Inaugural Hamilton Jewish Film Fest Goes Virtual

Aug. 25, 2020 – By RUTH SCHWEITZER

The inaugural edition of the Hamilton Jewish Film Festival (HJFF), originally scheduled for March, was almost a casualty of the COVID pandemic.

That is until Wendy Schneider, editor of the Hamilton Jewish News, watched movies online during the Toronto Jewish Film Festival in June.

“I found the experience to be very positive,” Schneider said. As a result, she and Gustavo Rymberg, CEO of the Hamilton Jewish Federation, agreed to produce a virtual festival locally.

The HJFF, presented by the Hamilton Jewish Federation and the Westdale Theatre, a Hamilton cultural hub, runs from Aug. 29 to Sept. 3. The fledgling festival will screen three movies: two feature films, The Other Story (2018) and Leona (2018), and a documentary, Picture of His Life (2019).

In The Other Story, directed and co-written by Israeli Avi Nesher, the newly religiously observant Anat (Joy Rieger) wakes up in the women’s dormitory of a yeshiva she attends. She’s about to marry another baal teshuvah (newly observant) Israeli rock star, played by Israeli singer-songwriter Nathan Goshen.

A scene from the film The Other Story

Anat’s secular mother, Tali (Maya Dagan), is furious about her daughter’s decision to choose a religious path. In another storyline, one of several in this complex movie, Sari, a young woman who has rejected her religious upbringing, meets up with Anat.

Nesher won the Israel Film Critics Association’s 2018 Best Director award for the movie.

In her review of The Other Story, Nell Minow wrote at RogerEbert.com that “Nesher skillfully balances a lot of characters and storylines, each illustrating a different kind of Israeli and a different connection to Jewish life, culture and practice, but he never lets any of them become symbolic rather than real.”

Leona, directed and co-written by Mexican director Isaac Cherem, is the story of a young woman, Ariela (Naian Gonzalez Norvind), a member of Mexico’s Syrian Jewish community, who has a love affair with a non-Jew. Once Ariela’s mother finds out about the relationship, she enlists various members of the community who try to persuade Ariela to end the affair. Leonora took the Excellence in Film Award at the Santa Barbara Jewish Film Festival.

A scene from the movie Leona

Cherem is part of Mexico’s Syrian-Jewish community. His great-grandparents were immigrants from the Syrian cities of Aleppo and Damascus.

“I think the Mexican culture is particularly strong, the same way as the Syrian-Jewish culture,” Cherem told the Jerusalem Post. “And that might be one of the reasons why it’s been so difficult for both to coexist and integrate with one another.”

Picture of His Life, co-directed by Jonatan Nir and Dani Menkin, is about the world-renowned underwater wildlife photographer Amos Nachoum. For his photo shoots, Nachoum has swam with crocodiles, killer whales, anacondas and great white sharks, but the polar bear always eluded him. This award-winning film follows Nachoum in the Canadian Arctic as he prepares for his ultimate challenge: to photograph a polar bear underwater while he’s swimming alongside it.

A poster from the documentary Picture of His Life

One-hour Zoom Q&As with filmmakers, moderated by Fred Fuchs, follow the screenings. Fuchs is the former president of American Zoetrope, Francis Ford Coppola’s film production company. After moving to Canada in 2001, Fuchs worked at CBC, where he was involved with the production of the TV shows The Tudors, Little Mosque on the Prairie and Heartland.

Fuchs said Q&As add a lot of extra value when, after the film, the audience can speak to the filmmaker.

Now retired and living in Hamilton, he’s chair of a charitable organization that purchased and restored the city’s 1935 heritage Westdale Theatre.

While Fuchs wishes the HJFF could be held at the Westdale, he realizes a virtual festival has some advantages.

“I look at it positively because maybe we could have had 200-250 people at the theatre,” he said. “Here there’s an opportunity for many more people to participate and people who don’t live in Hamilton.” 

For more information about the festival, visit hamiltonjewishfederation.ticketspice.com/film-festival