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Wistful documentary launches 20th TJFF

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Jakub Wroblewski stars in My Australia, set in Poland and Israel.

The Toronto Jewish Film Festival is celebrating its 20th anniversary this month with an impressive lineup of movies – features, shorts and documentaries – from 15 countries.

A sampler:

Thierry Binisti’s A Bottle in the Gaza Sea delves into the Arab-Israeli conflict by means of an unusual and intriguing e-mail exchange.

Tal Levine, an idealistic 17-year-old Israeli, stuffs a high-minded message of peace into a bottle in the wake of a suicide bombing in Jerusalem. Her brother, Eytan, a soldier, throws it into the Mediterranean Sea while on patrol near the Gaza Strip.

Naim, a Palestinian Arab in his 20s, retrieves the bottle and sends Tal a note, launching a correspondence. In response, she writes, “Who I am and who you are is what matters.” Naim – a deliveryman who delivers T-shirts to the Israeli border – expresses a desire for a “normal life.” Tal, a student, says both sides are to blame for the violence.

This wistful, workmanlike documentary, set on the eve of the 2008-09 war in Gaza, unfolds against the backdrop of Israeli retaliatory air strikes in Gaza. Amid the turmoil, Naim is roughed up by Palestinian police, who suspect him of being an Israeli collaborator, while Tal loses her virginity. The war tests Tal’s long-distance relationship with Naim, making viewers wonder whether friendship under such circumstances is possible.

* * *

Ilan Ziv’s Exile: A Myth Unearthed boldly challenges a religious belief and a historical fact – namely that Jews were driven out of their historical homeland after the sacking of Jerusalem and the fall of Masada.

Ziv claims that compelling archeological evidence – an excavation in the ancient Jewish town of Sepphoris – supports the supposition that the Romans permitted Jews to live in the Galilee after the expulsion of Jews from Jerusalem and Masada. He takes his thesis one step further by speculating that some of the Jews who converted to Islam after the Muslim conquest may be the distant ancestors of the Palestinian Arabs.

Ziv also brings the Bar Kochba revolt and the chronicler Josephus Flavius into the picture and interviews historians and archeologists who subscribe to his theories.

* * *

Ronit Kertsner’s Torn focuses on Romuald Jakub Weksler-Waszkinel, a Lublin-based Polish priest who was born Jewish and now wrestles with his dual identity. His longtime friend, the chief rabbi of Poland, Michael Schudrich, describes him as a “living conflict.” Certainly, he feels “different.”

Adopted by a Catholic family during the Holocaust, he learned he was Jewish at the age of 35. Armed with this knowledge, he began working to heal wounds between Poles and Jews and dreamed of living in Israel.

In a touching scene on the eve of his trip to Israel, he bids goodbye to a group of nuns in Lublin. He enrolls in the ulpan of a religious kibbutz and, eager to be recognized as a Jew, he requests temporary residency status from the Israeli government. Yet he also asks for membership in a monastery. Both overtures are rebuffed, prompting a friend to observe that he suffers as a Jew in Poland and as a priest in Israel.

The burning question in this poignant, troubling film is whether he can find acceptance and peace of mind in Israel.

* * *

Ami Drozd’s feature film, My Australia, is fundamentally about identity and displacement. This Israel-Poland co-production opens in the 1960s in a Polish city as a gang of teenaged hooligans beats up a group of Jews. Among the attackers are Andrzej (Lukasz Sikora), 14, and his younger brother Tadek (Jakub Wroblewski). Arrested by the police, the brothers are released thanks to the persuasive powers of their single mother, Halina (Aleksandra Poplawska).

In the wake of this incident, Halina announces they are immigrating to Australia, a country Tadek fetishizes. En route to their new home, the boys learn that they are of Jewish origin and that their destination is really Israel. Halina, a Holocaust survivor whose estranged husband was a Polish war hero, has been masquerading as a Catholic until now.

Not surprisingly, her sons are none too pleased by the revelation. Tadek, for example, does not want to go to “stinking Israel” or be “a sort of a Jew.”

Unable to find a job, Halina sends the boys to a kibbutz, where they are kindly received. Their adjustment to kibbutz life is difficult. Tadek refuses to use the communal showers, and ironically, some of the Israeli kids call him a “stinking goy.”

