A Bedouin family in southern Israel, a controversial Jerusalem football team and a notorious Holocaust denier are among the on-screen subjects at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.
But, much of the attention at the 41st annual gathering of cinephiles is, deservedly, going to the noteworthy women behind the camera.
Among the six films selected from Israel are works from three women directors – all of whom are making their feature debuts. Meanwhile, Or Sinai, a recent Jerusalem film school graduate, is making her first TIFF appearance with the short film Anna.
“In earlier years of Israeli cinema, there was not [much] representation of women behind the camera,” says TIFF programmer Jane Schoettle, who oversees films from Israel, Germany, Australia, New Zealand and the United States.
“Contemporary cinema culture is clearly making up for lost time.”
This festival also marks a rare occasion where two of the Israeli selections – Maysaloun Hamoud’s In Between and Elite Zexer’s Sand Storm – are mostly in Arabic.
In Between follows the lives of three Palestinian women in urban Tel Aviv. Produced by Shlomi Elkabetz, who came to Toronto with the critically acclaimed Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem in 2014, the drama will have its world premiere at the festival.
“It’s very much about the particular issues of these women, who are all very different and represent different aspects of Palestinian women,” Schoettle tells The CJN. “[In Between] is very particular in its place and time, and that’s actually what makes it quite universal.”
Meanwhile, Sand Storm screens in Toronto after building buzz on the worldwide festival circuit, having won major prizes at Sundance and Locarno.
Zexer’s film focuses on two Bedouin women, mother Jalila (Ruba Blal-Asfour) and free-spirited daughter Layla (Lamis Ammar). Like In Between, the film deals with the clash between traditional customs and contemporary society.
The drama was brought to Schoettle’s attention many years ago. The TIFF programmer tells The CJN she met Zexer when the festival highlighted Tel Aviv in the City to City program in 2009.
Schoettle says that she often met Zexer during her yearly trips to Israeli film festivals, and that the director had been developing Sand Storm for several years.
“When I am able to stand on that stage with Elite this year, after eight years of hearing about the film and knowing her… I cannot tell you personally what that’s going to mean for me,” Schoettle says.
The other highly buzzed film from an Israeli woman is Forever Pure, a documentary about the Beitar football club. Directed by Maya Zinshtein, the film explores the controversy surrounding the Jerusalem team’s addition of two Muslim players from Chechnya in 2012, which drew ire from the team’s passionate fan-base.
As programmer Thom Powers states on the TIFF website, Forever Pure is “a disturbing portrait of a society driven to extremism.”
Meanwhile, two established Israeli directors return to TIFF with their newest projects. The latest from Joseph Cedar (Footnote) is Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer, starring Richard Gere, Steve Buscemi and Lior Ashkenazi.
“Joseph is still an extremely strong Israeli voice,” Schoettle says, “but he’s now established enough that he can take the story he wanted to tell and place it [in New York].”
“This is, to me, a sign of maturation of Israeli cinema and the filmmakers within it. They can start to step outside geographically and perhaps psychologically outside of their roots and go tell other stories.”
The English-language drama follows the fractious relationship between the titular character (played by Gere) and an Israeli dignitary (Ashkenazi). Gere’s portrayal should garner much of the attention, with TIFF programmers referring to it as “the role of a lifetime.”
Filmmaker Avi Nesher, who was in Toronto most recently with The Wonders in 2013, returns with Past Life. The period piece follows two Israeli sisters who investigate their father’s mysterious life during World War II.
Moreover, bar and bat mitzvah celebrations are the centrepieces of two world premieres.
Emil Ben Shimon’s Israeli debut, The Women’s Balcony, explores a contemporary Orthodox community during a bar mitzvah, as they deal with spirituality and community secrets.
Ottawa native Rebecca Addelman, who has worked as a writer on the sitcom New Girl, comes to the festival with The Smoke. The nine-minute comic short follows a middle-aged woman returning home to attend a bat mitzvah.
These stories are the cream of the crop, Schoettle says, estimating that the festival programs around one in every 25 films submitted.
“Increasingly, filmmakers within Israel are digging deeper and looking within the culture to tell stories of people – whether it’s a gender, whether it’s an ethnic group, whether it’s a religious group – that may not be represented on the big screen in any sort of significant way,” she says.
Meanwhile, two TIFF selections that are courting Oscar buzz also deal with Jewish themes.
Ewan McGregor’s directorial debut, American Pastoral, is an adaptation of Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book. David Strathairn (of Good Night and Good Luck fame) plays Nathan Zuckerman, one of Roth’s most indelible creations.
There is also much Oscar potential for Denial, about the legal showdown between alleged Holocaust denier David Irving (played by Timothy Spall) and historian Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz).
The film focuses on Lipstadt’s legal battle to demonstrate that the Holocaust happened after Irving sued her for libel. Both Weisz and Spall’s performances are being watched closely as awards season approaches, as is the screenplay from David Hare, a previous Oscar nominee for adapting The Hours and The Reader.
The Toronto International Film Festival begins on Sept. 8 and runs through the 18th.