This year’s edition of the Toronto Jewish Film Festival runs from April 11 to 21 and features a first-class lineup of films.
The British novelist Charles Dickens, in Oliver Twist, described Fagin, one of his most loathsome characters, as “an old shrivelled Jew.” But who was really Fagin? A figment of his fertile imagination? Or an actual flesh-and-blood figure? The mystery is apparently resolved in The First Fagin, which explores the topic in voluminous length, blending the historical record with dramatic re-enactments.
Fagin was modelled after Isaac (Ikey) Solomon (1785-1850), a pickpocket and a dealer in stolen goods. Like William Shakespeare’s Shylock, Fagin validated antisemitic tropes and stereotypes about Jews. But in The First Fagin, directed by Alan Rosenthal and Helen Gaynor, Solomon is portrayed more benignly as a loving husband and father who was thrown into the maelstrom of crime by circumstances beyond his control.
Raised in London’s impoverished East End, Solomon was born into crime, his father having been a criminal. Britain’s rigid class system, as well as the endemic antisemitism of his times, left him with few options. Of course, he could have hewed to the straight and narrow. But having been exposed to malodorous influences, he embarked upon a crooked road.
The First Fagin unfolds in London and on the Australian island of Tasmania, a British penal colony where he, his long-suffering wife and children ultimately ended up. This informative and entertaining semi-documentary evokes a mean-spirited era when a man could be hanged for the slightest of crimes.
Royal Ontario Museum, April 12, at 3:30 p.m. and Sheppard Cinema 3 on April 18, at 5 p.m.
Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir, directed by Laurent Bouzereau, examines a tumultuous life of tragedy and triumph. Much of it unfolds in the form of an extended interview conducted by Polanski’s friend, Andrew Braunsberg. File footage from events that shaped him rounds out the rest of this penetrating film.
Polanski was born in Paris, but on the eve of World War II, his Polish-Jewish parents moved back to Poland, which, as he observes, was “a big mistake.” Caught up in the Nazi occupation, the Polanski family suffered greatly.
His best friend was deported, his mother was murdered in Auschwitz and his father was marched away. He recalls these traumatic moments with considerable emotion and tears. Polanski survived by going into hiding with compassionate Polish families. After the war, he was reunited with his father, who bitterly disillusioned him by taking a new wife and leaving him in the care of strangers.
The film also charts his fling with acting and his career in cinema in postwar Poland, his marriage to Sharon Tate – the victim of a brutal murder – his incarceration for having sex with a minor, and his flight to Europe after a warrant for his arrest was issued by the U.S. government.
Sheppard Cinema 5, April 15, at 4 p.m. and Innis Town Hall on April 21, at 1:30 p.m.
Re-emerging: The Jews of Nigeria, by Jeff Lieberman, takes a sympathetic look at the Igbos, some of whom observe Judaism and claim to be the descendants of one of the 10 Lost Tribes of Israel. Their narrative, however valid, is discounted by an American professor of Bible. They are a tiny minority. Fewer than 3,000 of 25 million Igbos have adopted Judaism.
In case you’ve forgotten, the Igbos touched off a civil war in the 1960s by declaring independence in the newly created but abortive nation of Biafra.
Lieberman interviews a succession of Igbos who converted to Judaism. “I know in me there is a Jewish soul,” says an Igbo who was once a Catholic. “I’m done with Jesus.” In subsequent frames, an Igbo in flowing red robes blows a shofar and a woman cooks a traditional Sabbath meal.
Sheppard Cinema 5, April 15, at 4 p.m. and Royal Ontario Museum, April 18 , at 3 p.m.
Franziska Schlotterer’s fine-tuned German-language feature film, Closed Season, is a most unusual film. It opens in Israel as a young German tourist disembarks from a bus and tries engaging a kibbutznik in a serious conversation. In vain, he urges the German to go back home to Germany.
At this juncture, Closed Season flashes back to 1942. As Albert, a German Jew, tries to cross into neutral Switzerland from Nazi Germany, he is apprehended by Fritz, a German hunter and farmer. Fritz and his wife, Emma, cannot have children. But since Fritz needs an heir, he strikes a deal with Albert. In exchange for impregnating Emma, Albert will be allowed to remain on the farm, far from prying Nazi eyes.
At first, the sex between Albert and Emma is coldly mechanical. But as Emma learns to love it, she falls hard for Albert, compromising her relationship with Fritz and imperilling Albert. The film is relentlessly realistic in tone and the performances could not be better.
Sheppard Cinema 5, April 16, 6:15 p.m. and Bloor Cinema, April 17, 9 p.m.
My Father and the Man in Black is about a tempestuous relationship. Saul Holiff, a Canadian Jew from London, Ontario, was the manager of the legendary country singer Johnny Cash. When they met in 1958, Holiff did not know that Cash, a wild southern Baptist, popped pills and had a dysfunctional personality. Cash did not always show up at concerts, annoying Holiff, an organized and reliable person.
This absorbing film is directed by Holiff’s son, Jonathan, a former Los Angeles-based talent agent.
Innis Town Hall, April 18, 9:15 p.m.
Hotel Lux, a surreal German/Russian production directed by Leander Haussmann, takes place in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union and revolves around a hilarious case of mistaken identity in which a German comedian who mocked Adolf Hitler on stage is recruited to be Joseph Stalin’s personal astrologer.
Innis Town Hall, April 16, 3:15 p.m. and Sheppard Cinema 3, April 21, 3:30 p.m.
Altina is the story of Altina Schinasi (1907-1999), a sexually liberated artist of Turkish and Greek descent who defied social conventions and made a life for herself at a time when society kept bourgeois women like herself on an extremely tight leash.
The scion of a wealthy tobacco merchant who invented the cigarette-rolling machine, a device that revolutionized the industry, she was smart, independent and lusty. Peter Sanders’ film captures her spirit deliciously.
Innis Town Hall, April 14, 1 p.m. and Sheppard Cinema 5, April 15, 6 p.m.