Five movies to watch at the 2021 Toronto Jewish Film Festival
Our top picks for the annual festival of Jewish cinema, once again available to stream across Ontario
By Norman Wilner
Jun 2, 2021
TORONTO JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL 2021 from Thursday (June 3) to June 14. $12, festival pass $200. tjff.com.
After dividing itself into spring and fall editions last year, the Toronto Jewish Film Festival (TJFF) has returned to its original form as one big spring event… though it’s still online, of course, rolling out the 2021 program of features, documentaries and shorts on a timed release schedule, with titles being made available within Ontario for 48-hour viewing windows on specific days.
As is customary with the TJFF, the festival offers a much broader sense of Jewish culture than the output of just one country, or just one point of view. Cinema is a diaspora, and right now it feels like it’s never been more at odds with itself. You’ll see.
Ron Chapman’s documentary – which opens the festival this year – recounts the history of a handful of European Jews who found themselves in Toronto after WWII and got into construction because that business was one of the few open to Jews (and Catholics) at the time. The result was a real-estate empire that built half a million rental apartments, attracting working families and encouraging the growth of a multicultural metropolis. Chapman leans a little heavily on historical re-enactments; the archival footage and the present-day testimonials of the surviving entrepreneurs and their families are more than enough to sell the film’s metaphor about literally building a new home after seeing the old one ripped away.
This year’s Centrepiece film – and winner of the festival’s Micki Moore award for the best narrative feature by a female director – is an uncomfortable psychological drama featuring a blistering performance from writer and co-director Aviva Armour-Ostroff. She plays Miriam, a South African émigré in 1994 Toronto whose bipolar disorder resurfaces as her homeland prepares for its first post-Apartheid presidential elections – triggering a spiral that endangers both herself and her teen daughter Eliza (Chloe VanLandschoot). It’s a radical shift from the more classical form of Armour-Ostroff and partner Arturo Perez Torres’s adaptation of The Drawer Boy, but it works, immersing us in Miriam’s squirmy, volatile aura and showing us how her condition affects Eliza, and Eliza’s would-be boyfriend Mike (Vlad Alexis), at every turn. It’s hard to watch, but that’s the point.
Juggling four different languages and decades of cultural baggage, Israeli filmmaker Shirel Peleg’s unabashedly commercial rom-com follows the rocky relationship between Israeli bar owner Shira (Moran Rosenblatt) and her German girlfriend Maria (Luise Wolfram), whose intense and perfect love affair is complicated by their families, their histories and their own misconceptions. (The original title of the film was Kiss Me Before It Blows Up, with a metaphor about Shira and Maria’s love being a ticking time bomb.) It’s a little on the broad side, but it’s also impressively honest about the way Israeli life requires a constant realignment of values and boundaries – some metaphorical, some literal – and how each generation creates new problems for the one that follows. It’s also weird to see Zodiac’s John Carroll Lynch turn up as Shira’s American settler dad, even though he really gets into the part.
Screening in tribute to American indie filmmaker Joan Micklin Silver (Hester Street, Chilly Scenes Of Winter), who died late last year, this 1988 romance is basically the Jewish answer to Moonstruck – an adaptation of Susan Sandler’s stage play about good-hearted Manhattan bookseller Izzy, who’s smitten with classy European author Anton, though her grandmother is convinced Sam the humble pickle seller down the block might be a better match. Amy Irving, Jeroen Krabbé and Peter Riegert are the three points of that love triangle, and Silver allows them to embody their characters with a specificity that never quite turns into stereotype; revisiting the movie almost 35 years later, I realized Micklin is also making a movie about the moment when a generation cedes space to the next, with Izzy and Sam’s second-generation Jews in constant contrast to their more Yiddish elders. It’s a subtext that adds considerable depth and texture to the love story: do you fall for someone because they look like a new start, or because they feel like home?
Orthodox Judaism makes a multiplicity of demands on its followers, one of the most pressing being to have children – as many as possible – and raise them in the faith. This is especially challenging for queer Israelis, who find themselves pushed into loveless marriages and forced to live a lie to stay connected to their families and culture. Mordechai Vardi’s hour-long documentary shows us exactly how awful that is, showcasing the stories of queer Israelis who went through it, and literally came out the other side. It’s a rough watch – the clips of a dead-eyed groom surrounded by joyous guests at his own wedding reception are just crushing – but a necessary one. And Vardi doesn’t ignore the suffering of the straight spouses, which other documentarians have glossed over in the past. No one wins in these situations.
Directors Ron Chapman and Aviva Armour-Ostroff discuss their films, and what it means to bring a movie to tthe 2021 Toronto Jewish Film Festival, on the latest episode of the NOW What podcast, available on Apple Podcasts or Spotify or playable directly below:
NOW What is a twice-weekly podcast that explores the ways Torontonians are coping with life in the time of coronavirus. New episodes are available Tuesdays and Fridays.
A life-long Torontonian, Norman became the senior film writer for NOW in early 2008. Previously he had reviewed films for Metro newspapers across Canada and covered every video format imaginable (yes, even Beta).