TJFF, the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, is only one letter away from the acronym of the city’s international film festival. The proximity is fitting, though, since TJFF is now more of an international festival than ever before.
The festival, which runs from May 1 through May 11, features 116 diverse titles from 23 countries, as well as a large number of Canadian films, shorts and documentaries.
“We’re hoping that people will enjoy the diversity,” says festival programmer Jérémie Abessira. “We have a little bit of everything at the festival.”
One very high-profile foreign title is Transit, the Philippines’ Oscar submission for the foreign language category. The film tells the story of five Filipino families who live as migrants in Israel. Transit’s director, Hannah Espia, will be present during the festival.
Also showing on the world cinema front is the short film program From Russia with Falafel, running May 5 and 7, which features four films from Russian Israelis.
“We want to make sure there’s not too many films related to a certain theme,” says TJFF program manager Stuart Hands. He explains that too many films about the Holocaust or political strife in Israel would not be an accurate indicator of what comprises Jewish cinema around the world.
The festival is also putting an emphasis on Canadian films this year. “We’re trying to do a yearly series of films where we screen Canadian Jewish films that have been sitting in archives for ages,” Hands says.
Among the obscure Canadian films to be screened are The Wordsmith, directed by Claude Jutra (Mon Oncle Antoine) for CBC from a Mordecai Richler script. The film is about an idealistic writer living on St. Urbain Street in Montreal.
One of the festival’s major features in 2014 is a retrospective on Iraqi-Jewish filmmaker Joe Balass. Balass just finished The Length of the Alphabet, an hour-long portrait of Naïm Kattan, an Iraqi-Jewish and French Canadian author.
“It’s a look at Jewish identity [and] Montreal and Quebec politics in a way I’ve never seen before,” Hands says of the director’s newest film. “Most of the Jewish films we get [from Quebec] are English-speaking Jewish films. It’s really a different point of view in terms of representing Montreal.”
The TJFF will premiere that film, as well as screen two of Balass’s other films about Iraqi-Jewish life, Nana, George and Me and Baghdad Twist, on May 9. Balass will be present at the screenings that day.
Other buzzworthy Canadian titles include The Pin, the first Yiddish film to be produced in Canada. It is a young adult love story set in Lithuania during World War II.
A pair of documentaries at the festival explores the lives of influential Jewish artists from Europe whose names are obscure to North American audiences.
Natan is an Irish documentary about Bernard Natan, who helped boost Jewish cinema in France during the 1920s and 1930s as the head of the studio Pathé.
“It’s about his dramatic life story as a Jew in cinema in a France with a lot of anti-Semitism,” Abessira says. “We always hear about the Jews of Hollywood, yet we’ve never really heard about any indication of Jews in French cinema.”
Lionel Bart: Reviewing the Situation tells the story of the titular Jewish songwriter and composer behind musicals like Oliver! Bart was influenced by Yiddish theatre and synagogue hymns, as much as by Broadway show tunes.
“We’re starting to see films dealing with Jews involved in popular culture in other countries,” Hands says.
The TJFF is also unveiling a new festival prize, the Micki Moore Award. It goes to the best narrative film from a female director, selected by a jury of industry peers. 2014’s winner is For a Woman, a French melodrama from Diane Kurys.
The festival will open and close with films from two beloved directors whose stories could not be more different.
24 Days, directed by Alexandre Arcady, is a true-crime thriller about the kidnapping of Ilan Halimi, a Jewish Moroccan living in Paris, and his family’s attempts to get him back. It explores anti-Semitism in France, which remains a hot-button issue. Arcady will be present at the screening, which is also the film’s world premiere.
Closing the 22nd annual festival is a different beast, the uproarious comedy Fading Gigolo from director John Turturro. Turturro stars in the film alongside Woody Allen, Modern Family’s Sofia Vergara and Sharon Stone.
In Fading Gigolo, which also screened at 2013’s Toronto International Film Festival, Allen and Turturro play low-income men who decide to begin a business as a pimp and gigolo to make some extra money.
“Any time we can get a film with Woody Allen and John Turturro, I think it’s a great tone to finish with,” Hands says.
Other anticipated titles include the indie comedy Marvin, Seth and Stanley, starring Alex Karpovsky (Girls), and Kidon, an Israeli caper thriller that bears similarities to the original Ocean’s 11. n
To check showtimes and purchase tickets for the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, visit http://tjff.com/.