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Programmers' Notes

Jérémie Abessira

I’ve been lucky to be part of the welcoming family of the Toronto Jewish Film Festival for several years. This experience has opened my eyes to some excellent work by student filmmakers. While Israeli Cinema has been flourishing over the years, the country’s student film scene has grown as well. This year, through amazing student short films, we’ve been granted a window to activism in a Palestinian school with The Fifth Season, as well as a beautifully crafted slice of Israeli life with Inside Shells.

Students aren’t the only ones who want to delve into the reality of Israeli society. Two of my favourite films this year, A Quiet Heart and Beyond the Mountain and Hills depict the daily life of ordinary people who are affected by unexpected turns of events.

I was also delighted to discover the documentary on the making of The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob, which explores the historical context of a film I grew up with. Even though the film was made over 40 years ago, it still resonates with today’s political and social climate in France, especially with the elections and the ongoing debates around religion, immigration and racism.

And finally, as someone who can’t live without traveling, I’ve particularly enjoyed exploring the streets of the Jewish quarter of Tunis in El Hara and the heart of Paris in Taam, a Taste of Rue des rosiers, where Orthodox Jews and the gay community share the same falafel.

Allen Braude

The Shoah is among the most frequent subjects explored in Jewish cinema. Each year, the Festival receives numerous films about the Shoah to consider; the best of these uncover new information or tell underrepresented stories. Here are three such films in this year’s Festival.

Based on real events, Cloudy Sunday is a sweeping drama set in Nazi-occupied Thessaloniki, Greece. In telling the story of a forbidden romance between Estrea, a young Jewish woman, and Giorgos, a member of the Greek resistance, the film looks at the tragedy that befell Thessaloniki’s large Jewish community, which has rarely been depicted in cinema.

With a title that seems an oxymoron, the documentary Heaven In Auschwitz reveals survivors who have what seems impossible: happy memories from their time in the concentration camp. But this is the case for some Jewish youth who were part of a children’s barrack in the family camp at Auschwitz, and who credit their pleasant experiences to an unsung hero – Freddy Hirsch. This unexpected documentary wonderfully brings Freddy Hirsch’s story to light.

Why do many Poles reject the term ‘collaborator’ to describe those who aided the Nazis in destroying Poland’s Jewish community? This important question is explored in the fascinating documentary Scandal in Ivansk, when the seemingly benign rededication of a small Polish town’s Jewish cemetery ignites national controversy.

Maor Oz

We are proud to stay true to form and offer you provocative, challenging, and intimate windows into Jewish life from around the world… and around the corner.

Joshua Z. Weinstein’s critically acclaimed Menashe sensitively brings us into the Brooklyn home of struggling single father Menashe. Against an entire community that seeks to employ their age-old traditions to help him, Menashe remains constantly magnetised towards a shifting hope that he can take care of his son on his own.

Across the world in Israel, through Alamork Davidian’s Facing the Wall, we meet Ethiopian Jewish women in an absorption centre where so much of Israeli street culture is born. In this beautiful short film (playing with Michael Aloni’s Shir), Davidian draws out the pain of leaving loved ones behind in a tense meditation on transition, and how all the love and hope in the world is often right before our eyes.

Once again, Montreal-based Danae Elon delivers another hard-hitting documentary on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict with The Patriarch’s Room. Unknown to most, the Greek Orthodox Church is massively influential in the sale and transfer of land in the region. Elon breaks down the history and context of their involvement, through a sensitive story of one man.

I welcome you to our 25th year and thank you for all of your support!

Rani Sanderson

This year, I was inspired by the beauty of filmmaking, films where form and content seamlessly work together to create something special.

I am a Stefan Zweig fan. Right from the opening scene in Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe, I was immediately drawn into the exquisiteness of this film. The cinematography was gorgeous, capturing the lush surroundings of each location the story brought us to, while the performances were strong, bringing a truth and humanity to the real life characters.

Sergei Loznitsa’s Austerlitz is one of the most unique documentaries I’ve ever seen. With a camera mounted in various locations of a concentration camp, the film simply captures visitors as they come and go and wander around the sites. I found myself completely mesmerized by how people were passing through these spaces; who was (and wasn’t) there; and how people were reacting (or not) to their surroundings. At points moving and at other points shocking, to me, Austerlitz was a fascinating social commentary and a truly thought-provoking work.

In Winding, it was not only how people move through space, but also how a river passes through a people. The filmmaker in me was captivated by the beauty and serenity of how this film was shot, and how the director interwove personal and family stories with the history of the river. The environmentalist in me appreciated the film’s cautionary tale about the connection between society’s greed and negligence and the destruction of nature.

Mark Selby

The dedication of the TJFF staff in bringing Toronto audiences the very best Jewish-themed cinema from around the world is remarkable.

I’m honoured to be a part of the 2017 team, after joining TJFF as a juror and panel moderator last year, and this anniversary season has produced an outstanding line-up.

In the “short and sweet” category, TJFF audiences will love some of the short documentaries. The “sweetest” of these, The Last Blintz, is a must-see, poignant look at the final days of the famous Café Edison in the heart of Times Square by New York-based documentarian Dori Berinstein.

Arts lovers interested, as I am, in the connection between Jewish music and jazz will be intrigued by Body and Soul: An American Bridge, which uses one of the most famous standards from the Great American Songbook to investigate the inherent Jewishness of 20th-century music.

There are also very different types of comedy represented in this year’s selections: the hilarious and fast-paced The Last Band in Lebanon; the beautiful indie dramedy Love is Thicker Than Water; or the charming, haymishe The Pickle Recipe.

Finally, to help commemorate the 150th anniversary of Confederation, the Festival celebrates this country’s most famous Jewish writer, the notorious and immensely talented Mordecai Richler. The Richler archival series, featuring rare TV and film adaptations that were originally released decades ago, will introduce a new audience to his iconic stories.

Susan Starkman

If there is a silver lining in Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential bid, it is the way that it galvanised women to unite across race and class differences to assert their rights in mass demonstrations. Women taking charge of their destinies is a theme in three of our Israeli films year, but what is unique about these films is that they all deal with women in Haredi communities that have not exactly embraced the concept of modern feminism. The documentary Measures of Merit follows Ruth Collan in her bid to be the first Haredi woman elected to the Knesset. Undaunted by the hostility she encounters from both men and women in her community, Ruth remains steadfast in her resolve to represent Haredi women’s interests in Parliament.

The Women’s Balcony is an Orthodox take on Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. When the women’s balcony collapses in their synagogue, a tightly knit Orthodox community goes into crisis. A charismatic young rabbi steps in to take control, but his fundamentalist leanings are an anathema to the women who refuse to be relegated to the sidelines. Uniting in protest, these cheerfully determined women demonstrate that being pious has more to do with building loving homes and a cohesive community than following inflexible rules imposed from above. Finally, rabbinical authority is also challenged in The Gravedigger’s Daughter, a powerful film that sees a woman fight for a most untraditional female role, that of gravedigger.