There is nothing like the Toronto International Film Festival.
It offers a multitude of choices — there can be up to 24 films playing at the same time. And it has become the place to see new Israeli or Jewish-content films, which often open in Toronto long before they are shown here or in Israel.
This year Rosh Hashanah fell smack in the middle of the festival, so I decided to skip all the glitz and celebrity red carpets that punctuate the first days and just fly up to Toronto the morning after the holiday to catch the rest of the festival. I knew that it would require watching a bunch of films each day, but I was up to it! On my first full day I saw six films, but there are many people out there who can beat that record. TIFF screens movies from 9 a.m. to way beyond midnight.
Six Israeli feature narrative films premiered at TIFF this year, and the programmers chose a most interesting mix. Veteran filmmaker Avi Nesher, who has had three films shown at the festival, continues his cinematic study of women struggling with faith. His latest, “The Other Story,” is about two young women whose paths cross. They are both rejecting their backgrounds; one is fleeing secular societal hedonism, while the other is breaking with her religious upbringing. The film has been chosen to open this week’s Haifa Film Festival.
Yona Rozenkier had a bad experience serving in the Israel Defense Forces, which led to post-traumatic stress disorder. The Tel Aviv Film School graduate decided to use cinema as his therapy, crafting “The Dive,” a powerful, largely autobiographical film about three brothers who return to their kibbutz for their father’s funeral. One of the brothers has been out of touch for quite a while because of his difficult struggle with PTSD. In Toronto, I sat with Rozenkier and two of his brothers, Yoel and Micha, who played key roles in the film. They described how making the film – and particularly working together on the kibbutz where they grew up — helped Yona work out much of the trauma that had haunted him. The film shared the Haggiag award with “The Red Cow” for best Israeli feature at the Jerusalem Film Festival in July.
Sexual harassment is the subject of Michal Aviad’s compelling “Working Woman.” The #MeToo movement is growing in Israel as it is here, making all of us more sensitive and aware, so this is a must-see film. Aviad tells the story of a young woman trying to forge a career in largely male-dominated Israeli society. She gives us a powerful study of how sexual harassment and assault easily can find their way into the workplace. Until now, Aviad’s work has been mainly documentary, but here she gives us a superb drama, and Liron Ben-Shlush gives a breakout performance.
One of the more exciting developments in Israeli cinema is the emergence of traditional Jewish filmmakers, most of whom are baalei teshuva. We have seen the work of Rama Burshtein (“Fill the Void,” “The Wedding Plan”) and Shuli Rand (“Ushpizin”) and soon we will learn more about the talented Tsivia Barkai, whose first feature film, “The Red Cow,” shared the highest honor at the Jerusalem Film Festival. In Toronto, I met Tsivia, her husband, Boaz Yehonatan Ben-Yacov, and their newborn son. I had a chance to sit down with Ben-Yacov, also a filmmaker, who sees his work as a mission. His film, the partially autobiographical “Remembrance,” reflects that passion. Co-written and co-directed with seasoned director Yossi Madmony, “Remembrance” is the story of a baal teshuvah’s struggle to find a balance between faith and creativity, all the while trying to be a good parent to a child with a serious malady. The music is amazing and Moshe Folkenflick is superb in it.
“Fig Tree,” by first-time Ethiopian-Israeli filmmaker Aäläm-Wärqe Davidian (aka Alamork Davidian) is a compelling film. Based in part on her childhood experiences in Addis Ababa, the Amharic-language film looks at the difficulties of growing up as a Jew in war-torn Ethiopia. Young Mina tries to protect her non-Jewish boyhood neighbor from being taken away by the army while waiting to be airlifted to Israel, hoping that he might join her. Not since Meyer Levin’s insightful 1973 film “The Falashas” have I seen a film that so vividly captures what life was like for Ethiopian Jews. The festival audience loved the film, and Davidian won the Eurimages Audentia award in Toronto for best female director.
Sameh Zoabi’s “Tel Aviv on Fire” provides some comic relief to a situation that is far from funny. It is no easy task for this graduate of Tel Aviv’s Film School to make a comedy that touches on checkpoints and tensions between Israelis and Palestinians, but with financial support from a variety of sources, including the Israeli government, the Israeli-Palestinian writer-director does an admirable job. The film is about a Ramallah-based soap opera, set before the Six Day War, and a beautiful woman, a spy who is sent to befriend an oblivious Israeli general. The soap opera is silly, and we see both Palestinians and Israelis watching it keenly; at the same time, the well-written dialogue discussing what went into the making of this television drama gives us a subtle analysis of the current situation.
Other films at the festival with Israeli connections include Sarah Colangelo’s English-language “The Kindergarten Teacher.” The film, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, is a remake of Nadav Lapid’s 2014 Israeli drama about a teacher’s obsession with a young child prodigy. Israeli director Guy Nattiv’s American-made “Skin,” which won the festival’s Fipresci Jury Award, has Jamie Bell as a young man, raised in a neo-Nazi environment, who breaks away from it, with the help of a black activist and the woman he loves. Episodes from the new Israeli television mini-series “Stockholm,” with Sasson Gabai, who now is on Broadway in “The Band’s Visit,” also were unveiled at the festival.
Two other films worthy of mention touched on the Holocaust. Barry Avrich’s beautifully made “Prosecuting Evil: The Remarkable Career of Ben Ferencz” is a precious documentary about the legendary 98-year-old American Jewish Nuremberg prosecutor and his career. To this day, Ferencz continues his amazing work. In “I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians,” which won the best film award at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, Romanian director Radu Jude hurls a scorching attack on Romanian Holocaust denial. The words in the film’s title were spoken by dictator Ion Antonescu in the Romanian Council of Ministers shortly before the Odessa Massacre, in which Romanian soldiers slaughtered more than 100,000 Bessarabian and Bukovinan Jews. Using a docudrama approach, the film begins with an actor introducing herself as a stage director, and then going through the process of creating a public, staged re-enactment of the massacre. This brilliant film elicits all kinds of official reactions from cast, crew, and the audience, including “Tone it down” and “This never really happened.” Jude shows it all as he carefully points the finger at a government that publically admits its criminal complicity, while callously not being ready to do more to let its own people know the truth — that Romanian soldiers killed 320,000 Jews during World War II. Bravo Radu!
This is just a brief list of some of the entertainment and education that was available at the Toronto International Film Festival this year. So next year, when the Jewish New Year won’t interfere, make your way to Toronto!
Eric Goldman teaches at Yeshiva Univerity and Fairleigh Dickinson. He is host of “Jewish Cinematheque” on the Jewish Broadcasting Network.