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Friday, July 25, 2014

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Film fest highlights emerging filmmakers

Tags: Arts
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Debbie Werner, managing director of the Toronto Jewish Film Festival

When the 21st annual Toronto Jewish Film Festival (TJFF) opens to the public on April 11, it will bring with it the usual fine mix of movies that entertain, challenge and educate.

The CJN will be reviewing some of the festival’s 100 or so films in upcoming editions and on our website.

The presentation of quality films aside, TJFF executives are also on a twofold mission: courting future fest-goers and preserving the past.

In terms of the former, the festival has made a concerted effort this year to engage a younger demographic, and is sourcing films that “aren’t your bubbie’s” cup of tea, said TJFF managing director Debbie Werner.

“Today’s films are not the same as we were showing 21 years ago. They’re new, by emerging filmmakers,” she said. “They tell fresh stories through fresh eyes. Some of the themes are familiar, but they’re being reinterpreted with a fresh perspective.”

Werner said that sometimes the festival gets “trapped” by its name, because many young Jews feel they need to look toward a “more secular” venue to get their arts and culture.

“So they overlook us just because of our name. [Youths] think we’re going to be a religious experience,” she said. “Yes, we do offer stuff for those looking to learn from a religious standpoint, but we also offer tons to those looking to learn culturally about what the Jewish experience is worldwide. The festival is the story of the Diaspora.”

As such, before this year’s official festival opening, the organizers held a pre-screening of Polish Bar, an edgy indie film directed by Chicago native Ben Berkowitz that looks at the life of a Jewish DJ in his 20s struggling with his own moral code and connection to Judaism as he works the turntables in a strip club.

TJFF also has a long-running program aimed at Jewish and non-Jewish students called FilmMatters. The education outreach initiative invites schools from around the city to participate in screening Jewish films for cross-cultural, bridge-building purposes.

“The beautiful thing about this program is that it brings kids from all walks of life and ethnicities together,” Werner said, “and it breaks down the barriers of their surface differences and let’s them see that they share similar interests.”

On the preservation front, Werner said she hopes that an archive of Jewish stories committed to celluloid – and digitally – will provide the Jewish community with a resource for future generations.

The TJFF is working to set up its “dream project,” the Toronto Jewish Media Library, an online archive of films for posterity. It would be the first of its kind. What it lacks is the funding to get it done.

“There are a lot of charities and nonprofits asking people for support. We’re not saving lives or curing diseases, but what we are trying to remind people to do is remember the importance of arts and culture, and of protecting this heritage of the Jewish experience through the years around the world that’s been amassed on film,” she said.

Werner noted that funding for the arts over the last few years has been “a hard-hit area.”

Longstanding funders such as UJA Federation of Greater Toronto and other private donors have given less as the economy has forced cutbacks across the board, she said.

The archives project is in the “development phase,” Werner said.

The 2013 TJFF — www.tjff.com — runs from April 11 to 21. Its advance box office opens on March 28.

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