A revolutionary choreographer from Israel, a folk music family dynasty from Tajikistan and a gang of murderous neo-Nazis from Russia are among the subjects of the films at this year’s Hot Docs festival in Toronto.
This is the biggest year in the documentary festival’s history, with 232 titles set to premiere. Among them are non-fiction stories that should cater to Jewish interests in Toronto, including an insightful look at late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Rabin In His Own Words, which won a prize at the Haifa film festival, looks back at the life of the revered Israeli leader. Erez Laufer’s film features rare interviews, recordings, home movies and family records with the late statesman – many of which have never been seen by the public. Rabin will also be screened at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival later in May.
“I learned a lot from that documentary,” says Shane Smith, Hot Docs’ new director of programming. “It’s always great to have this perspective on people or issues or moments coming 20 years later.”
Smith also highly recommends Credit for Murder, a dark, true crime thriller from Israeli filmmaker Vladi Antonevicz. In the doc, the director goes undercover as a white supremacist to investigate a brutal hate crime and find the Russian neo-Nazis responsible.
“The resolution is quite shocking, so I don’t want to say too much about it,” Smith says of the documentary. “But it’s quite the ride.”
Antonevicz’s film could stir up discussion, as could Ferne Pearlstein’s documentary The Last Laugh, unveiled as one of the festival’s Special Presentations. The film delves into a provocative subject related to the Holocaust: is it ever a good idea to make jokes about the tragedy?
Pearlstein’s film, which features appearances by Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Sarah Silverman and several Holocaust survivors, may deal with a sensitive topic, but little of it is in bad taste, Smith says. Pearlstein will be present to talk about the film after it premieres on May 1.
Other special guests to Hot Docs include the subjects at the heart of the poignant Aida’s Secrets. In this doc, which will have its world premiere at the festival, Izak Sagi, who was born in the Bergen-Belsen displaced persons camp, unites with brother Shep Shell for the first time at the age of 68. The film looks at family secrets and issues related to identity.
Meanwhile, the fascinating Alaev family – featured in world premiere The Wonderful Kingdom of Papa Alaev – will also appear in Toronto. The doc is about a celebrated family of folk musicians who immigrate to Israel from Tajikistan. Although the father, Allo “Papa” Alaev, leads the band and rules the household, he gets pushback from his only daughter, Ada.
“It’s kind of like a family business story when the younger generation grows up and wants to change things,” Smith says, “and the older generation isn’t ready to let go.”
Another big arts-related premiere is Mr. Gaga, a striking look at uncompromising Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin. Filmmaker Tomer Heymann spent eight years researching and following Naharin before beginning work on the doc, which explores life behind the scenes of Tel Aviv’s Batsheva Dance Company.
Despite the numerous titles with a Jewish interest, there are no films screening at Hot Docs this year that tackle the contemporary Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Smith says that could be a reflection on the slate of films that was submitted to the festival. Fewer than 10 per cent of the films entered for submission will actually screen at Hot Docs.
“It all depends on the year,” Smith says. “I think, in particular with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it’s easy for everybody to feel fatigued or to feel like they’ve seen this topic or subject before.”
The Hot Docs festival runs in Toronto from April 28 through May 8.