There was a time when the best place to see premieres of the latest Israeli films was in July, at the annual Jerusalem Film Festival.
But as Israeli films get better and better, filmmakers in Israel have chosen to send them to important international film festivals in Berlin, Cannes, Sundance, and Venice. And now there is a new addition to this exclusive club — the Toronto International Film Festival.
Toronto always has shown an interest in Israeli cinema, going back to its onetime Festival of Festivals. A few decades back, I had the privilege of helping to select movies for a sidebar of exclusively Israeli cinema. With the New York Film Festival largely ignoring Israeli work (in its 55 years, the NYFF has shown only five or six Israeli feature films. This year, it’s including none), I realized that the best place to see the most Israeli premieres is in Toronto. Filmmakers are usually present.
Fortunately, this year the festival did not coincide with the High Holy Days. The city is only an hour away by plane, nine hours by car, and so off I went.
Four new Israeli feature narratives premiered at the Toronto festival this year, and there were a number of films with Jewish content and a few other movies by filmmakers who carry Israeli passports and that provide striking portraits of the region.
The most exceptional of the Israeli offerings was Samuel Maoz’s “Foxtrot,” a brilliant work of cinema with superb performances by Lior Ashkenazi (“Norman,” “Footnote”) and Sarah Adler (“Jellyfish”). Maoz, who garnered the top honor in Venice in 2009 with his film “Lebanon,” looks at the impact that the loss of a child serving in the Israel Defense Forces might have on a family. Though some in the Israeli government might find the film a bit too chilling, director Maoz delivers a true masterpiece, which most will likely be Israel’s submission to this year’s Oscars.
In “Longing,” Savi Gabizon gives us a stunning look at someone who chose not to have children, but years later learns that he had fathered a son — who just died. Gabizon, whose 2003 “Nadia’s Tragedies” is on my personal Top 10 Israeli movies list, draws a first-rate performance from Shai Avivi.
In “Montana,” Limor Schmila investigates how a dark family secret creates havoc for an extended family, and how unconventional sexual behaviors are or are not tolerated in parts of Israeli society. Schmila certainly raises a number of controversial questions for the viewer to consider.
Newcomer Matan Limor was on hand to introduce his beautifully made “Scaffolding,” a look at tough educational issues that face low-income families in classrooms in certain parts of the country. A high school teacher himself, Limor had his students, all non-professional actors, convincingly play the various roles.
From the United Kingdom comes “Disobedience,” directed by Sabastian Lelio and starring Rachel Weisz as Ronit, the New York-based estranged daughter of a distinguished Orthodox London rabbi, who returns home upon learning of her father’s death. Weisz, who is terrific as always, meets up with childhood friend Esti (Rachel McAdams), who though married to the man set to succeed Ronit’s father as rabbi, is questioning her own sexuality.
“One of Us,” a documentary made by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, is meant to uncover the dark and tormented world of ultra-Orthodox Jews who choose to leave their community. The filmmakers take a hard look at what can be lost when people choose to leave chasidic life.
Jonathan Pryce powerfully plays a Jewish writer about to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in Bjorn Runge’s “The Wife.” What slowly becomes clear, in this terrific film from Britain, is the complex and symbiotic life that the writer leads with his wife, played exquisitely by Glenn Close.
Several films give unique insight into a variety of Middle East issues. While she was doing graduate studies at Hebrew University, Erika Cohn, an American, met Palestinian Kholoud Al-Faqih, the first woman judge appointed to a Shariah court in the Middle East. She knew immediately that there was a documentary film to be made. The intelligent “The Judge” premiered at TIFF. Bethlehem-born Annemarie Jacir provides us with a beautiful coming together story of a Palestinian father and son in “Wajib,” starring the talented Saleh and Mohammad Bakri. Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri, who gave us “The Attack” in 2012, provides an impressive cinematic outline for how conflict, in this case between a Palestinian refugee in Beirut and a Lebanese Christian, evolves in “The Insult.”
There were films screened that were made by Israeli-born directors but still were not Israeli movies. Tel Aviv filmmaker Tali Shalom-Ezer’s third feature, her first non-Israeli film, “My Days of Mercy,” stars Ellen Page and Kate Mara as two woman from totally different worlds who find each other. Nazareth native Hany Abu-Assad’s “The Mountain Between Us,” starring Kate Winslet and Idris Elba, shows two people, survivors of a plane that went down in the snow-covered Rockies, struggling to survive.
Fortunately, today there are many venues to see new and exciting Israeli films, as well as films with Jewish content. Our own Jewish community does a terrific job with its annual Israeli film series in the fall. If you want to see North American and even world premieres, however, and get to hear from the moviemakers and stars, put the Toronto International Film Festival on next September’s calendar. You won’t be sorry!
Eric Goldman writes and lectures on cinema. He is adjunct professor of cinema at Yeshiva University.