Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) programmer Jane Schoettle says she doesn’t like to make sweeping generalizations about a national cinema. But when it comes to contemporary Israeli film, the programmer says one of its pleasures is the mixture of serious subject matter with sometimes absurd comic relief.
“There is something within (Israel’s) cultural character … that totally understands and accepts irony and humour,” says Schoettle, who curates titles from Israel, Germany, Australia, New Zealand and the United States.
Those undercurrents of dark comedy enliven several of the Israeli titles featured at this year’s festival, such as new offerings from directors Samuel Maoz and Savi Gabizon.
The festival’s 41st iteration will also offer dramas that examine the struggles of Orthodox communities in the United States and the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, the newest projects from Jewish-Canadian directors like animator Sol Friedman and documentarian Alan Zweig will have their world premieres.
Maoz’s Foxtrot examines military culture in Israel in a much different way than his previous triumph, Lebanon, which was set almost entirely in a tank during wartime. In this one, Lior Ashkenazi and Sarah Adler play parents coping with the death of their son, an Israeli soldier. The drama, which is full of morbidly comedic touches, will be screened on Sept. 13, 14 and 16.
Schoettle says that she could not speak for 10 minutes after viewing the film at a post-production facility.
“The last shot of the film completely informs everything that you’ve just seen for the previous two hours,” she says. “It’s an extremely powerful piece of work.”
Savi Gabizon’s Longing, meanwhile, centers on a middle-aged bachelor named Ariel, played by Shai Avivi, who is forced to reconcile with the son he never knew he had. Longing won the audience award at the Jerusalem Film Festival and will be playing at the Scotiabank Theatre on Sept. 11, 13 and 16.
Schoettle describes the film as both “a complex adult drama about very important themes” and a comedy full of nuanced observations.
Beyond the anticipated titles from Israeli cinema veterans, there are two directorial debuts from the country that are hoping to make a mark at TIFF. (Both will screen as part of the festival’s Discovery program.)
Montana is the first feature film from Limor Shmila. The 74-minute drama, about a young woman (played by Noa Biron) who returns to her hometown of Acre after a long absence, screens for audiences on Sept. 10, 12 and 16.
“It’s a beautiful story about somebody going back to their childhood home … and seeing it through the eyes of an adult,” Schoettle tells The CJN. “This is something we can all probably identify with.”
One of the film’s strengths, according to Schoettle, is the richness of the performances. The stellar ensemble is likely due to Shmila’s background as a casting director.
The first feature by Israeli author Matan Yair, playing in Toronto after earning rave reviews at Cannes this spring, is Scaffolding.
It focuses on an angry young Israeli named Asher (played by Asher Lax) who spars with his father over business interests, but finds solace with a patient literary instructor. In a case of art imitating life, Lax was one of Yair’s students and helped inspire the film.
“It’s a brisk, fresh, almost brusque kind of filmmaking,” Schoettle says of Yair’s debut. “He knows these young people super well, and many times, just (leaves) the camera and lets (the students) do their thing.”
Janice Gross Stein, the director of the Munk School of Global Affairs, will participate in an extended post-film discussion on Sept. 14. Scaffolding also plays, without Stein’s presence, on Sept. 12 and 17.
Two of the most intriguing TIFF titles, both world premieres, explore Orthodox Jewish communities. Disobedience, which was directed by Chilean filmmaker Sebastián (Gloria) Lelio, stars Rachel McAdams and Rachel Weisz. The latter portrays a devout Jewish woman in London who reignites a romance with an old friend, played by McAdams.
One of Us, a new documentary from Jesus Camp directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, also premieres in Toronto. (It is slated for Netflix distribution, but will screen for audiences on Sept. 10, 12, 15 and 17.) The film looks at a few chassidic individuals from New York who are at odds with their stature in the cloistered community.
Meanwhile, Toronto-based animator Sol Friedman returns with his third short in four TIFFs. An Imagined Conversation: Kanye West and Stephen Hawking is a comedic seven-minute visualization of two very different minds talking about quantum mechanics and popular culture.
Another Toronto director, Alan Zweig, returns to the festival with There is a House Here. In this documentary, he explores the lives of the Inuit in Canada’s North, with the aid of Inuk singer/songwriter Lucie Idlout.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict also remains a vital theme in some TIFF selections. Wajib is a comedy-drama about family tensions and local customs that also explores the lives of Palestinians living in Israel. (It comes from acclaimed director Annemarie Jacir.) Meanwhile, American filmmaker Erika Cohn arrives in Toronto with The Judge, a documentary that profiles the first woman appointed to a Shariah court in the Middle East.
Another amazing true story premieres in Toronto as a special event on Sept. 8. The 40-minute doc, On My Way Out: The Secret Life of Nani and Popi, is a portrait of two Holocaust survivors that is also directed by their grandchildren, Brandon and Skyler Gross. Toronto’s Barry Avrich and Howie Mandel produced the film.
This year’s festival is slightly altered from the 2016 version, with close to 20 per cent fewer titles screening in downtown Toronto auditoriums. Last fall, TIFF attendance dipped slightly, despite a growing number of premieres.
Schoettle explains that while these cuts meant that TIFF programmers had to choose more carefully, that discipline should benefit moviegoers.
“We’re 150 per cent sure that these (films) are absolutely the best the world has to offer right now, and that feels good,” she says.