Still from Mary Lou.
Nothing marks the beginning of spring like Passover, and the Toronto Jewish Film Festival. Now in its nineteenth year, the TJFF has become not only one of the largest “ethnic” festivals in the city, but it has also eclipsed this sub-genre category, becoming a full fledged festival of its own right. With over 100 films, and a marketing campaign that was too racy for the TTC, the TJFF may be The Chosen Festival, but it’s certainly not only for the chosen people.
“This isn’t your Grandmother’s festival,” says TJFF executive director Helen Zukerman.
The largest Jewish film festival in the world (and the competition is steep with over 100 of them worldwide), Toronto’s festival has grown to rival those in Mexico, Poland, and even one of the oldest in San Fransisco. And with international flair, the TJFF draws on the global Jewish diaspora to program films that are not only local, (such as Toronto-based filmmaker Igal Hecht’s documentary on the settlements, The Hilltops), but also from around the world.
Still from Nir Bergman’s Intimate Grammar.
This year sets a new record for the festival, which will feature films from over 32 countries, many of which are Canadian premiers. The festival’s program ranges from documentary (Stalin Thought of You) to fiction (Nir Bergman’s Intimate Grammar) to the modern musical (Mary Lou, the Israeli response to Glee with a dash of Priscilla Queen of the Desert) to animation (A Jewish Girl in Shanghai, the first animated film from China to deal with the Holocaust). But it’s the Special Programme, “The Three Lennys,” which really broadens the scope of the festival this year, focusing on Leonard Bernstein, Leonard Cohen, and Lenny Bruce. Curated by Ellie Skrow, this programme reflects the TJFF’s goal of screening Jewish-content films that speak to the entire city. For Zukerman, the TJFF is about not only engaging with the Jewish community but also moving beyond it with “stories [that] are universal.” As she notes: “Otherwise we’re just talking to ourselves.”
Considering this, Looking For Lenny, is a logical choice to open the festival —and at the Toronto Underground Cinema no less (don’t see your grandma there often, do ya?). A bold choice in a city that may be craving some narrative cinema on the heels of Hot Docs, Elan Gale’s documentary is a reflection on the life and impact of the career of comic Lenny Bruce. The past few years have seen a surge of documentaries on comedians (Joan Rivers: A Piece or Work leaps to mind) and Looking for Lenny certainly follows suit. Most of these documentaries hail their subjects as being ahead of their time, joking about fecal matter and fornication before you could say “shit” and “fuck” on TV (or in festival previews, for that matter). In the case of Bruce, his material explored a much darker side of American culture, calling out racism and bigotry during the ’60s; his trial for libel still speaks to the power of words and issues around free speech. Though the interviews with top tier contemporary comedians are engaging (the likes of Robin Williams, Sandra Bernhard, Lewis Black) the audio clips and footage of Bruce performing are the highlights.
Of course, one can’t preview the TJFF without mentioning the Israeli films (remember that small TIFF controversy from 2009?). Zukerman doesn’t bristle or go on the defensive when asked about this, but acknowledges that it’s a “huge issue.” Though there are complaints every year, nothing has marred the festival like the TIFF boycott, a welcome fact that puts the emphasis back on the films as opposed to politics. For Zukerman this is exactly the point: “If it’s a well made film it deserves to be shown,” she says. “We try and keep politics out of it.”
Trying to summarize the festival is daunting—there are panel discussions, free screenings, an emphasis on print preservation as well as developing upcoming filmmakers—but that’s just how a festival should be. Like any festival, not everything is bound to please all audiences, both politically and aesthetically. But as Zukerman says, “if we’re not getting complaints we’re not doing our job, we’d be middle of the road.” And the TJFF has certainly chosen not to go down that path.
The Toronto Jewish Film Festival opens on Saturday, and runs until May 15.
Photos courtesy of the Toronto Jewish Film Festival.
We originally wrote that this is the TJFF’s twentieth year. In fact, it is its nineteenth.