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A bonanza of films from TIFF

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This year’s edition of the Toronto International Film Festival was unusually rich, interesting and stimulating, a veritable bonanza for cineastes. The films reviewed here are expected to open in theatres in 2013.

A sampler:

Ziad Doueiri’s The Attack, a thriller set in Israel and the West Bank and based on a novel by Yasmina Khadra, is topical, visceral, gripping and thought-provoking, cutting to the core of the dual identity of Israel’s large Arab minority.

Amin Jaafari (Ali Suliman) is a renowned and respected surgeon working in Tel Aviv. As the film opens, he accepts a prestigious medical award from his Jewish peers. As he tartly observes, he is the first Muslim Arab in Israel to receive such a prize. He admits that he has felt anger and hostility from Jews, but strikes an optimistic note by saying that he looks forward to the future.

Jaafari’s life goes into a tailspin when he learns that his beloved wife, Siham (Reymond Amsalem), a Christian from Nazareth, was the suicide bomber who walked into a crowded restaurant in Tel Aviv and killed 17 Israelis. “Tell me I’m dreaming,” cries out Jaafari, a fervent believer in Arab-Jewish coexistence.

Thrown into prison on suspicion of being an accomplice, he is grilled by an Israeli security official. As his Jewish friends rally around him in a gesture of support, he insists it is all a mistake. But he is soon disabused of his conviction. Tormented by guilt, he retraces his wife’s recent trip to the West Bank to visit relatives. It is a bruising journey of self-discovery as he grapples with his conflicting identities, as well as a voyage into the beating heart of Palestinian nationalism. Doueiri directs with a firm, intelligent hand, coaxing superb performances from his cast. Not to be missed.

Michael Mayer’s powerful Out in the Dark also examines issues pertaining to identity, but in this case, the topic is an unusual gay relationship crossing religious and national lines.

Nimer (Nicholas Jacob), a Palestinian student from the West Bank, meets Roy (Michael Aloni), an Israeli Jewish lawyer, in a Tel Aviv bar. Their mutual attraction is instantaneous and romantic sparks fly. But, given the tensions of the Arab-Israeli dispute, they both wonder whether they should be seeing each other.

In the meantime, Nimer comes under pressure from the Shin Bet to be an informer at a Palestinian university, while Nimer’s sister implores him not to continue his studies in Israel, which she archly and arrogantly dismisses as a “godless country.” Nimer’s brother – a militant Palestinian – and his conservative mother go ballistic when they learn that he is gay and that his partner is a Jew. Roy’s father, a liberal, has already urged him to end their friendship for the sake of his career.

The film explores harsh realities that cannot be wished away. Nimer faces a Palestinian society that utterly rejects his sexual orientation. Roy realizes that Nimer will be ostracized by many Israelis simply because of his nationality.

Mayer juggles these incendiary elements with poise and panache, producing high production values. The lead actors deliver blistering performances.

The Palestinian quest for statehood is the subject of Dan Setton’s State 194, which revolves around two interlocking themes: the Palestinian Authority’s 2011 diplomatic drive to win membership in the United Nations and thus become its 194th member and the PA’s campaign to combat Israel’s occupation of the West Bank through non-violent means.

This brisk documentary focuses on the PA’s top two officials, President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, and on George Mitchell, the former U.S. special representative to the Middle East. Secondary players include Tzipi Livni, Israel’s former foreign minister; Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s current prime minster; Robert Serry, the UN’s envoy to the Mideast; Palestinians and Israelis who seek coexistence, and Jeremy Ben-Ami, the head of J Street, an American organization that favours a two-state solution so that Israel can remain a Jewish and a democratic nation.

Through the lens of Fayyad’s trips around the West Bank, Setton shows how the PA, like the Yishuv in Palestine, is preparing for statehood by building institutions and strengthening the economy. A viewer is left with the impression that the Palestinian case for statehood is compelling and cannot be dismissed.

Inch’Allah, a Canadian feature film directed by Anais Barbeau-Lavalette, is clearly and unashamedly pro-Palestinian. A suicide bombing in Israel frames the movie, but Inch’Allah is really about a young Canadian doctor who’s inexorably drawn into the blood and guts of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Chloe (Evelyne Brochu), the physician in question, lives in Israel and works in a West Bank health clinic. Her Israeli neighbour, Ada (Sivan Levy), is doing her military service as a checkpoint guard. Chloe starts off as a neutral observer, but embraces the Palestinian cause after an Arab boy is run over by an Israeli army jeep, after she visits a ruined Palestinian village and after she witnesses a pregnant Palestinian woman losing her baby at an Israeli checkpoint.

The film is active rather than passive in its political orientation. There is an unmistakable reference to stolen Palestinian land. Palestinians are portrayed as underdogs. Israelis are perceived as omnipotent. The camera pans on two inscriptions scrawled on the concrete separation barrier in Jerusalem. The first one equates the Magen David with the swastika. The second shouts out, “Fuck Israel.”

Inch’Allah, however, is not a crude propaganda piece. There is evidence of character development, the acting is credible, and the emotions are real.

Eagles, by Dror Sabo and based on a novel by Yoram Kaniuk, unfolds in present-day Tel Aviv as two grumpy old men, Efraim (Yossi Polak) and Moshka (Yehoram Gaon), embark on a surrealistic killing spree after an old flame is killed in a traffic accident.

Proud veterans of the 1948 War of Independence, the pair are alienated from the violent, hedonistic and decadent undercurrents of Israeli society and feel that their precious and hard-fought ideals and values are slipping away.

To Efraim and Moshka, might is right. Their prescription for “cleaning up the garbage” and making things right is way over the top and morally indefensible. But in Sabo’s gritty film, the subtext is clear: the elderly still have a contribution to make and should not be ignored and marginalized.

Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, starring Riz Ahmed and Kiefer Sutherland, takes place in Pakistan and the United States before and after the events of 9/11. Changez Khan (Ahmed), a smart and ambitious Pakistani Muslim, buys into the American dream, only to reject it as he confronts xenophobia. In response, he turns toward violence to achieve change. Atmospheric, and with sizzling performances from the leads, the film unfolds to a haunting Urdu soundtrack.

Tony Krawitz’s Dead Europe is something of an allegory about the sins and dark underbelly of Europe, past and present. Flouting his mother’s wishes, an Australian photographer of Greek ancestry goes to Greece to deposit his late father’s ashes. The trip, replete with kinky sex and drugs, summons up the Holocaust, family secrets, Islamophobia and antisemitism. Quite a toxic and bizarre brew.

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