Expanding Audiences
Jewish Film Festival Aims To Appeal To Everyone

By Amy Leitner

Helen Zukerman’s cozy and colourful office is cluttered with trinkets, posters, pictures, plants, and books. “Judaism for Dummies” sits perched on a shelf, and a big Hamsa (which is supposed to ward off evil spirits) hangs proudly on the doorknob of one of her cabinets. It is a friendly office, a welcoming one. The Toronto Jewish Film Festival headquarters is located in the heart of downtown Toronto, at the corner of Madison Ave., and Bloor St., and as Zukerman points out, they are located there for a reason.

Photo By Amy Leitner, Illustration by Bryanna Brown

“If we wanted only Jews at this festival we would be located at Bathurst and Sheppard,” she says with a grin. Zukerman is the executive director of the renowned Toronto Jewish Film Festival, which annually shows feature drama and comedy films, documentaries and shorts from Canada and all around the world. She proudly explains that this year marks its 16th anniversary,
and it is the largest of more than 100 Jewish film festivals held throughout the globe, with an audience of more than 35, 000.

Zukerman is warm and welcoming. She passionately discusses the many things that the TJFF has accomplished. Her private mission is to attract as many non-Jews as possible so that people can sit down and recognize the value of film, the diversity of film, and learn all about each other.

In order to attract attention Zukerman and her team find various ways to advertise. “We show a quirky commercial, which has won various awards. We also have a great and easy-to-use website that was just redesigned,” she says.

Children of all ages, ethnicities and religions have been willing and eager to learn about Judaism and Israeli issues through the TFJJ, says Zukerman. “It is so important to take the time to educate the new generation, and what better way to do it than through the technology of film?” Through the study of both documentary and feature film, young people are presented with issues that introduce Jewish concepts in a way that is immediately relevant and meaningful to them, she says.

In 2006, the TJFF presented the Holocaust education documentary, Paper Clips, to thousands of Jewish and non-Jewish students around the greater Toronto area. Each screening was followed by a talk given by a Holocaust survivor who provided the audience with a personal account of living in a concentration camp. “The kids were in absolute awe,” she says.

The London, Ont. Jewish Film Festival (LJFF) has been running for nine years, and Thelma Rosner is the executive director. She, like Zukerman, has dedicated her time to educating people about Judaism and its complex history through the showing of film. Rosner takes deep pride in what she does for the festival, and feels that it is an excellent way to give Jewish filmmakers a forum.

“With Israel getting so much airtime in the newspaper, as well as on television, people are bound to have a distorted view,” she says. “We want everyone, not just Jews, to see the movies in our festival and get a sense of history, of the issues that the Jews had in the past, as well as current situations."

Both festivals focus on Canadian talent. “We try our best to bring local talent and expertise into the festival, regardless of their race or background,” Rosner says.

The Year My Parents Went On Vacation was previewed at the festival last year. It was introduced by a Canadian professor from the University of Western Ontario, who is a world expert on Brazilian history. “It received quite the turnout," she says. Rosner and her team work hard year round to make the short, three-day festival memorable for everyone.

Film festivals would be nothing without the talented directors who make it their purpose to inform and educate people on various subjects. Topics are documented and explained through film so that people can grasp an understanding of Israel as a place, not just a war zone.
Ron Furman is an Israeli-Canadian director who has had his films shown at the 2003-2005 TJFF. Furman began his career as an actor in Israel and later went to Toronto and eventually Los Angeles.  As time progressed, he felt the job of director was much better suited for him. “I have many, many things to say,” he says, “I want my land, the Holy Land to be portrayed properly, as it should be.”

Furman is eager to paint a picture of Israel that many people do not see or understand. “I try to step away from the conflict and show people the many positive things that Israel has to offer,” he says. “My job as a film director is to educate the people.” Disengaged from Reality is Furman’s latest film, which is about Arab-Israeli rights in the Middle East. “Last May, there was a showing of this film in Toronto for 700 people,” he says, “and the turnout was wonderful. The film really showed people about the significance of Israel as a shade of grey.”

Furman and Rosner hope to see Jewish festivals in smaller towns throughout Canada, where awareness is not as high as in the big cities. “As a director, I think that Jewish film festivals are playing an excellent role in getting rid of the stigma that Israel has been given,” says Furman. 


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