As a programmer for the Toronto Jewish Film Festival (TJFF), I watch a lot of movies. And to be clear, a lot of not very good movies, especially early on in the screening process. But one of the joys of programming is going in with low expectations, watching a submission that I know nothing about, and being blown away.
There’s always a couple of buzzy films and despite the current circumstances, this year is no different; the premieres may just be attended from your couch rather than at a nearby movie theatre. I want to emphasize that I have not yet seen most of these films, so I cannot personally vouch for how good all of them are. That being said, every film is on this list because I have either read positive reviews or have been personally told that it is worthwhile. I should note that I did my best to minimize Holocaust film recommendations—they are important, but it’s also important that Holocaust narratives are not the only stories we tell about ourselves.
The following films don’t all have distributors and therefore don’t all have anticipated in-theatre screening dates. Some may have already screened outside of Canada in 2020 (or even 2019), and some may not actually play anywhere until 2022. It’s always hard to predict with indie films, so keep your eyes out if any of these interest you! It’s too soon to say whether you can expect to see any of these films at the next TJFF but I recommend keeping up with the festival’s screening announcements! In the meantime, check out my film guide below.
If you were one of the many who watched Unorthodox on Netflix, then you will recognize the talented young Israeli actress Shira Haas in this film. Asia premiered in 2020 at Tribeca Film Festival and won awards including Best Actress and Best Cinematography (not to mention the eight Israeli Academy Awards the film picked up). Asia centres on Vika (played by Haas) and her mother Asia (played by a remarkably similar-looking Alena Yiv). The two have a complicated relationship, which is shaken when Vika’s health deteriorates. You can watch the trailer here.
If you love Shira Haas, you’ll be pleased to hear that in her short career, she already has a large body of work, acting in Shtisel, The Zookeeper’s Wife and Foxtrot. Two of her other films, Princess (Haas’ breakout role) and Natalie Portman’s A Tale of Love and Darkness can be accessed for free on the Toronto Jewish Film Festival’s screening platform J-Flix.
The Specials (Hors Normes)
This film was the closing night film of the Cannes Film Festival in 2019 and had a wide-release in France. Here’s to hoping it will premiere in Toronto this year so we can watch it! Directed by Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano (the duo behind the hit film The Intouchables in 2011), The Specials is based on the true stories of Stephane Benhamou and David Tatou, who despite being of different religious faiths—Benhamou is Jewish and Tatou is Muslim— are friends who created a non-profit organization caring for autistic children and adolescents. From the trailer, the film looks funny, authentic and deeply heartfelt.
The documentary explores a topic I was completely ignorant of: the political alliance between Jews and American evangelicals, and how it influenced foreign policy within former President Trump’s administration. This conceptually unique film got rave reviews when it screened at DOC NYC in the fall, and in the current landscape of Trump documentaries this one sounds particularly fascinating because of the religious angle. For more films about the Trump era and democracy itself, check out this article and prepare to be angered and inspired. You can catch this at an upcoming TJFF ‘Chai Tea’ event – tickets here!
Warning: Rewind sounds like a tough film to sit through, so I’m linking a review here from Roger Ebert and here from Variety to help decide if it’s for you. This film is part archival footage and part present-day interviews. With home videos, director Sasha Joseph Neulinger reconstructs his childhood and the abuse he suffered at the hands of individuals who had been close to him. His father filmed much of his childhood growing up, including the abusers (unbeknownst to his father), which makes the documentary all the more shocking.
Psychiatrist and documentary filmmaker Kenneth Paul Rosenberg chronicles personal stories of those suffering from serious mental illness in ERs, jails, and homeless camps in Los Angeles County, depicting the severe under-funding that is pervasive in these institutions.
This film was selected for the Sundance Film Festival in 2019, and though I am dubious about how much Jewish content the film contains, I’m including it because it has screened at multiple Jewish film fests.
This documentary was screened at Docaviv in 2019 and focuses on six men who discuss what is was like to be gay in Israel prior to the gay liberation movement. During the 1960s and ’70s (the decades following the establishment of the State of Israel), being queer was a crime. I’ve seen many Israeli documentaries during my time as a programmer, but not one that focused on the history of the gay community in the country.
This is the one film on this list that I have seen! It was unexpectedly a delight because I had heard nothing about it going in. An excellent narrative short that follows a young Russian-born German Jew and his take on Jewish stereotypes, Masel Tov Cocktail has been making the rounds at European Jewish film festivals. Witty and comedic, I highly recommend keeping your eyes out for it at local festivals. Check out the synopsis:
“Ingredients: 1 Jew, 12 Germans, 3 oz. culture of commemoration, 2 oz. stereotypes, 2 tsp. patriotism, 1 tsp. Israel, 1 falafel, 5 Stumbling Blocks, 1 dash antisemitism. Directions: Place all ingredients in a film, bring to a boil, and shake vigorously. Garnish with klezmer music. Serving suggestion: Flambé before serving; enjoy at the cinema. 100% kosher.”
What more could you want?!
Sometimes, shorts are difficult to track down because there aren’t many platforms that screen them; however, there are a few that are easily accessible across Canada. The first is Becoming Nakuset, a documentary short about an Indigenous girl who was taken from her home in Manitoba and adopted into a Jewish family in Montreal. It screened virtually in the fall at imagineNATIVE (Toronto’s Indigenous film festival and the world’s largest presenter of Indigenous screen content) and can now be found on CBC’s free streaming platform CBC Gem. This film may come as a shock to viewers, because finding out that Jews were complicit in the Sixties Scoop is not likely to be welcome news, but important for Canadian Jews to learn nonetheless if indeed that was the case.
Available to watch for free on The Guardian, Colette is a short documentary about Colette Marin-Catherine turning 90 on the anniversary of the Nuremberg trials. To mark the occasion, she visits the concentration camp where her brother was killed. This film focuses on a relationship between 90-year old Colette and Lucie, a young history student. The information shared in their discussions bridges the gap between the generations.
And that’s my list for 2021! As you can imagine, I had many films to choose from – Persian Lessons sounds particularly interesting, as does Love it Was Not, but the ones listed above are this year’s stand outs (for me). Let me know what you’re looking forward to watching in the comments below!
Header image design by Orly Zebak.
Lara Bulger has a deep-rooted commitment to the arts. With a Bachelor’s degree in Music with minors in Film and English, plus a Master’s Degree in Arts Leadership, she is passionate about the capacity of art to bring about social change. Lara is currently pursuing her PhD in Cultural Studies at Queen’s University, focusing on documentary film and its social, political and cultural impacts.