Jewish fest serves up politics, knishes

'Syrian Bride' will open Toronto event

TORONTO — It’s bar mitzvah time. The Toronto Jewish Film Festival is celebrating its coming of age with a 100-film slate, making it the largest of the 100 Jewish film festivals worldwide. With more than 30,000 filmgoers, it’s the second-largest Jewish fest in terms of audience after San Francisco.

What started out 13 years ago as a modest cultural affair screening 19 films over five days, has taken wing. This year’s slate is 26 features, 38 docs and 36 shorts from 19 countries. The fest opens May 7 with Eran Riklis’ “The Syrian Bride” and closes May 15 with “Papa,” from Vladamir Mashkov.

Organizers credit the fest’s strategy of reaching out to Toronto’s hugely diverse multicultural audience via its choice of programming, venue and a cheeky outreach campaign, with the slogan “Discover Your Inner Jew.”

“There’s a difference between a film festival for Jews and a Jewish film festival,” says executive director and co-founder Helen Zukerman. “We’re trying to showcase the Jewish experience across the world and to all the cultures across Toronto. I think we’re fairly unique in that.”

Fest is located in Toronto’s multicultural downtown center as opposed to the Jewish neighborhood a bit further north. Included on the slate are films from Polish, Russian, Bulgarian and black filmmakers, and organizers work to attract auds from those communities.

“We’re always trying to get a variety of people in,” says managing director Ellie Skrow, “That makes for fantastic Q&A discussions. If people leave the theater yelling and screaming, I consider it a victory. We need to discuss these things.”

Programmers are not afraid to program controversial films that take a hard look at what they describe as the “powder keg” of Middle East politics, in spite of the occasional complaint. “Many feel we shouldn’t be airing our dirty laundry in public like this,” Zukerman says. “But this is a venue for dialogue and discussion.”

Some examples this year include the Simone Bitton doc “Wall,” about the controversial Israel/Palestine separation barrier; “One Shot,” another doc about Israeli snipers from Kendra Nurit; and short film “Crickets,” from Matan Guggenheim, about an underground group that wagers on when and where the next terrorist attack might take place.

On a lighter note, fest feeds ticket holders as they wait in line, a gamut begun the first year when a screening was greatly delayed. Auds are treated to kosher delicacies including herring, gefilte fish, knishes, strawberries and ice cream.