The Toronto Jewish Film Festival takes place this year between April 17th and 25th, 2010. Celebrating its 18th year, it has become one of the largest festivals of its kind in the world. Exploring the Jewish experience in its diverse facets, the festivals has never shied away from showcasing how various cultures shape, influence and interact with Jewish culture.

From its inaugural year, in 1993, the Jewish Film Festival opened with the film Black to the Promised Land, a documentary about a group of African-American youth from New York who spent their summer in a kibbutz. Also, in 2006, the festival had a special program of 12 films called “Rhythm and Jews”, which connected the history of Black music with the Jews and their music through the ages. See AfroToronto’s archived review of the “Rhythm and Jews” program.

This year, the 18th Annual Toronto Jewish Film Festival stays true to its outstanding tradition of honouring diversity with an international program from 18 countries and four continents. Of the 93 documentaries and short films presented this year, there are many great choices. Here, AfroToronto.com features two picks: Off and Running and The Jazz Baroness.



Off and Running
USA, 2009, 76 Min
Director: Nicole Opper

Teenagers from all walks of life and cultures wonder: “Who am I?” We’ve all had to come to terms with this existential dilemma during our formative years. Oftentimes, this internal debate lasts a lifetime. Now image if you are an African-American teenager who was adopted as an infant by a lesbian Jewish couple; and you are the middle child of a “United Nations” family comprising of an older mixed-race brother and a younger Korean sibling.

Off and Running is a poignant documentary about such a teenager from Brooklyn named Avery. A young track star with a bright future, her life goes into a hectic spiral when she decides to try locating her birth mother in an effort to search for her roots. Her Jewish adopting single-sex parents are apprehensive about her journey, fearing the outcome.

While she has grown up in a loving family, and considers herself Jewish, Avery yearns to reconcile with her African-American identity. “I’m very new to black culture, and I don’t really understand it,’’ she admits. When she is asked: “Do you feel black?” she responds: “I don’t know what that means.”

When she finds her biological mother’s contact info in Texas, she tentatively reaches out to her in hopes of forming a bond. But while she receives a warm response from her mother, the latter’s attitude is non-committal and Avery goes months without hearing back from her.
After hitting this emotional roadblock, the journey of self-exploration drifts Avery apart from her adoptive parents and brothers. It’s fascinating to see the different paths that Avery and her mixed-race brother Rafi (who goes off to study at Princeton) take in dealing with their racial identity, cultural baggage and family allegiances.




The Jazz Baroness
UK, 2008, 90 Min
Director: Hannah Rothschild

The Jazz Baronness is a captivating documentary film about a white British Baroness who fell in love with the musical genius Thelonious Monk. Born in 1913 into an aristocratic Jewish banking family in London, Pannonica Rothschild (a.k.a. Nica) fell in love with Jazz when she heard Thelonious Monk’s classic ‘Round Midnight’ in New York during the 1950s. She immediately immersed herself in the world of jazz.

She left her husband and five children and moved into the Hotel Stanhope on Fifth Avenue in New York.  She famously left her door constantly open to welcome and assist the then unknown jazz elite of the pre-civil rights bebop era. Nica was there for them when they were broke, to bail them out of jail and to help them cope with drug addiction. She notably made the tabloid headlines when jazz icon Charlie Parker died of a drug overdose at her residence in 1955.

Pannonica Rothschild is however best known for having been the unlikely muse and benefactor of jazz great pianist-composer Thelonious Monk.  The two were from vastly different worlds but found great complicity together. While there has been much speculation about whether or not their relationship was sexual, the married Thelonious Monk welcomed her intense adulation. She was his manager, cheerleader, confidante and patron. In appreciation for her work in jazz community, Monk and other jazz musicians wrote many songs for and about the baroness.

The film’s director, Hannah Rothschild, is Pannonica Rothschild’s great-niece. She found out about twenty-five years ago that her wealthy great-aunt had been a great patron of the legendary Jazz scene of ‘50s and ‘60s New York. Going back into the baroness’ private diary entries, the film features archival footage, more than 25 jazz tunes and interviews with several family members, jazz performers, luminaries and scholars like Sonny Rollins, Quincy Jones and Thelonious Monk, Jr. The baronesses’ own words are read by Oscar-winning actress Helen Mirren.


See the Toronto Jewish Film Festival''s website for a full listing of films.

The Festival screens at three theatres – the Bloor Cinema (506 Bloor St. W. at Bathurst St.), the Al Green Theatre, Miles Nadal JCC (750 Spadina Ave. at Bloor St. W.) and the Cineplex Odeon Sheppard Grande Cinemas (4861 Yonge St. at Sheppard Ave.).

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