Summer is ending, the kids are trudging back to school and yellowing leaves are starting to fall – such are the autumnal signs of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), two weeks of sprawling chaos that make every sane person avoid King Street West, while every insane person flocks giddily to its orbit of celebrities.
As usual, TIFF serves up some excellent Jewish content this year, with a wonderfully eclectic mix of Israeli, European and North American Jewish artists debuting their works domestically and internationally. We’ve watched the trailers and read the synopses, and these are the seven Jewish films that have us most excited.
“I Do Not Care if We Go Down in History As Barbarians”
This drily offbeat film, which is Romania’s official entry to the Academy Awards and scored the top prize at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic, follows a young theatre director’s quest to recreate the 1941 Odessa massacre, when as many as 100,000 Jews were slaughtered by the Nazis. She stumbles, though, when some of her cast, along with the local government, retaliate against her portrayal of Romanian complicity in the Holocaust. (“It’s not anti-Romanian,” she argues over thundering clouds on set. “It’s facing our own history.”) Director Radu Jude’s film should resonate with audiences who’ve been tuning into the recent debate in Poland over that country’s role in the Holocaust, and strikes at the heart of our unique moment in time, as the last survivors die off and a new generation who will never meet them is born.
When a Hasidic man’s six-year-old daughter is diagnosed with cancer, the hospital bills start piling up. To pay them, he decides to get his old band back together, reviving his long-lost days as a secular wannabe rock star. This Israeli film, co-directed by Boaz Yehonatan Yacov and Joseph Madmony, won the Audience Award at the Jerusalem Film Festival and seems like a memorable laugh-and-cry affair that Israeli cinephiles won’t want to miss.
Jonah Hill (born Jonah Hill Feldstein) has transitioned from goofy, fat kid actor (Superbad, The 40-Year-Old Virgin), to award-nominated dramatic actor (Moneyball, War Dogs). He’s now stepping into writer/director territory with Mid90s, his hotly anticipated debut film. The coming-of-age tale follows a 13-year-old boy navigating life with an abusive older brother and newfound skateboarding friends in 1990s Los Angeles. With unpretentious cinematography and an authentic throwback style, it seems like a homage to Richard Linklater’s early slacker years, but with a distinctly 21st-century flavour, adding a natural aesthetic to the cast of mostly unknown faces.
Prosecuting Evil: The Extraordinary World of Ben Ferencz
Ben Ferencz left Transylvania with his parents as an infant in 1920, as they feared Romania’s persecution of Jews. He wouldn’t return to the region until 1945, as a member of the United States army, after the Nazis surrendered and he’d graduated from Harvard with a law degree. Back then, there was no such thing as the International Criminal Court, but Ferencz – who was appointed as a chief prosecutor in the Nuremberg Trials – would spend decades advocating for one, after witnessing the survivors’ liberation from the concentration camps firsthand. Jewish-Canadian director Barry Avrich tells Ferencz’s story in this sweeping new documentary that’s getting its world premiere at TIFF.
While the plot of this feel-good intergenerational dramedy isn’t totally clear from the trailer, one thing is: audiences will cry. Coming from acclaimed Jewish director Dan Fogelman, the movie’s sun-drenched cinematography and gentle acoustic-guitar score keep things tonally similar to Fogelman’s hit TV series, This is Us, while a well-rounded cast of Oscar Isaac, Annette Benning, Mandy Patinkin, Olivia Wilde and Olivia Cooke cements it as an attention-seeker come award season.
The Front Runner
In 1987, breaking news of an extramarital affair destroyed Gary Hart’s political career, in the midst of the Democratic presidential race. Jewish-Canadian filmmaker and TIFF favourite Jason Reitman tells this story with Hugh Jackman playing Hart. It will premiere at TIFF, ahead of a mainstream release in November. Reitman’s timing is apt: anyone who can remember Hart’s collapse may yearn for the days when a personal scandal (not even with a porn star, Russian pee tape or genital-grabbing!) could bring down a presidential candidate.
The Other Story
This hotly anticipated Israeli film, the latest from acclaimed director Avi Nesher, will receive its world premiere at TIFF. It tells a sprawling story of a converted ultra-Orthodox couple and the bride’s parents’ hesitation, while simultaneously following a woman yearning to escape her restrictive religious background. It also involves a creepy pagan cult. The plot sounds a bit unwieldy, but the cast is a who’s-who of Israeli TV and cinema, and some critics are hyping it as the best of Israel’s five features at this year’s festival.