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TJFF: Festival looks at the story of Israeli cinema

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'Arabic Movie' film poster
'Arabic Movie' film poster

The programmers of this May’s Toronto Jewish Film Festival are not just interested in exposing the work of hot new Israeli filmmakers making a mark on the world stage. They also want to invite Torontonians to travel back in time and explore the past 50 years of Israel’s film history.

One of the centrepieces of the festival’s 24th year is Hagiga – the Story of Israeli Cinema, which screens across two nights (May 11 and 12) at Innis Town Hall.

“It is such a rich history, which we do not acknowledge much,” says Stuart Hands, the TJFF programme director.

“People have this understanding that [Israeli cinema] only became interesting in the past 15 years. There are all these filmmakers that came before, in the ’70s  or even before that… who were vital.”

READ: WIDE SELECTION OF FILMS AT 24TH EDITION OF THE FESTIVAL

The two-part festival version of Hagiga was trimmed down from a more comprehensive series of episodes that aired on Israeli television in 2015.

Part 1, premiering on May 11, will focus on the major filmmakers who shook up the film industry in the ’60s and ’70s, including Menahem Golan, Judd Ne’eman, Ephraim Kishon and Uri Zohar.

Zohar’s award-winning 1967 drama Three Days and a Child, featured in Hagiga, will screen at the festival on May 10. Arik Bernstein, the producer of Hagiga, will also introduce that newly restored, nearly 50-year-old classic.

The second chapter will focus on more contemporary figures, such as Eytan Fox, Joseph Cedar, Eran Riklis and the late Ronit Elkabetz.

Several of the films featured in this latter half may be familiar to patrons with deep ties to the festival.

“This audience has been with the festival for 24 years now, and they have developed a kind of curiosity and knowledge of all these films and actors that you see when you look at the documentary,” says programmer Jérémie Abessira.

One of the earliest titles to premiere at the TJFF, which loyal festival goers may remember, was the 1994 Israeli drama Sh’Chur, which featured an Ophir award-winning performance from Elkabetz. The actor and director died on April 19 at the age of 51 after battling cancer.

In her honour, the TJFF programmer decided to add a screening of a moving documentary about Elkabetz. A Stranger in Paris, directed by Nir Bergman, is a 50-minute documentary from 2010 about the late artist, best known for films such as Late Marriage and Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem.

A Stranger in Paris was submitted to the festival in an earlier year, but it only found a place in the program due to her passing, Hands says.

“She’s a very important icon,” he says. “People who have been with the festival all these years have really become familiar with her.”

Another title focused on arts in the Middle East is David A. Stein Memorial Award winner Arabic Movie. The film explores a different kind of cinephilia in Israel, but among the Arabic-speaking Sephardi and Mizrahi populations. Every Friday night, these groups would come together to watch Arabic films from Egypt.

As for a history of Jewish screen personalities outside of Israel, the TJFF will also have documentaries about Bette Midler, Edward G. Robinson and director Sidney Lumet.

READ: IN NEW FILM, RABIN NARRATES HIS AUTOBIOGRAPHY

Another title about a Jewish film legend is I, Dalio – or the Rules of the Game, a 33-minute documentary about character actor Marcel Dalio. The French actor was often cast as Jewish characters in films released during the lead-up to World War II. Dalio later fled for the United States to escape the Nazi regime.

“The whole film is kind of revolving around… being Jewish and what it means for [Dalio] as an actor in France being seen as the Jew,” Abessira says.

'I Dalio or the Rules of the Game' film poster
‘I Dalio or the Rules of the Game’ film poster

Dalio may not be a household name, but he appeared in many of the greatest films of all time, such as Casablanca, Rules of the Game and Grand Illusion. That latter title, directed by Jean Renoir, will have a free screening in the afternoon on May 6. Chris Faulkner, a professor who has written on Renoir’s Popular Front films of the 1930s, will introduce the classic wartime drama.

In tandem with the cinephilia on hand at this year’s festival, various short films playing before the features focus on a love for cinema. Made by The Sam Spiegel School, the Love Letters to Cinema series of shorts all come from adored Israeli writers and directors.