For film lovers, spring in Toronto is a true entertainment gear-shift; suddenly, there’s a festival every week and we wish we didn’t have day jobs. Screenings at 11 am and director Q & A’s that offer free pie are just an example of the awesome world we feel a part of as soon as the festival line-up comes out. The irony of sitting in a dark room just when the weather in the city is improving is lost on us. We have a mission, and that’s to see as much as possible, especially if its quality. And so after Images, Sprockets, ReelWorld and Hot Docs, when we probably need a breather and a good dose of vitamin D, the Toronto Jewish Film Festival goes and ups the ante.
The selection of films at the 19th annual Toronto Jewish Film Festival is truly astounding. Between May 7 – 15, we’ll have the chance to experience a world class film festival featuring 118 films from 21 countries (Argentina, Austria, Brazil, China, Cuba, Denmark, France, Germany, Israel, Mexico, The Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Russia, South Africa, Switzerland, the UK, USA and Uruguay). The stellar week will also offer seven free programs, something we surely appreciate in this arts-loving city. One of the largest festivals of its kind in the world, this year the TJFF presents one world premiere, one international premiere, three North American premieres and 34 Canadian premieres. The beauty of such a wide-ranging festival lies in its ability to balance elements of Jewish identity and culture with an exploration of universal themes.
The festival kicks off on Saturday, May 7 at the Toronto Underground Cinema, with the North American Premiere of Looking For Lenny, directed by Elan Gale. The film is an illuminating look at the late and great Lenny Bruce, featuring interviews with old-school colleagues and contemporary talents and friends from the comedy world. Opening night also features special guests Kitty Bruce (daughter of Lenny Bruce and founder of “Lenny’s House”, a non-profit charity for women recovering from drug and alcohol abuse), Matt Amar (Looking for Lenny co-producer) and Fred Baker (Bruce’s friend and the director of Lenny Bruce: Without Tears).
Looking For Lenny folds nicely into this year’s sidebar series – The Three Lennys – a 19-part series celebrating the lives and careers of Lenny Bruce, Leonard Bernstein and Leonard Cohen. Through documentaries, concert films, shorts and a feature biopic (many of them rarely or never-before-screened) as well as a live musical component, speakers and special guests, the series pays tribute to the work of these incredible artists. The festival will close out its 19th year on Sunday, May 15 with Leonard Cohen: Live in London. Footage from his live concert on July 17, 2008 contains 26 songs and illustrates the mastery of the legendary Cohen. This is a festival finale not to be missed.
Here’s more of what I’m looking forward to at the TJFF 2011…
China’s first animated film dealing with the Holocaust (because this isn’t your average festival): A Jewish Girl in Shanghai (pictured above), a Canadian Premiere, is based on the popular graphic novel of the same name by Wu Lin. This unique offering uses traditional animated imagery to create a window into Shanghai’s Little Vienna, a neighborhood which harbored 30,000 Jewish refugees during WWII. The community they created and the life they were able to continue will be startling to audiences both familiar and unfamiliar with this narrative. A Jewish Girl from Shanghai is also being shown to students as part of the FilmMatters programme, an educational outreach program now in its 4th year.
FilmMatters: a great innovation offering free screenings to young students of films that explore cultural and religious diversity. This year, it runs from May 9 – 11 and has been made possible by the generous support of The Ganz Family Foundation and Cineplex Entertainment. Also featured as part of this innovation: 7 Days of Remembrance…and Hope (60 students from diverse backgrounds across Canada who participate in the March of Remembrance and Hope, a multi-faith trip whereby university students travel to the Nazi death camps in Poland); Voices Unbound: The Story of the Freedom Writers (the true story behind the California high school class that inspired the Hillary Swank film Freedom Writers); The Last Survivor (portraits of four survivors of different genocides who have since dedicated their lives to working as activists in the anti-genocide movement).
