#FIRSTLOOK: TORONTO JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL 2021 PREVIEW GUIDE
Taking place June 3-13, 2021, the Toronto Jewish Film Festival is back again this year virtually with lots of great selection including Centerpiece Film LUNE, as well as Opening Film SHELTER and Closing Film THE SPECIALS.
Our George Kozera (Twitter: @PartyG) had the joy of previewing some selections from this year’s Festival and shares his thoughts with us on them.
Based on writer/director Leo Khasin’s life growing up Jewish in Berlin, THE UN-WORD explores, brilliantly at that, the sensitive subjects of racism and multiculturalism. What starts off sounding like a set-up of a bad joke – an Iranian, a Palestinian and a Jewish student get into a fight – segues into a movie overflowing with insight, sensitivity and comedy with a balance as profound as the metaphorical scales of justice. When the parents of Max, the Jewish student who bit the ear off the Palestinian who constantly bullied him in and outside of class, attend a hastily scheduled meeting at the school with his teacher, the principal and the superintendent, we can’t help but notice the subtle context of comments made by the adults that could be deemed racist. As THE UN-WORD unfolds and many backstories are revealed, it remains difficult to not be affected by the racial discrimination occurring and misinformation taken for truth. But, in strokes of cinematic genius, Khasin infuses the Movie with comedy so funny, I was consistently laughing out loud which, like Garbo, I rarely do!
In addition to the letter-perfect performances from everyone in the Cast, this movie addresses every elephant in the room with intelligence and perspective. Whereas it is never easy to hear someone say that “The Diary of Anne Frank” is a fictional hoax, it is also infuriating to hear an elderly German person spew “the Arabs are today’s Jews”. It all culminates with a seething dialogue from an adult Iranian woman of all the injustices she experiences daily.
THE UN-WORD will dazzle you. It’s a must-see.
Before World War II, the thriving Warsaw district of Muranow housed over 200,000 Jewish residents and when Germany occupied Poland during the war, it became the Warsaw Ghetto with many of the inhabitants sent to the Treblinka death camp. The Nazis completely destroyed the area with the exception of one building used by the SS and a church where they stored all the treasures they had stolen. After WWII, it was technically impossible to rebuild the neighbourhood without removing three stories of debris, so they built over it, using bricks made of the rubble and human bones. In essence, Muranow exists atop a cemetery.
The Documentary MURANOW is an endlessly fascinating account of the city, its history and, especially, life there now. Many current residents unabashedly believe ghosts still live in the new buildings; one apartment dweller even named his ghostly roommate Rachel. Whereas personally I am highly skeptical of these metaphorical beings, events that occur defy logical explanations. However, this is more than just a Documentary focused on the undead. Many interviews are conducted with a diverse group of people: Scholars, Historians, Artists, Writers, Residents andBusiness Owners are but a few who talk about living in an area with such a tragic history.
MURANOW had me transfixed throughout its concise 70-minute screening time. Though saddened to see and hear that much of modern-day Poland is still rife with antisemitism and demonstrations that aren’t vastly different from the Trump rallies in recent history, the movie uplifts more than it criticizes. And even though I don’t believe in ghosts and zombies, if I ever meet Rachel, I’ll be on the next Uber to the airport.
TIGER WITHIN comes with an impressive pedigree. Montreal-born Director Rafal Zielinski’s résumé includes “Fun”, which made a huge impact at Sundance and is one of the best movies you’ve never heard of and Anne Hathaway’s big break occurred when she starred in Screenwriter Gina Wendkos’s “The Princess Diaries”. Add 20-time nominated and winner of 7 Emmy Awards, Ed Asner to the mix and you have a potential “can’t miss” movie.
