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Saturday, November 1, 2014

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Movies to savour at the Jewish Film Festival

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The most outstanding Jewish cultural event in Toronto is undoubtedly the annual Jewish Film Festival. This year’s edition, which runs from April 11 to 21, lives up to high expectations, judging by its cinematic offerings.

“I don’t go to sleep easily, ever,” confesses Shimon Peres, the president of Israel, in the documentary The Price of Kings: Shimon Peres, which will be screened on April 15 and 16.

At the ripe old age of 87, Peres, one of Israel’s founding fathers, is still in the thick of things. Many of his contemporaries are either dead or confined to senior citizen’s homes. But Peres, who has filled every top position in government, is still serving his country. “The most interesting thing in life is to work,” he says.

Last month, he was one of the first dignitaries to greet U.S. President Barack Obama upon his arrival in Israel for a visit. And a few days before, he formally accepted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new coalition government.

The portrait that Richard Symons and Joanna Natasegara draw of Peres in their 77-minute film is rich in nuance. Although he was never a soldier in the field, he was instrumental in acquiring the heavy weapons that the newly founded state required to win the 1948 war. Peres, as defence minister, permitted the construction of settlements in the West Bank. But as foreign minister and prime minister, he was something of a dove, pushing forward to make peace, even as Palestinian suicide bombings claimed countless victims.

“If you don’t have a vision or a dream, you’ll do nothing of importance,” he tells an interviewer. True to this maxim, Peres has worked assiduously to secure Israel, as The Price of Kings suggests. Yet until quite recently, Peres, who hungers for popularity, was an under-appreciated figure in Israel. His bitter rivalry with Yitzhak Rabin was no secret, but they learned to work together to solve the pressing problems of the day.

Harry Hunkele’s Back Door Channels: The Price of Peace (April 14 and 16) recounts in meticulous detail the frantic diplomacy that gave rise to the Camp David Accords in 1978 and Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt in 1979.

When Egyptian President Anwar Sadat let it be known, in the wake of the Yom Kippur War, that he wanted to break the bloody stalemate with Israel, the United States got even more deeply involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict. American, Israeli and Egyptian diplomats used unofficial channels in Morocco, Romania and Austria to facilitate negotiations, which were kick started by Sadat’s historic visit to Israel in 1977.

Hunkele claims that Ezer Weizman and Moshe Dayan, the Israeli defence and foreign ministers, and Jimmy Carter, the American president, drove the incipient peace process. Menachem Begin, Israel’s prime minister was not as conciliatory. Indeed, his relations with Sadat were so bad at one juncture that Sadat threatened to pull out of the talks.

Key players who participated in these complex and interminable discussions add substance to this otherwise substantive and intriguing film.

Honorable Ambassador (April 12 and 15), directed by Jonathan Paz, focuses on the tireless efforts of an Israeli ambassador to bring the benefits of drip irrigation to Africa. Miki Arbel, the Israeli envoy in Cameroon, discovers to his chagrin that local farmers are not using the made-in-Israel technology to water their fields. An agronomist by training who loves Africa, he travels around the country to ascertain why they are resistant to modernity.

An affable, well-meaning fellow who likes chatting with his African driver, he meets “kings” in flowing robes, local officials and hard working women who till the soil while their lazy spouses lounge around indolently in cafes. And while he is treated with kindness and respect, he discovers that old ways die hard in a tradition bound country. In utter frustration, he calls his wife, informing her he is at his wit’s end. But then something wonderful happens to vindicate his faith in the mission. Honorable Ambassador is by turns amusing and endearing.

Gideon Raff’s Prisoners of War (April 14), the Israeli pilot movie that inspired the American television drama Homeland, is taut and riveting. Three Israeli prisoners-of-war are returning to Israel after 17 years of captivity in Lebanon. Their families are consumed by a mixture of joy and apprehension. Sadly, another Israeli POW, having died in Lebanon, will return in a coffin. The reunions are moving, but the POWs have been profoundly affected by their ordeal, and in one particularly poignant case, a wife cannot bring herself to admit that she gave up on him and remarried.

This is tender and powerful stuff.

The Other Son (April 15 and 17), directed by Lorraine Levy, pulls at the heartstrings. In 1991, as Iraqi Scud missiles crash into Haifa, nurses in a hospital hustle new-born babies into the safety of a bomb shelter. Two of the infants, a Palestinian Arab and an Israeli Jew, are accidentally misidentified after they’re returned to their cribs. The parents are unaware that a mistake has been made.

Eighteen years later, DNA tests conclusively confirm the egregious error. What are the parents to do? How will the sons react? Can this potentially tragic separated-at-birth situation be rectified?

Levy handles these explosive emotions with immense tact and sensitivity, turning in a film that leaves a viewer at the edge of the seat.

Norman Mailer: The American (April 17), a biopic by Joseph Mantegna, delves boldly and flamboyantly into the life and times of the late, great American novelist. Mailer tapped into writing while studying engineering and catapulted to fame with his first novel, The Naked and the Dead, which was based on his experiences as a soldier in the Pacific theatre during World War II.

Twice a Pulitzer Prize winner, Mailer was a journalist and a political activist as well. Mantegna regards his subject as a “literary rock star” who had a finger on America’s pulse. In one jaunty archival clip, he jousts playfully with Gore Vidal, who was no wallflower either.

A macho man in the mould of Ernest Hemingway who revelled in boxing, Mailer had six wives and nine children, all of whom appear in this absorbing film. Mailer, essentially, was a paradox. He was a companionable husband, but a philanderer whose infidelities condemned marriages. He was a devoted and supportive father, but self-absorbed in the extreme.

George Gedeon, in the probing documentary In the Presence of my Neighbours (April 21), skillfully examines the historic relationship between Greeks and Jews. He pays special attention to the Holocaust period, when Germany occupied Greece, and to contemporary Greek attitudes toward Jews, which are coloured to some extent by antisemitism.

A Greek Canadian journalist from an Orthodox Christian background, he delivers a remarkably balanced account, letting the chips fall where they may. By doing so, he performs a valuable service for both Greeks and Jews alike.

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