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The comedians pose at the Kotel during a tour of Jerusalem. From left: Nikki Payne, Rebecca Kohler, Mark Breslin, Michael Khardas, Aaron Berg, Jean Paul and Sam Easton. [Chutzpa Productions photo]

During the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival, Yuk Yuk’s founder Mark Breslin was angry over the anti-Israel protests that stemmed from the festival’s spotlight on Israeli films.

He wondered what would happen if he brought a group of Israeli comedians to Yuk Yuk’s. Would they picket him?

Although that idea didn’t come to fruition, the Israeli Consulate in Toronto recommended instead that he take a group of Canadian comedians on a tour of Israel.

So last June Breslin took a group of six Canadian comedians – only two of them Jewish – for a week of performances in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

The experience was filmed by Torontonian Igal Hecht, and the resulting documentary, A Universal Language, will have its première at next month’s Toronto Jewish Film Festival.

“The film explores this uncompromising, uncensored tour of Canadian comics in which they put on comedy shows for Jews and Arabs and anyone who would come, and share some really good laughs with people by telling very, very, dirty jokes,” Hecht explains.

The tour got off to a rocky start. The first  show was at a community centre in Jerusalem. Most of the guests were, as one comedian put it in the film, “Old people and their parents.”

“The comedians were really freaking out,” Hecht says. “This wasn’t their audience.”

The show went on as planned. For the most part, the comedians kept their usual filthy acts and, though some people walked out, in the end it was a success.

“That first night there was a woman with a walker,” Hecht recalls. “Although she laughed and stayed till the very end.”

But that was nothing compared to what was to come later at a hotel in East Jerusalem. This time, the guests included mostly Palestinians and North American NGOs. The problem was when the comedians used the word “Israel” in their acts. Some comedians got heckled. “Learn your history,” one shouted. Other guests walked out.

But as Hecht points out, sadly, the problem wasn’t with the Palestinians. It was the Canadians. “The Palestinians there were very warm and receptive to the comedians. It was a lot of the Canadian and American NGOs there that were leading the charge. There’s a line in the film where Jean Paul [one of the comedians, who is black] says, ‘I wish white people would stop being offended on behalf of other people,’ and he’s right,” Hecht says.

“These NGOs come there and have one specific way of looking at things, and anything else, even a comedy show, offends them. Once those people left, the show went very well.”

As Breslin says in the movie, “one thing I’ve learned is I won’t be opening up a Yuk Yuk’s in east Jerusalem.”

Despite some early setbacks, the tour went over well. The comedians toured Israel and incorporated some of their observations during their acts.

“Comedians are very, very smart. They look at the world very different than most people do,” Hecht says. “I also found they like to drink. You’d be surprised what you can find on a Friday night in Jerusalem at 3 a.m.”

The comedians were also visibly moved by the experience, especially Aaron Berg.

“Aaron really re-connected with his Jewish roots. He really started thinking about his Jewish identity and I think now goes to a synagogue which he didn’t do before.”

The film also shows a scene of another comedian, Sam Easton, crying outside Yad Vashem. It turned out that although he isn’t Jewish, his  grandfather was and his whole family died during the Holocaust.

“Sam was really moved by it,” Hecht says.  “That scene was an honest moment that was only brought on by the trip. It all came to the surface by coming to Yad Vashem. He was really emotionally impacted by that.”

Several local Palestinian and Jewish comedians are also featured in the film, which makes observations on the differences between Israeli and Canadian comedy.

“I think Israelis don’t want to talk about politics most of the time in comedy because they talk about it all the time in their lives. Israeli comedy is more about punch lines and making fun of people’s backgrounds, whereas North American comedy is more about telling a story and making observations about mundane things,” Hecht says.

A Universal Language is a bit of a departure for Hecht, who’s developed a name for himself making controversial/political films such as The Hilltops, My Flag and Shunned for his company Chutzpa Productions.

“Of all the films I’ve filmed in Israel over the last 10 years, this was the most fun,” he said. “It’s not stressful, and you’re not thinking of who’s going to shoot me and things along those lines.”

Hecht says it’s been about four years since he’s made a political film and will return to what he calls his “traditional Chutzpa roots” for his next few films.

“They will be provocative and political, not so much about Israel and the Palestinians but more about major issues in the Jewish world.”

Hecht will miss the première of A Universal Language because he’s filming in Israel, but Breslin and several of the comedians will be there.

A shorter version of A Universal Language will also air on CBC’s Documentary Channel on April 18 at 9 p.m.

TJFF — www.tjff.ca — screening times have not been released at time of writing.

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