that is ongoing in Palestine/Israel, he denounces religion and killing and asks that everyone believe in “empathy.” If only that was possible and that solutions could be so simple.

Another complex personality, but one with fewer grave consequences, is presented in I Remember Barbra. Kevin Burns’s film is a funny and rather sweet look back at the adolescence of Barbra Streisand, the ultimate example of a Brooklyn girl making it big in showbiz. Fellow students at Erasmus High recall a quiet girl, who made few friends and rarely showed off her amazing voice. Burns canvases the area, talking to Barbra’s high school principal, the local cop, and the proprietors of the best local cheap eateries. Most embrace her success as one for their neighbourhood and, in a way, for themselves. We don’t learn much about Barbra but we do get a loving profile of an unpretentious Brooklyn way before hipsters and “Girls” utterly changed the borough.

Crossing the acclaimed Brooklyn Bridge, one can view David L. Lewis’s profile of the feisty Manhattan iconoclast Nat Hentoff. The Pleasures of Being Out of Step shuffles back and forth between Hentoff’s exemplary career as a preeminent jazz critic, broadcaster and producer and his more problematic forays into politics, particularly his anti-abortion stance, which has placed this life-long radical into the hard-right conservative camp on a major issue.

Lewis tries to keep things moving sprightly by cutting between Hentoff’s long-winded if admirable defense of the US First Amendment (freedom of speech, etc.) and choice selections of music by Lester Young, Charles Mingus, Count Basie, Billie Holiday and other jazz notables. This is an uneven but intriguing look at a fine American journalist and thinker.

From Hollywood to Nuremberg is a unique Holocaust film, which presents archival footage of the Second World War, including concentration camps, shot by legendary Hollywood figures John Ford, George Stevens, Gregg Toland and Samuel Fuller.

Viewers of the film will be able to see outtakes judged to be too grim (by the US high command) from December 7th, the film co-directed by Toland and Ford, which won the 1943 Oscar for best short subject in the documentary genre. They’ll also see footage of Samuel Fuller’s infantry unit, The Big Red One, whose feats inspired his 1980 feature film of the same name.

Most impressively, George Steven’s intense camerawork of Dachau, the most notorious of the Nazi death camps, is on display in much of the final section of the film. Those images still retain the power to shock despite the fact that they’re nearly 60-years-old. While From Hollywood to Nuremberg is certainly an important film, it is marred by overly didactic narration explaining the meaning of images, which are inherently disturbing.

The Length of the Alphabet is the final film in a remarkable trilogy by Iraqi-Jewish-Canadian director Joe Balass, all of which are being screened at TJFF. Here, Balass profiles Naim Kattan, the brilliant Iraqi-Jewish-Canadian novelist and essayist, who is hailed in Quebec as an important writer and thinker. Balass assembles a group of Quebec intellectuals and artists including Jacques Godbout and Fernand Ouellet to praise Kattan and position him as the key figure in representing Jewish culture in Quebec. Kattan’s influence at the Canada Council for the Arts is also explored but it’s the man, himself, who makes the movie special. Even in his 80s, Kattan is charming and articulate—an immensely admirable cultural figure.

There are many more docs among the 116 films in this year’s TJFF. Again, please check out the website for details.