TJFF hosting the world premiere of Between Two Worlds: this very personal documentary by Deborah Kaufman and Alan Snitow delves into the conflicts that are redefining Jewish identity and politics. Members of the filmmakers’ families reveal a spectrum of ideas regarding loyalty to Israel, outlook on the Holocaust and intermarriage. The screening will be followed by a diverse panel on the topic of “Who Speaks for the Jewish Community?” Panelists will include Kaufman and Snitow as well as filmmaker Fern Levitt (7 Days of Remembrance… and Hope) and Daniel Sokatch, who appears in the film.
The amazing space of the TIFF Bell Lightbox: together with Scored, the Montreal-based arts organization, the Lightbox will co-present Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire. This eye-opening documentary by Tony Palmer, which includes several poems and 17 songs (with backup vocals by Jennifer Warnes and Donna Washburn), paints Cohen in the most candid of moments as a sensitive and poetic soul.
The Ashkenaz Foundation returning as a partner to the festival: Ashkenaz will co-present two films, one by Joseph Dorman, Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness. This documentary introduces us to the impassioned scholars and vivid images of Solomon Rabinowitz’s world. This screening will resonate with those close to the history of Jewish Eastern European dispersal in the 1800s, but will also entice audiences thirsty for culture and unknown stories. The second film, David Kaufman’s Song of the Lodz Ghetto (which premiered at the Ashkenaz Festival in 2010) also promises to raise audience spirit through an homage to Yankele Herskowicz, a brave troubadour with the clandestine skill of writing lyrics to familiar tunes while struggling to survive in Lodz during the Holocaust. His song “Rumkowski Chaim” targeted the man chosen by the Nazis to operate the ghetto; Rumkowski is credited by some as helping Jews to survive, by others as the villain who let their families perish.
TJFF will honour mothers of all backgrounds: the festival brings back a time-honoured tradition of celebrating Mother’s Day with films portraying inspiring women. Grace Paley: Collected Shorts focuses on a fascinating, though perhaps not-widely-known, Jewish-American writer. Pnina Feiler: A Communist Nurse introduces us to an 85-year-old chain smoker extraordinaire, while Red Shirley brings us closer to the 100-year old cousin of musician Lou Reed. Esther & Me is filmmaker and comedian Lisa Geduldig’s love letter to her friend, Esther Weintraub, spirited and totally engaged in life and the pursuit of joy. Yes, Miss Commander examines the basic training unit in the Israeli army dedicated to preparing young men from troubled backgrounds for service. Remarkably, their chief officers are all women, many of whom are not much older than the soldiers themselves.
A great showcase of the recent high calibre of small-screen Israeli productions: The controversially-titled Arab Labour comedy series packs a punch, and the “Israeli Glee” brought to us in Mary Lou won’t disappoint. I had no idea that Israeli writers had done their own version of The Office, so you’ll definitely see me at that one trying to memorise the surely-quotable watercooler moments.
The fourth annual David A. Stein Memorial Award: the “Tzimmie” will be voted on by this year’s specially selected jury and awarded opening night at the Toronto Underground Cinema. The tribute comes with a $5,000 cash prize. Jurors for 2011 include Larry Weinstein (Co-Founder of Rhombus Media), award-winning filmmaker Karen Shopsowitz (director, editor, writer and occasional cameraperson) and Adam Nayman (critic for Eye Weekly and Metro in Toronto).
For more info on the vibrant array of films at TJFF 2011, go to their website or check them out on Facebook. The film schedule is available online as of Friday, April 15. Early Bird (discount) passes only available until Thursday, April 14.
To contact the Festival Box Office, call 416-599-8433.
The Festival now screens in seven venues: the Bloor Cinema (506 Bloor St. W. at Bathurst St.) the Al Green Theatre, the Cineplex Odeon Sheppard Centre Cinemas (4861 Yonge St. at Sheppard Ave.) the SilverCity Richmond Hill Cinemas (8771 Yonge St.), and now, the Toronto Underground Cinema (186 Spadina Ave.), the TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King St., W.), and Canada Square (2190 Yonge St.).
TJFF Ticket Pricing:
$8.00 Matinee Screenings
$13.00 – Evening Screenings
$9 Seniors/ Students
$20.00 – Opening Night
Janis Seftel is a Toronto-based writer and blogger.