My Australia starts promisingly, with credible performances from an impressive cast, but it slows to a crawl in the second half. Still, this is an interesting film about the pitfalls of mixed identity and the challenges of adapting to a foreign culture.

* * *

Eva Gruberova’s and Martina Gawatz’s  Born in a Concentration Camp deals with a little-known topic: Jewish mothers who gave birth in Nazi concentration camps.

Their film focuses on Eva and Miriam, two young women who were pregnant when deported to camps. Eva, a Slovakian Jew, arrived in Auschwitz with a swollen belly, prompting her sister-in-law to advise her to get “rid” of the baby. Eva would not hear of it, so the question was how she could protect her child in Auschwitz.

Eva met six other pregnant women, including Miriam, in the next camp. All their babies were delivered by a Hungarian gynecologist without the benefit of anesthesia. “It’s terrible I had to begin my life here,” says Eva’s daughter, Marika, who was born on Jan. 8, 1945.

The six mothers survived by the skin of their teeth. An SS plan to send them to Bergen-Belsen to die fizzled, and a death march that could have killed them proved to be harsh but not fatal. There is a local angle in this largely upbeat film. Miriam and her family immigrated to Canada after the war and now live in Toronto.

* * *

Yasmine Novak’s The Lost Love Diaries is a heart-rending account of a Dutch Holocaust survivor in Israel who embarks on a quest to find a prewar boyfriend from whom she was separated during the Nazi occupation of Holland.

Shula, a widow, receives a package in the mail. It’s the diary of her old flame, Berny. There is no return address, but the diary drives Shula and her daughter to travel to Holland in a bid to track down Berny. They talk to a succession of people who may have known him, but the trail grows cold. Is he, in fact, still alive?

* * *

Ian Ayres’ entertaining biopic, Tony Curtis: Driven to Stardom, profiles a 1950s pop culture icon through the medium of film clips, home movies and interviews with, among others, Curtis himself, studio colleagues and ex-wife Debbie Reynolds.

Curtis (formerly Bernie Schwartz), an actor who appeared in more than 130 movies, notably Some Like It Hot and Spartacus, was born into poverty in New York, the son of Hungarian Jews. Thanks to a talent scout who spotted him in a high school play, he was offered a seven-year contract by Universal Studios, and Curtis never looked back.

Gorgeously handsome and exuding sex appeal, Curtis was a pinup boy and teenage idol in a succession of low-brow movies until he finally hit his stride as a serious actor in Sweet Smell of Success. Yet Curtis was more than merely a sex symbol. He courageously campaigned for racial equality, thereby risking his career.

But like far too many actors, he abused drugs and took his marriages for granted. As his roles dried up, he desperately clung to the chimera of fame. In true Hollywood fashion, he was buried with his phone, not wanting to miss a call!

* * *

Joshua Waletzky’s Music for the Movies: Bernard Herrmann is a straightforward portrait of an accomplished Hollywood composer who wrote the score for Citizen Kane, Psycho and Taxi Driver and worked with director Alfred Hitchcock in eight films. Portrayed as a gruff and cranky person who hated the Hollywood system, he is best remembered for his remarkably dramatic but unobtrusive style.

* * *

Waletzky’s companion documentary, Music for the Movies: The Hollywood Sound, documents its so-called golden age in the 1930s and 1940s, when Jewish composers such as Alfred Newman and Max Steiner were at the height of their considerable powers. Regrettably, the film is far too technical to be wholeheartedly enjoyed.

* * *

Peter Rosen’s God’s Fiddler profiles Jascha Heifetz, who was arguably the 20th century’s greatest violinist. A child protégé whose father was a violinist and whose talents were recognized when he was very young, Heifetz was a Lithuanian Jew from Vilna who settled in the United States on the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution.

An intensely private, introverted and conceited individual who could ham it up for a camera, he got the shock of his life early in his dazzling career when a newspaper reviewer gave him a lukewarm notice, almost driving him to commit suicide. No longer complacent, he worked hard to perfect his effortless style.

This first-rate, warts-and-all biopic contains cheerful home movies from Heifetz’s archive, interviews with students and associates and clips of his magical performances.

The festival runs from May 3 to 13. For locations, dates and screen times, visit www.tjff.com.

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