New Gitai and Portman films among TIFF’s most anticipated movies

Natalie Portman directs and stars in 'A Tale of Love and Darkness'. TIFF PHOTO

Israel will be a major cultural player at this fall’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), where 11 of the country’s productions, including two short films and two documentaries, will premiere. 

New films from directors Amos Gitai and Natalie Portman are among the festival’s most anticipated titles. TIFF, celebrating its 40th year, runs from  Sept. 10 until Sept. 20. 

The body of Israeli cinema at this year’s festival trumps 2014’s output, which only included two features. Still, the number of Israeli productions and co-productions could have been even higher, says Jane Schoettle, an international programmer for TIFF.

 “I would show many more films from Israel if I had the room,” says Schoettle, adding that she screened more than 30 Israeli titles before narrowing down her list. 

Among the world premieres at TIFF include Baba Joon, the first Persian-language film ever made in Israel, from director Yuval Delshad. 

Amos Gitai (Kippur) returns to Toronto with Rabin, The Last Day, a critically acclaimed docudrama that explores the investigation into the assassination of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. 

The most high-profile Israeli premiere is A Tale of Love and Darkness, the directorial debut from Natalie Portman. Adapted from Amos Oz’s memoir, the film (in Hebrew) takes place in the years leading up to Israel’s establishment. In the drama, Portman plays Amos’ mother, Fania.

Meanwhile, two Israel-Canada co-productions will hope to play for sell-out crowds. One is The Kind Words, directed by Shemi Zarhim. The comedy-drama is about three Jewish siblings who find out that their biological father is a Muslim.

“It’s got fantastic performances,” raves Schoettle. “It’s a really fascinating story about identity and family and love, and what all of these things mean to a contemporary family… in Israel today.”

The other co-production is P.S. Jerusalem, from filmmaker Danae Elon. The documentary explores a recent three-year period when Elon moved back to her hometown of Jerusalem with her husband and family. P.S. Jerusalem examines the multifaceted city, in both its religious glory and political squabbles. 

Even though several of the titles have a niche appeal, Schoettle says the films at TIFF are often selected due to their universally resonant stories.

“Every year, honestly, is a strong year for Israeli cinema,” she tells The CJN. “There’s a huge amount of talent there that is actually disproportionate to the size of the country.”

Meanwhile, three films co-produced in Palestine will premiere at TIFF. The most buzzworthy of those titles is The Idol, a biopic about Mohammad Assaf, a wedding singer from Gaza who became a regional icon after winning Arab Idol. Based on a true story, the drama comes from Hany Abu-Assad, director of the Oscar-nominated Omar and Paradise Now.

TIFF’s Short Cuts program will premiere two international shorts from Israel: Kerem Blumberg’s One Last Night and Latchkey Kids, directed by Elad Goldman.

Among the Canadian shorts is Bacon & God’s Wrath, from Toronto-based animator Sol Friedman, about a 90-year-old woman dealing with her Jewish beliefs.

Among other Jewish Canadian filmmakers, Patricia Rozema (I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing) returns to TIFF with a post-apocalyptic drama, Into the Forest. The film stars Ellen Page, Evan Rachel Wood and Max Minghella. 

Furthermore, Toronto’s Avi Lewis directs a documentary adaptation of This Changes Everything. Naomi Klein, Lewis’ wife, wrote the bestselling book about climate change inaction.

Meanwhile, When Jews Were Funny director Alan Zweig returns with a new documentary, Hurt. The film is a profile of Steve Fonyo, who ran across Canada to raise money for cancer research in the 1980, but was disgraced by substance abuse and jail time later in his life.

Hurt is the sole Canadian title to compete in Platform, a new TIFF program that highlights the new work of 12 great directors. A jury of three filmmakers will vote on the winning title, whose director will earn a $25,000 prize.

The Holocaust remains a common thread among several high-profile films at TIFF this year. 

Atom Egoyan will premiere Remember, starring Christopher Plummer as a Holocaust survivor hunting down the Nazi war criminal who murdered his family. Also at TIFF is Son of Saul, which won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival. That harrowing drama is about a Jewish concentration camp worker trying to properly bury a young boy who died in the gas chambers.

Also, director Lars Kraume will present The People vs. Fritz Bauer  about the German district attorney who fought to bring war criminal Adolph Eichmann to trial.

Other festival premieres include:

Septembers of Shiraz is an American film starring Salma Hayek and Adrien Brody about a secular Jewish family caught in the 1979 Iranian revolution. Based on a bestseller by Dalia Sofer;

Demon, a Polish/Israeli horror comedy that slyly updates the story of the dybbuk to modern times;

Mountain, an Israel/Denmark co-production about an Orthodox Jewish woman in Jerusalem who finds camaraderie with a community of Palestinians;

Song of Songs, a Ukrainian drama about a chassidic community at the beginning of the 20th century, based on folklore from the stories of Sholem Aleichem;

Thru You Princess, a documentary about the unlikely musical collaboration between Israeli composer Kutiman and Princess Shaw, a young black American musician

Wedding Doll, an award-winning Israeli romantic comedy about a worker at a toilet paper factory who falls in love with the factory owner’s son.