"You don't have to be filmish": the Toronto Jewish Film Festival

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Author: Mike J. Koven
Date: Annual 1999
From: Ethnologies(Vol. 21, Issue 1)
Publisher: Ethnologies
Document Type: Article
Length: 6,994 words

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1. Sections of this paper were presented at the annual meeting of the Folklore Studies Association of Canada, Ottawa, May 27, 1998. I would also like to thank Pauline Greenhill and the anonymous reader for helping me to develop these ideas.

Mikel J. Koven

Memorial University of Newfoundland

A friend forced me to come.... We like this friend.

-comment on survey from

The Toronto Jewish Film Festival (hence TJFF) is a one-week celebration of Judaism and cinema in downtown Toronto, at the Bloor Cinema, early every May. The folkloristic literature notes that festivals allow communities and groups to celebrate themselves (Abrahams 1987:178; also Falassi 1987:2). Although film festivals are rarely considered traditional, I shall demonstrate that this ethnic film festival, like traditional events, explores liminality for the celebrating culture, and may thus be so viewed. Some folklorists shy away from popular culture events, like film festivals, seeing commercialization as replacing the expression of community (e.g. Abrahams 1982:171). Beverly Stoeltje notes "those events that do have festival in their titles are generally contemporary modern constructions, employing festival characteristics but serving the commerical, ideological, or political purposes of self-interested authorities or entrepreneurs" (1992:261-262). Yet in the TJFF, the interrelationship between cinema and culture, and particularly the issue of liminality, present the fulcrum where cinema and festivity balance. Specifically, through its manipulations of cultural myths, its nostalgia of location, and the tension it develops by including within its purview religious and secular aspects, the TJFF creates a location for cultural dialogue.

The Toronto Jewish Film Festival

As "festival ethnographer" during the 1997 TJFF, I conducted participant observation. I attended festival events, and worked as a voluntary survey coordinator, which I co-authored so that it could both help the Festival organizers maintain and improve their services, and inform my research. I also conducted interviews. For one, I sat down during one of the matinees with Helen Zukerman, the co-founder and executive director of the TJFF, at a cafe across the street from the festival venue. I began by asking her to outline the Festival's history:

'93 was the first year. 1993. It was seed funded by the charitable foundation that I run. Family charitable foundation. And Debra Plotkin was the first artistic director. She was moving to Toronto.... What happened was...we funded a piece of a film that Francine Zukerman made--no relation to me--called Half the Kingdom. Half the Kingdom went to play in San Francisco to close one of their festivals [San Francisco Jewish Film Festival]. In 1992, obviously. And I went out just to see what the festival was like and have a look around, and thought this was really great. So why don't we have a festival? John Katz was there, because he's a--he teaches film [at York University] and he has a lot of friends there. So, he then told me there was an organization starting up a film festival here. They'd tried twice before, and they were in the process. So I said "Great. Listen, when I come back to Toronto,...

Source Citation

Source Citation
Koven, Mike J. "'You don't have to be filmish': the Toronto Jewish Film Festival." Ethnologies, vol. 21, no. 1, 1999, pp. 115-32. Accessed 5 May 2021.
  

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