Judging by the dizzying variety of movies, this year’s Toronto Jewish Film Festival, a major cultural event in the city, is bound to satisfy a diverse audience.
Toby Perl Freilich’s Inventing Our Life: The Kibbutz Experiment is a comprehensive account of an iconic Israeli institution, the agricultural commune, the first of which was founded a little more than a century ago by eastern European pioneers dedicated to building a socialist state in what was then Ottoman Palestine.
In the century since then, many kibbutzim have changed tremendously. The outmoded notion of collective child care has fallen by the wayside. The central dining room has been phased out. Industry is more important than agriculture. Differential salaries and private housing are now the norm. Privatization has taken hold as the strict principle of egalitarianism has withered.
As Freiluch suggests, the kibbutz had no alternative but to change with the times. Modern capitalist Israel outgrew the kibbutz, and the traditional kibbutz model no longer fit the country.
Originally founded to provide employment for Jewish pioneers, the kibbutz played an integral role before and after Israel’s creation. Kibbutzniks were in the forefront of establishing Israel’s future borders. Their crops fed an expanding population. To a large degree, they produced the officer corps of the armed forces.
Freilich examines four kibbutzim: Degania (the first kibbutz), Sasa (the first kibbutz populated by American immigrants), Ein Shemer and Hulda.
Their tough and resilient founders, braving malaria, hunger and Arab raids and lacking such essentials as electricity and running water, sought to build the prototype of the new, fighting Jew. “We felt we were the elite of Israeli society,” says one grizzled veteran.
The kibbutz was marginalized by the Likud party, the winner of 1977 election. The new prime minister, Menachem Begin, curtly dismissed kibbutzniks as “millionaires with swimming pools.”
Begin’s churlish attitude was the least of their problems. A debt crisis in the 1980s, endemic mismanagement and the continued flight of young members placed the kibbutz in jeopardy. Kibbutzim, however, appear to have weathered these challenges.
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Arnon Goldfinger’s The Flat delves into a family mystery. When Gerda Tuchler died, her descendants, including the filmmaker, sifted through her possessions in her Tel Aviv flat. To their surprise, they found copies of Der Angriff, a Nazi newspaper founded by Joseph Goebbels, and letters in German attesting to an unusual friendship.
Tuchler and her husband, Kurt, were German Jews who settled in Palestine after the rise of Adolf Hitler. Shortly after their arrival, they travelled around Palestine with Leopold von Mildenstein – a nobleman and high-ranking Nazi party member who had come to Palestine to write pro-Zionist stories about its Jewish inhabitants – and his wife. Stranger still, the Tuchlers regularly visited the von Mildensteins in Germany after the war.
In his riveting film, Goldfinger tries to make sense of this seemingly bizarre relationship, questioning his incurious mother, talking to von Mildenstein’s daughter (who claims he was not a Nazi) and interviewing historians.
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Evi Kurz’s The Kissinger Saga takes Henry Kissinger and his lesser-known brother, Walter, back to Fuerth, their hometown in Germany, on a sentimental journey. “We still feel connected to Fuerth,” says Henry, probably speaking more for himself than Walter who, unlike Henry, never speaks in German.
Like their late parents, Louis and Paula, the Kissinger brothers were born in Fuerth, a town of half-timbered buildings in the state of Franconia from which Kurz also hails.
In this competently crafted documentary, Henry and Walter recall their childhood, the rise of Nazism, the humiliations they endured, their parents’ lives, their emigration in 1938, their new home in New York’s Washington Heights enclave and the adjustments Louis and Paula had to make to survive.
Kurz hardly dwells on Henry’s dazzling career as an academic and diplomat, nor on Walter’s career as a businessman. The brothers, particularly Walter, couch their comments in careful, measured language, indicating they have not forgotten their German roots.
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Fabienne Rousso-Lenoir’s Cabaret-Berlin, The Wild Scene explores the nightclub and theatre scene of 1920s and early 1930s Berlin, a mecca of modernism in which German Jews played a pivotal role. Composed of jaunty film clips and revelling in cutting anti-authoritarian humour, the film moves along to the beat of catchy tunes, features a tableau of sexy chorus girls and gives a viewer tantalizing glimpses of the future Hollywood actor Peter Lorre and of an alluring performer named Marlene Dietrich.
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Lisa Ohlin’s melancholy feature film, Simon and the Oaks, takes place in late 1930s and 1940s Sweden as Europe edges closer to war.
Simon Larsson (Bill Skarsgard), a bookish and withdrawn Swedish boy, befriends Isak Lentov (Karl Martin Eriksson), a German-Jewish refugee. Their bond is cemented when Simon defends Isak from antisemitic bullies during a school break.
After a fire engulfs the Lentov home, Simon’s mother, Karin (Helen Sjoholm), invites Isak to stay with them indefinitely. Isak’s father, Ruben (Jan Josef Liefers), a prosperous bookstore owner, gratefully accepts her invitation.
These events occur as Germany invades Poland and Norway, imbuing the film with an ominous tone. Can neutral Sweden be next? Further layers of uncertainty pop up when family secrets are revealed and Simon discovers his real identity. Simon and the Oaks is a film of stark simplicity and depth.
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William Karel and Livia Manera’s Roth on Roth offers the great American novelist Philip Roth a platform to reflect on his life. Although Roth is notoriously reclusive, he opens up here, discussing his family, novels and anxieties.
He defends his first published story, Defender of the Faith, from charges of self-hating antisemitism. He remembers he could not converse with his grandfather, who spoke not a word of English. He admits he annoyed his father when he chose writing over law. He talks about his hellish first marriage. He discloses he had to “prepare” his parents for the publication of Portnoy’s Complaint, which made him financially stable. He discusses his disciplined work habits and acknowledges he is unhappy when not working. He says he faces the prospect of death with fear, sadness and resignation.
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Stephen Fischler and Joel Sucher’s Dressing America – Tales from the Garment Center comes off as an ode to New York City’s fabled and fiercely competitive ready-to-wear rag trade, which was founded and nurtured by Jewish immigrants in the late 19th century.
Manufacturers liken the garment district to a small town, where bumping into a familiar face is a common experience. The filmmakers claim that the industry, built on bolts of cloth, has managed to adapt to changes in taste. Surprisingly, they say precious little about the formidable challenge posed by Asian competitors.
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Paula Markovitch’s The Prize is a feature film set in 1970s or 1980s Argentina, when the army-backed government was conducting a “dirty war” against the left. The movie is infinitely sombre and bleak.
A mother and her young daughter live in a simple cabin amid the wind-swept sand dunes of a lonely stretch of beach. They seem like castaways in purgatory.
The mother, taciturn and monosyllabic, is secretive, as if some disaster looms on the horizon. She has reason to be tense. Her husband has disappeared, presumably having been arrested and perhaps even murdered.
“We are here because they want to find us,” she tells her daughter, Cecelia Adelstein, in ominous tones.
Before Cecelia sets off to school, she is told by her insecure mother what to say to the teacher. And when Cecilia, a bright girl, wins an essay contest sponsored by the armed forces, her mother is mortified, insisting she boycott the award ceremony.
The Prize is short on character development, and the back story is vague. But the atmosphere is thick and enveloping.
The festival runs until May 13. For locations, dates and screen times, visit www.tiff.com.