TJFF heads to the Twilight Zone and beyond

Dancing Arabs, Eran Riklis's latest film, opens up The TJFF on April 30.

The Toronto Jewish Film Festival returns this spring to project bold new works from around the world onto the big screen, yet a lot of attention will go to programs from the small screen.

The festival, which runs April 30 through May 10, will cater to audiences hoping to binge-watch some of the most exciting new television shows, as well as enjoy retrospective series about “King of Kensington” Al Waxman and Rod Serling of The Twilight Zone fame. 

“[Serling] was one of those early TV makers that really wanted to draw attention to, in the immediate postwar years, the Holocaust,” says Stuart Hands, the festival’s director of programming. 

“When he did The Twilight Zone, that was just another way to engage with issues like racism. He wasn’t allowed to do it in a more realist mode, so he did it with science fiction.”

The festival will screen In the Presence of Mine Enemies an episode of Playhouse 90 that Serling wrote about a family living in the Warsaw Ghetto, on May 2. 

The next day, Serling’s Emmy-winning TV movie A Storm in Summer, about a friendship between a Jewish deli owner and an African-American boy, will also be screened. Serling’s daughter, Anne, will introduce the screenings and speak about her father. 

A series on the Jewish writer/director would not be complete without a Twilight Zone episode. The festival will play Walking Distance, considered one of the series’ best hours, on May 2 as a free screening.

Among other small-screen sensations, the much-lauded Israeli thriller Hostages will be shown. The TJFF will be screening all 10 of its episodes, although in two parts: the first five episodes on May 1 and 3, the last five episodes on May 7 and 10.That show inspired a CBS drama of the same name with Toni Collette and Dylan McDermott.

Also, fans of the Golden Globe-winning series Transparent should not make plans for the evening of May 9. The comedy-drama, starring Jeffrey Tambor as the patriarch of a Jewish family who comes out as transgender, will show four episodes at Canada Square that night and feature a talk from Rabbi Susan Goldberg, a consultant for the series.

“The Jewish elements of the show are quite crucial,” Hands tells The CJN. “We’re trying to show the different ways that Jewish identity and Jewish self-expression can take form.”

This 23rd edition of the festival will spotlight Al Waxman, the Canadian film and television titan who died in 2001. 

Fans of King of Kensington, which starred Waxman as convenience store owner Larry King, will want to be at the Royal Ontario Museum on May 2. After showing three of the comedy’s best episodes, series creator Perry Rosemond and stars Rosemary Radcliffe and Jayne Eastwood will lead a discussion with the audience.

On May 9, Waxman fans may also want to check out Sun in My Eyes, a little-seen 1960 drama that aired on the CBC. In his acting debut, Waxman played a Jewish man confronting the horrors of life in Nazi-occupied Poland.

“It must be the first Canadian TV attempt to deal with the persecution of Jews by the Nazis,” Hands says of that drama. 

Of course, there are still films at this festival, which has a lineup of 110 titles from 18 countries.

The festival opens April 30 with the premiere of Dancing Arabs, a new drama from Israeli director Eran Riklis (Lemon Tree). Riklis will be in attendance at the Varsity that evening. The film is based on a semi-autobiographical novel from Sayed Kashua, about an Arab-Israeli’s experience at a Jewish boarding school. 

The closing night title, Mr. Kaplan, has already premiered to critical and audience adoration around the world. The comedy is about a 76-year-old man trying to capture a German man he believes is a runaway Nazi.

“We don’t get many films from Uruguay,” Hands says of Mr. Kaplan. “It’s a strong and very funny film.”

Meanwhile, documentary titles will focus on subjects as wide-ranging as Israeli action movie producers Menachem Golan and Yoram Globus, iconoclastic American comic Irwin Corey and author Isaac Bashevis Singer. The non-fiction film about Singer is told from the perspective of his team of more than 40 female translators – none of whom spoke Yiddish. 

Other non-fiction titles will explore the history of Israeli comic books, as well as banned Nazi propaganda reels. The 1984 documentary Spadina, which played to a full house at last year’s festival, will screen again on May 2 due to popular demand.

“This year, we have a lot of films dealing with black-Jewish relations,” Hands tells The CJN

Among those titles is Rosenwald, a documentary about early 20th-century philanthropist Julian Rosenwald and his efforts to build schools for African-American communities in the southern United States. The film comes from director Aviva Kempner (The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg). 

Rosenwald is one of 31 festival titles directed by women, which Hands says is a record. 

“For years, you’ve had women documentary filmmakers but rarely have you had a lot make narrative features,” he says. “This year, we have six narrative features directed by Israeli women.”

Some of those female-led titles include Once in a Lifetime, an inspirational French film about inner-city kids doing a project on Nazi concentration camps. That film, from director Marie Castille Mention-Schaar, will receive the Micki Moore prize, for best narrative feature from a woman director. 

Director Veronique Lagoade-Segot, meanwhile, will pick up the David A. Stein award for best documentary. Her film, Shoah: The Forgotten Souls of History, is comprised of newsreel footage and looks at how Soviet cameramen who shot this material deleted the mention of Jewish victims.

Other hot titles Hands recommends include Orange People, a drama that deals with Israel’s Moroccan community, and The Price of Sugar, a melodrama about Jewish slave owners in 18th century Suriname. 

American indie hit Deli Man, which features appearances from Toronto’s Zane Caplansky and Cheryl Morantz, will also screen on May 10.