Wearing her uniform consisting of ripped jeans, excessive black eyeliner, nose rings and a leather jacket with a painted swastika on the back, Casey (Margot Josefsohn) just doesn’t fit in with anyone at school. Life at home with her clueless mother and the violence-prone live-in boyfriend is no better, so all decide she should leave Ohio and live with her estranged father in Los Angeles. Upon arrival, Casey secretly overhears disparaging comments made about her by her new family unit and decides to go it alone in a new city, where she is quickly robbed of everything she owns. When she is found sleeping at a Jewish cemetery by 87 year-old Holocaust survivor Samuel (Asner), he treats her to a meal and a place to stay. TIGER WITHIN is all about the special bond these two lonely characters share.
There is much to admire as TIGER WITHIN unfolds with its tale of friendship between these unlikely people. Whereas the character of Casey can at times be abrasive, Josefsohn is up to task and gives an impressive performance. Asner rarely falters in any role and here, with his decades of acting experience, he beautifully fleshes out Samuel with gentle humour and insight. The strong message of healing, faith and forgiveness is executed flawlessly, but at times TIGER WITHIN feels a tad overwrought and heavy-handed. Minor quibbles aside, this movie shines and will tug at your heart. It is a wonderful escape, and that is why we see movies.
This year’s TJFF Opening Film is the world premiere of director Ron Chapman’s documentary SHELTER. It opens with a number of WW2 survivors talking about the religious persecution and atrocities they experienced in Europe, revealing scars that never fully healed, and with expert use of archival footage, I defy anyone watching not to be emotionally shattered. Once they emigrated to Toronto, it became apparent to many that it was a multicultural city where the newcomers focused on two things: employment and a home. Unable to find work due to the city’s then rampant antisemitism, many Jewish families tapped into their entrepreneurial spirits by first buying then renovating and flipping houses, then by starting construction companies and building high rise apartments, dwellings rarely seen outside of Toronto.
Alongside interviews and archival footage, Chapman also employs recreations of events using actors to further the story. I personally have never been a fan of documentary recreations as I feel they detract and I start to focus on ridiculous details like the haircuts on the men the actors are portraying are more modern-day Ryan Gosling than they are Montgomery Clift. However, the achieve the effect and enhance SHELTER admirably.
I found it fascinating that many of these real estate moguls felt that going into business and potentially into bankruptcy was nothing when compared to what they went through during wartime Europe. Through determination and self-education, in addition to luck and chutzpah, 75% of all rental units in Toronto were conceived and built by Jewish entrepreneurs. What an amazing accomplishment that SHELTER features splendidly
Aviva Armour-Ostroff is an established, award-winning Actress and highly respected in the Toronto theatrical community. Not only is she the star of LUNE, she co-directed, co- produced and co-wrote it. She plays Miriam, a single mother to her teenage daughter Eliza (Chloe Van Landschoot). Set in Toronto in 1994, Eliza is preparing her audition to be accepted to a prestigious dance school in Montreal. Miriam, a South African-born Jew, is determined to return to her homeland to partake and vote in the election of the just-freed Nelson Mandela. Miriam is also Bipolar and when she’s on her meds, she is high-functioning, articulate, charming and fascinating to such a degree that Eliza’s boyfriend Mike (Vlad Alexis) is mesmerized by her completely. It is when Miriam is off her medications, as she is throughout most of this Movie’s length, LUNE spirals downwards.
Stage Acting is vastly different from Screen Acting. In theatre, one must effectively project their movements and voice to reach the last row and this describes Armour-Ostroff’s performance. It’s bombastic. It’s over-the-top. It’s twitchy body parts flailing akimbo and a borderline Carol Burnett parody of Norma Desmond, made even more jarring by the subtle naturalistic and genuinely-endearing performances from Van Landschoot and Alexis.
I am utterly convinced that deep in the heart and soul of LUNE, there is a great movie. I only wish it were as brilliantly-executed and emotive as Eliza’s dance composition that interpreted the world of those suffering from Bipolar Disorder with dignity and without melodrama.
In the pantheon of memorable movies that feature mother/daughter relationships in the forefront (Terms of Endearment, Postcards from the Edge, Lady Bird and even Freaky Friday), one must add ASIA, the feature debut from Writer/Director Ruthy Pribar, and a winner of three awards at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, to the list.
