This year’s Toronto Jewish Film Festival, which runs from April 11 to 21, has an eclectic lineup of movies from around the world.
Roberta Grossman’s rousing documentary, Hava Nagila (The Movie), joyously explores the origins and success of a song that has seeped into Israeli and American cultures and graced countless Jewish weddings and bar mitzvahs. Described as a kitschy yet profound tune signifying hope, Hava Nagila is, depending on your view, a “portal” into Jewish history and tradition or a “greasy cliche” of Jewish music.
Grossman takes us on a sentimental journey to the rustic Ukrainian town of Sadagora, where Hava Nagila was apparently born, the brainchild of a cantor named A.Z. Idelsohn, who was inspired by chassidic nigun. Or maybe, as she suggests, it was written by Moshe Nathanson, whose proud American descendants sing his praises.
Hava Nagila, fused with the Romanian hora dance, became the unofficial folk song of a nascent Jewish nation in Palestine. In contemporary Israel, however, it is not so popular. But in the United States, it was immensely popular in the Jewish community and a mainstream hit sung by the likes of Connie Francis, Harry Belafonte and even Bob Dylan. In the former Soviet Union, chanteuse Regina Spektor claims, it was a symbol of resistance to cultural and religious oppression. Hava Nagila (The Movie) moves along at a steady clip, and is hugely entertaining.
Bloor Cinema on Sunday, April 21 at 8 p.m.
Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy, by Michael Kantor, contends that the Broadway musical is basically a construct of the Yiddish theatre and of cantorial melodies, and that it played a meaningful role in giving American Jews “a shot at acceptance” in the United States.
The evidence is irrefutable, judging by the preponderance of Jewish composers and lyricists on Broadway. Their plays have run the gamut from Show Boat, Oklahoma and South Pacific to West Side Story, Funny Girl and Cabaret.
Among such shining luminaries as Oscar Hammerstein, George and Ira Gershwin, Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin, Cole Porter was singularly the only gentile in the pre-World War II period who composed for Broadway. And he supposedly claimed that he was successful solely because he wrote “Jewish tunes.”
In the more modern era, the authorship of Broadway musicals has rested with, among others, Alan J. Lerner, Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein, Jerry Herman and John Kander.
Broadway Musicals, featuring interviews with composers and historians, is thoroughly fascinating.
Royal Ontario Museum, Thursday, April 18 at 1 p.m.
The festival’s opening night film, CowJews and Indians: How Hitler Scared my Relatives And I Woke Up In An Iroquois Longhouse – Owing the Mohawks Rent, is an original film that teeters on the edge of the surreal and the absurd. It is also, sometimes at least, hilariously funny.
The filmmaker, Marc Halberstadt, tries to reclaim property his Jewish parents lost after the rise of Nazism in Germany. He devises an ingenious scheme to achieve his objective: Let native American people lodge the reparation claim.
What, you may ask, is the connection between the Nazis and aboriginal Americans? Halberstadt’s mother, Milly, who immigrated to the United States in 1937, bought a house in Malone, N.Y. on land owned by Indians. Get it?
Halberstadt leads a native American delegation to Germany, and the Germans react with a mixture of puzzlement and bemusement.
Bloor Cinema on Thursday, April 11 at 8:30 p.m.
Rainbow, by Eliran Elya, is set in the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip in 2004. After an Israeli army patrol is wiped out by Palestinians in an ambush, a group of Israeli soldiers move in to secure the area and retrieve body parts. They decamp in a Palestinian home, expecting to leave shortly. As they wait, boredom descends and tension breaks out. What happens next is the stuff of grief and tragedy.
Elya keeps the film moving at a breathless pace, and the acting is on a high level.
Innis Town Hall, Monday, April 14 at 8:30 p.m.
Aya, directed by Mihal Brezis and Oded Binnun, unfolds during one afternoon and evening in Israel as a Danish music researcher arrives and is met at the airport by a total stranger who drives him to his destination in Jerusalem.
Aya (Sarah Adler) is waiting in the crowded terminal for a friend to appear when a taxi driver asks her to greet the Dane (Ulrich Thomsen) for him while he takes a break. Aya’s life thus takes a turn in a different direction. By default, Aya becomes his host, driver and confidant, and as they talk, they connect on an emotional level.
Aya, distinguished by two stellar performances, is an unusual and riveting drama about the nature of relationships.
Sheppard Cinema 3, Sunday, April 14 at 3 p.m. and Bloor Cinema on Thursday, April 16 at 7 p.m.
Aliyah, a French film directed by Elie Wajeman, takes place mostly in Paris as Alex, a 27-year-old drug dealer, prepares to make aliyah. For no apparent reason, Alex and his friend have decided to open a restaurant in Tel Aviv. Quite possibly, Alex thinks he can rehabilitate himself in Israel. But his older brother, Isaac, a good-for-nothing, continues to be a financial drain on him.
The film unfolds as Alex raises funds for his upcoming trip, goes about his usual business, confers with low-life associates, learns rudimentary Hebrew, visits relatives on a Jewish holiday and flirts with his girlfriend.
Aliyah, regrettably, is a run-of-the-mill production that leaves no trace in its wake.
Bloor Cinema, Wednesday, April 17 at 7 p.m.
Delicious Peace Grows in a Ugandan Coffee Bean, directed by Curt Fissel, uplifts the spirit. When the price of coffee – the most traded commodity after oil – in Uganda falls precipitously, Christian, Muslim and Jewish coffee farmers in that African nation band together to form the Delicious Peace Coffee Co-operative. They attract the attention of a Jewish coffee distributor in the United States, who’s impressed by their organic/fair-trade beans. Much of the action centres around a hard-working Jewish farmer who gets the co-operative up and running.
Sheppard Cinema 3 on Friday, April 12 at 1 p.m. and Royal Ontario Museum on Monday, April 15 at 1 p.m.
Epilogue, an Israeli feature film by Amir Manor, focuses on Berl and Hayuta Hoz, an ailing and financially pressed elderly couple who fend for themselves in their twilight years. They live together in a modest flat in Tel Aviv, but spend their days virtually alone in near solitary isolation.
Berl, vigorous of mind, visits a relative in hospital and tries to start a mutual aid society for needy families. Hayuta buys medication and goes to a movie. Tears roll down her cheeks as she speaks to her son on the phone. He lives in New York City.
Manor succeeds in drawing a potent portrait of the ravages that afflict seniors.
Sheppard Cinema 5 on Wednesday, April 17 at 6 p.m. and ITH on Thursday, April 18 a 4:45 p.m.