Popcorn Picks: Toronto Jewish Film Festival

Miss Judy, featured at the TJFF

At first, the name of the documentary catches you off-guard: Hitler: The Comedy Years. You read it again, consider it, wonder if it’s okay to laugh. Evidently, it is okay. In fact, it’s encouraged. The British film exploring the history of Hitler-related satire is one of the most anticipated offerings at this year’s Toronto Jewish Film Festival (TJFF).

The TJFF is the largest of its kind in the world and one of the biggest of all the film fests based in Toronto. Yet, despite its success – evident by the fact that this year marks its 20th anniversary – the festival continues to struggle with a particularly unique dilemma: how does one promote a Jewish film festival without people assuming that all the films are “Jewish films” (whatever that entails)?

“When people hear the word Jewish, the challenge is to make them understand that we have 96 films this year from 15 countries,” Helen Zukerman, the festival’s executive director, says. “We have our share of Holocaust films but it’s not about Holocaust films. It’s about film. And the first (requirement) of the films that we show is that they’re good films.”

Despite any misconceptions, the TJFF is doing just fine. In its 20 years, the festival has grown exponentially from the early days of showing 35 films in less than a week.

“I think part of that is because we program to reach beyond the Jewish community because otherwise I feel as though we’re talking to ourselves and that’s kind of silly,” Zukerman said. “So it’s always been one of our missions to reach beyond the Jewish community and also to reach students.”

Globally, it’s estimated around 100 Jewish film festivals take place each year. Along with being the largest, Zukerman says the fact that the TJFF tackles controversial issues and is not averse to showing films that don’t always fall in line with Israeli political views helps it stand out among the crowd. “If it’s a good film, it’s our job to show it,” she contends. “The essence of Judaism used to be men, especially Orthodox men, would go to study and they would argue points of Talmud and Jewish law. And yet sometimes people get really uncomfortable when we present a film that’s controversial.”

Another film creating a buzz ahead of the festival is Let My People Go! – a comedy about a gay European Jewish man returning home to celebrate Passover.

“We look for the craziest stuff we can get. If it works, then we play it,” Zukerman admits, suggesting that the youthful and diverse demographic of programmers the festival employs adds to the diversity of the overall program.

Of course, the festival isn’t all laughs. Miss Judy, an Israeli documentary making its international premiere at TJFF, may be the season’s most poignant offering. The film spotlights Judy Feld Carr, now 74 years old, described as “a musicologist, and a synagogue president in Toronto” who secretly smuggled more than 3,000 Jews out of Syria.

When asked for her festival picks, Zukerman suggests there were too many, so “I just picked films that I fell in love with.” For her complete list, click here.

But what of all the films from the past 19 festivals? Zukerman says her hope for the future of the festival lies in part in an online digital and interactive archive, where students and fans can access the approximately 1,600 films the TJFF has screened in its two decades.

“We’ve shown films that have gotten standing ovations, and they’re just sitting on somebody’s shelf. They’re often not distributed,” Zukerman said. “So we’re trying to do an archive. Where this is going to be in 20 years is a really good question because things are changing so quickly.”

Until the dream of an online archive is realized, the only way to see the films is to attend the festival. Zukerman notes that a large portion of the programming is free, including a sensory friendly screening of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat for families with autistic children. As well, the festival’s Sidebar series offer viewers a peek behind the camera, exploring “The Sound of Movies: Masters of the Film Score.” Seniors tickets are only $8, or you can purchase a festival pass. That’s not a bad deal. After all, what other film festivals serve cookies to patrons waiting in line or herring on Wednesdays?

“You know, we’re funny people,” Zukerman says with a laugh as she considered the overall festival experience. “We have such a good time. We really do.”

The Toronto Jewish Film Festival is on now until May 13. For more information, go to the Toronto Jewish Film Festival website.

-Mike Crisolago