Asia (Alena Yiv) recently moved to Jerusalem from Russia where she works as a nurse. In her mid-30s, she has a teenaged daughter Vika (Shira Haas) who, at first glance can be perceived to be rebellious with a contentious relationship with her mother. We quickly learn that Vika has a degenerative motor skills disease that accounts for her sullen nature and tries to undermine the constant overprotection from Asia. Whereas Vika enjoys hanging out with a skateboarding crowd and swig from Vodka bottles with her bestie, what she really wants is a boyfriend before her physical condition worsens. Asia is more gregarious, flirting with bartenders after work and happy in her “Friends with Benefits” relationship with a doctor. As Vika weakens and requires more fulltime attention, Asia asks the handsome, young hospital intern Gabi (Tamir Mula) if he was available to help out.
ASIA excels on multiple levels. The script is concise, intimate and grounded in reality. The performances from Alena Yiv and Shira Haas (who recently won the Film Independent Spirit Award for Best Actress in “Unorthodox”) exceed expectations. Together they achieve greatness with delicacy and strength. Moreover, these exceptional actresses stand back and let the supporting cast shine during their moments. Lastly, to be forewarned is to be forearmed. I strongly suggest you have tissues readily available because ASIA will put you through the wringer. It is an outstanding cinematic achievement.
Inspired by true events, this year’s Closing Film THE SPECIALS (HORS NORMES en français) is a powerful and evocative movie made by two Filmmakers at the top of their game. Bruno (Vincent Cassel) is a Jewish man who runs a government unlicensed shelter that houses and cares for teenaged and young adults diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder that have been, sadly, turned away from other institution. Malik (Reda Kateb) is Muslim and his company trains young adults from deprived areas to become caregivers. Though both men have different “management styles – Bruno is always hopefully optimistic whereas Malik can be brutal with group of students – they are equally dedicated and indefatigable. In the skilled hands of the Writers/Directors Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache, a difficult subject matter is presented with grace and humour. Idyllic scenes of the caretakers and their cares at an ice-skating rink or at a horse farm are as potent as ones featuring runaway patients.
The ordinarily intense Vincent Cassel not only shows a softer side in his acting repertoire (who knew he could smile?), it is his best role in years. As much as Bruno excels with those in his care, he is awkward around women and his success rate with “chiddoukh” (blind dates) is pathetically dismal. Reda Kateb (“A Prophet”) radiates power and compassion. As Dylan, the newest recruit to become a caregiver, Bryan Mialourdama impresses. Whereas THE SPECIALS never sugarcoats the obstacles those with autism experience and there are moments that are emotionally strong, it is also uplifting and hopeful.
Much like Toledano and Nakache’s “The Intouchables”, it is impossible not to become affected by what THE SPECIALS so astonishingly presents.
Guy Amir and Hanan Savyon are a popular Israeli Comedy duo and in their second feature film together, FORGIVENESS, (as Writers, Directors and Leads) they explore the Buddy/Caper Action genre. After serving three years in jail for getting caught in a bungled bank heist, Shaul returns home, on the Jewish side of the Gaza Strip, to try refresh his relationship with his wife and teenaged daughter. Met in front of the prison by his criminal conspirator, Nissan, who managed to escape with the money stolen but not get apprehended by the police. Now a Hassidic Jew, Nissan seeks forgiveness from Shaul for the time he spent in jail while they both try to recover the money buried somewhere along the border.
FORGIVENESS is pure, unadulterated 100% Sitcom in set-ups and execution. From gangsters that feel they morally can’t murder anyone during Yom Kippur, to horses having a bowel movement in safe rooms during red alerts, breaking into a vault while stoned on hashish and explosions galore, this Movie tells its story in breakneck speed. The chemistry between Shaul and Nissan is strong and there’s enough relationship drama to not make FORGIVENESS strictly slapstick. Whether the gags land successfully is all up to the viewer.
More on the Festival and how to get tickets here.
(Photo/video credit: TJFF)