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Israeli vampires, screwball sci-fi and Canadian docs pack this year’s Jewish film festival

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The Shelter (Pictures courtesy TJFF)

More than a quarter-century into its run, the Toronto Jewish Film Festival (TJFF) is still giving its audiences much to contemplate and debate.

Those discussions should become even more impassioned now that an audience prize – named, cheekily, “The Chosen Film” People’s Choice Award – will be offered for the first time.

For the first year, audiences will choose just one film as the winner, says festival program director Stuart Hands.

Audiences at the TJFF can vote using their tickets as ballots. The results will be announced after the festival’s final weekend. Every screened film – even the archival presentations – is eligible.

But predicting which title will captivate Toronto crowds the most is nearly impossible. With around 80 films, shorts and television specials from around the world scheduled to be presented between May 3 and 13, there should be something to please everyone at the TJFF.

Many of the documentary selections that focus on Jewish communities around the world, for instance, should fascinate and surprise audiences.

The Canadian doc Above the Drowning Sea, a favourite of TJFF artistic director Helen Zukerman, tells the story of the Jews who emigrated from Nazi-occupied Europe to Shanghai.

There are also explorations of Libyan Jews (Libya: The Last Exodus), Iraqi Jews (Remember Baghdad), Moroccan Jews (The Ancestral Sin) and even the Jewish residents of Miami Beach, Florida (The Last Resort).

The Last Resort

“That’s what so wonderful about the festival,” Zukerman tells The CJN. “Even to me, after 26 years, there isn’t one festival where I don’t see a film and say, ‘I didn’t know that. Isn’t that interesting?’ ”

An especially hot ticket this May should be RBG, the closing-night film. Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s documentary chronicles the formidable life of Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and has already earned rave reviews.

Meanwhile, opening-night selection Promise at Dawn is a star-studded affair, with French actors Pierre Niney and Charlotte Gainsbourg helping bring the story of writer Romain Gary to life.

Hands describes it as “a big, globe-trotting epic that feels like an event.”

For cinephiles interested in movies about movies, the TJFF has a wealth of offerings, from biographies of Barbra Streisand, Steven Spielberg and Sallah Shabati director Ephraim Kishon to Shalom Bollywood, which looks at the intersection of Jewish actors and Indian cinema.

READ: TJFF FOUNDER HONOURED FOR DECADES OF SERVICE

Shalom Bollywood

On the fiction side, there are national and local premiéres of many acclaimed Israeli comedies and dramas. The Cousin deals with Middle Eastern relations, centering on a left-wing Israeli actor who befriends a Palestinian handyman. Writer/director Asaf Saban will present his feature debut, Outdoors, about a couple’s marital strife reaching a boiling point as they try to build their dream house in the Galilee.

Israeli director Amichai Greenberg will also be in Toronto to talk about his new film, The Testament, about a Holocaust researcher who uncovers a big secret involving his family. The latest works from renowned Israeli masters Eran Riklis and Nir Bergman – Shelter and Saving Neta, respectively – should also excite devoted festivalgoers.

A scene from Outdoors

The nuances of life in Israel should also come through in The Museum, Ran Tal’s behind-the-scenes look at Jerusalem’s Israel Museum. That documentary has already won the TJFF’s David A. Stein Memorial Award.

“All these issues about Israel, and all these contradictions about Israeli identity and culture, come up,” Hands says. “It’s a fascinating portrait of Israel.”

The festival’s Micki Moore Award, presented to a feature film with a female director, has gone to the German thriller Winter Hunt. Astrid Schult’s taut, twisty film focuses on Lena, a woman who arrives at a mansion in the countryside hoping to find a suspected ex-Nazi guard.

Other Second World War–themed titles include The Samuel Project, a family-friendly drama starring Barney Miller’s Hal Linden as a grandfather telling his story of survival for his grandson’s high school project.

The Samuel Project

“This is an interesting film for somebody like me, who has grandchildren (to whom) you want to introduce the Holocaust,” Zukerman says. “It’s something for grandparents or parents to take their kids to. We don’t have many opportunities for films like that.”

Helen Zukerman (Ryan Emberly photo)

There are also a few forays into genre cinema within the program, such as Jamie Greenberg’s screwball sci-fi comedy Future ’38, starring GLOW’s Betty Gilpin. The TJFF will also screen the first three episodes of Juda, a new TV series that Hands describes as like an Israeli Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

That premiére should complement a talk about contemporary Israeli horror cinema by professor Olga Gershenson, who is writing a book on the subject.

“Horror’s always a tougher sell for our audience,” the program director says, adding that these presentations may pique interest for more fright-based cinema at future festivals.

Meanwhile, after a well-attended series at last year’s festival, a new program of fiction and documentary shorts from Canada (entitled “Oy Canada”) will screen on Thursday, May 10.

As Canadians, “our constant reference is the American Jewish experience,” Hands says. “What is the Canadian Jewish experience? Hopefully there will be writers seeing (these films) who will be inspired to think about these issues, these questions.”