Shelter is a documentary of dichotomies. “I feel that I had the best life. I also think that I had the worst life that anybody in this world can have, forever,” says a Holocaust survivor who made his career as a builder in Toronto. Mendel Tenenbaum is one of many Jewish immigrants whose stories make up the aptly named Shelter, a doc that shows how many fled persecution in Europe and built their new lives in Toronto, brick by brick.
It begins by introducing the community’s elders, like Tenenbaum, who speak to the experience of being Jewish immigrants in a young Toronto. Many recount the harrowing experiences of surviving the Holocaust, which they carried in to their new homes. It was from the experience of profound loss and trauma that they found the courage to build anew in Canada, the doc posits.
The film captures a specific part of the Jewish community in Toronto–the immigrants who arrived in the 1950s and became developers and builders, as well as the family members that continue their legacies. It naturally falls into clichés–rags to riches, the hard-working immigrant–but witnessing the stark contrast between life in a concentration camp and the booming businesses they create in Toronto is moving.
“It’s mainly why Jews were entrepreneurs. You didn’t need anybody’s permission to do it,” quips David Green, son of the late philanthropic developer Al Green, in the film. The documentary shows how a wave of Jewish immigrants arrived as Toronto was entering a post-war boom. Facing antisemitism in many industries, newcomers like Al Green began their own businesses in development to accommodate the booming population. They built many of the apartment complexes and buildings that raised modern-day Toronto.
The newly-minted businessmen were massively successful. Like, creating the Cadillac Development Corporation (of Cadillac-Fairview malls) kind of successful. While their children and grandchildren may not have experienced the same hardships as their elders, they are sure not to forget. Many of the younger generations burst with pride in their interviews about their families’ legacies. They speak of their parents and grandparents’ history of providing quality and affordable housing to fellow immigrants as Toronto grew into a multicultural hub.
Although Shelter gathers remarkable stories of resilience, there’s an elephant in the room. The film speaks to the legacy of these early developers in sheltering a growing population in the ’50s and ’60s, but there is no mention of Toronto’s current housing and affordability crisis. The film is a tribute to what they built, but is it all tumbling down?
While many gush about the impact of their family businesses in providing quality, affordable housing and fostering the beginnings of the diverse city we know and love today, one might wonder: what are these businesses doing to continue that work in 2021? _Shelter _could have closed this logical loop and been stronger for it.
Despite this, the documentary is a thoughtful tribute to a community that endured the unthinkable and went on to build legacies and structures of immense impact. It brings to life a remarkable archive of photos with a touch of animation, injecting a liveliness without becoming too gimmicky. In one, photos are animated to illustrate the erection of the Toronto skyline, perfectly encapsulating the heart of the film.
Shelter is a moving doc that pays tribute to an important and deeply impactful chapter of Jewish history in the city of Toronto. It is a must-watch in understanding the way Toronto has been shaped by Jewish communities, and it is set to kick off the 29th edition of the Toronto Jewish Film Festival as the opening film.
Shelter screens at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival from June 3-4.