Toronto Jewish Film Festival

5 films to watch at the 2011 Toronto Jewish Film Festival

The 19th edition of the Toronto Jewish Film Festival arrives hot on the heels of Hot Docs, opening on May 7 and running through May 15. Playfully exhorting Torontonians of all colours and creeds to discover their "inner Jew", the TJFF strives to be a rich, varied, and illuminating celebration of Jewish cinema culture. This year's programme features 118 selections from 21 countries, including 7 free screenings (book tickets at any box office), and a sidebar series in tribute to three legendary Lennys - Bernstein, Cohen and Bruce. A TJFF ad depicting Moses flashing for the flashbulbs may not have been the TTC's cup of tea, but when it comes to the films themselves, "the chosen festival" truly offers something for everyone. Here are my chosen 5.

LOOKING FOR LENNY (May 7, 9:15pm)
Of "The Three Lennys" feted in this year's sidebar, Lenny Bruce is likely the least familiar to present-day audiences, even while those he influenced have become household names. An audacious comic pioneer, his raw, uncompromising routines paved the way for the brand of brash irreverence latterly associated with the likes of Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock. In the 1960s, however, authories failed to see the funny side, and frequent obscenity charges blighted his all-too-brief career. TJFF opener Looking for Lenny draws on Bruce's legal entanglements to explore the ever-evolving standards of decency in comedy and public discourse. Director Elan Gale documents the Bruce legacy, setting archival recordings of his television and stand-up performances against interviews with many of the prominent comedians and entertainers who have stood on his shoulders, gesticulating lewdly at the hypocrisies of polite society.

BETWEEN TWO WORLDS (May 15, 3:30pm)
As in Looking for Lenny, issues of personal expression amid an evolving discourse are also at the heart of Between Two Worlds, a powerful and personal essay film from directors Deborah Kaufman and Alan Snitow. Here, the discourse in question concerns notions fundamental to contemporary Jewish-American identity within an increasingly polarized community. Who, if anyone, can be said to speak for that community, and what, ideologically, and politically, ought membership in that community entail? Kaufman and Snitow present five perspectives, representing five particularly fractious areas of debate. From obligations of allegiance to Israel, to religious continuity and intermarriage, to interpretations of the legacy of the Holocaust, Between Two Worlds has been heralded as a fascinating evocation of the various contradictions of American Jewish life.

THE HEART OF AUSCHWITZ (May 8, 7:45pm; May 9, 6pm)
The legacy of the Holocaust, of course, continues to be an important source of inspiration for filmmakers, and a recurrent theme at festivals such as the TJFF. That, perhaps, will never change, but access to the recollections of those with intimate experience of the event itself has become an increasingly precious commodity. In The Heart of Auschwitz, director Carl LeBlanc offers the gift of access to several such persons, who, in turn, once crafted a gift of the utmost value, defying the inconceivable deprivations of history's most notorious concentration camp. That gift, from which the film draws its title, was a handmade, heart-shaped birthday card, filled with messages of hope and inspiration. Now the centerpiece of Montreal's Holocaust Museum, LeBlanc presents the story of its original recipient, Fania Feiner, and traces the fates of twelve of her fellow prisoners, the creators of the humble artifact that now stands priceless testament to human decency and endurance.

A SMALL ACT (May 8, 1pm)
A similarly modest but magnificent gesture animates Jennifer Arnold's moving documentary A Small Act. The film tells the story of Chris Mburu, who rose from the impoverished surroundings of rural Kenya to the hallowed halls of Harvard, thanks to the $15 monthly donations of Hilde Back. Orphaned by the Holocaust and displaced to Sweden, Back became a schoolteacher, and later began making regular contributions to an education sponsorship fund. She never dreamed her efforts would one day help to produce a prominent human rights lawyer. Arnold captures Mburu's efforts to find, celebrate, and, ultimately, emulate his benefactor, by establishing a sponsorship scheme of his own. By all accounts a genuinely touching experience, A Small Act is a wonderful, warm-hearted illustration of the transformative potential of kindness and goodwill.

And finally for something completely different. The Stockholm Syndrome Trilogy is an avant-garde, intensely audio-visual examination of the yearnings of young Israeli Jews to return to Europe, a continent that alternately succored and ravaged their ancestors. Incorporating a rich variety of sharply contrasting music (including Madonna, Marlene Dietrich, Israeli kitsch, and selections by the Leonards Bernstein and Cohen), director and performer Amit Epstein employs vibrant choreography to chronicle three phases in a complicated, victim-victimizer dynamic, informed by the rise, fall, and notional revenge of European Jewry. At times brazenly camp, and unabashedly experimental throughout, it is, nonetheless, a sincerely intentioned and illuminating exploration.

For a complete festival schedule, venue details, and a gander at Moses' pixilated privates, visit Tickets are available online, via phone at 416-599-8433 (10am -7pm), or at any TJFF box office - see the festival's ticketing page for addresses and hours of operation.

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