Windsor Jewish Film Festival offers 'spark of hope in a very dark time'

Can there be peace and understanding after blood has been shed? That's a question posed by one of the scheduled showings at this year's Windsor Jewish Film Festival.

The Narrow Bridge, a documentary, explores the lives of two fathers — one Israeli, the other Palestinian — who have both lost daughters to the violence of the Gaza conflict.

Although the documentary was originally released in 2022, selection committee member Stuart Selby is keenly aware that the film carries extra resonance today, under the shadow of the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas and subsequent Israeli bombing of Gaza.

A screen capture from the documentary The Narrow Bridge - one of the showings of the 2024 Windsor Jewish Film Festival.
A screen capture from the documentary The Narrow Bridge — one of the showings of the 2024 Windsor Jewish Film Festival. (Menemsha Films)

"I think what (the film) has to say is that, despite everything, someday, peace may be possible," Selby told CBC News.  "This is a film that shows parents — Palestinian and Israeli — who have suffered tremendous loss, and are determined that it shouldn't happen again."

"They're determined to see each other as human beings. Not as animals, not as brutes, but as people suffering in the same way... It's a tiny spark of hope in a very dark time."

Selby said he believes The Narrow Bridge — which is the festival's closing film — should be seen by anyone who dares to "simplify what's going on now."

A screen capture from the documentary The Narrow Bridge — one of the showings of the 2024 Windsor Jewish Film Festival.
A screen capture from the documentary The Narrow Bridge — one of the showings of the 2024 Windsor Jewish Film Festival. (Menemsha Films)

This year marks the 21st edition of the Windsor Jewish Film Festival, taking place from Monday to Thursday this week.

Unlike previous editions, this year's screenings are all happening in downtown Windsor, at the Capitol Theatre (121 University Ave. West). Joseph Schnayer, head of programming with the Windsor Jewish Community Centre, said the move from the Cineplex to the Capitol is hoped to grow the film festival's attendance.

"The festival started out small. It was mostly for the Windsor Jewish community," Schnayer said. "We've really expanded our audience (since then). It's not just for the Windsor Jewish community, it's for the entire community of Windsor."

The Windsor Jewish Film Festival kicked off Monday night at the Capitol Theatre.
The Windsor Jewish Film Festival kicked off Monday night at the Capitol Theatre. (Kerri Breen/CBC)

Like Selby, Schnayer is conscious of how political tensions have intensified. He noted that this year's screenings will have a police presence — for the first time in the history of the festival.

"I don't anticipate (any problem). But if it does happen, we are prepared," Schnayer said.

"Again, we want everyone to come. We welcome literally everyone to come, as long as you're going to be respectful and not create a disturbance."

Joseph Schnayer, programming director of the Windsor Jewish Community Centre.
Joseph Schnayer, programming director of the Windsor Jewish Community Centre. (CBC)

This year's lineup features 10 titles, all involving Jewish filmmakers, characters or themes. Genres and subject matter range from suspense thriller to light comedy to historical drama.

For example, Tuesday night's 5:30 p.m. film — entitled Listen — is a tense military story about a female Israeli intelligence officer dealing with a moral dilemma: She learns that the terrorist responsible for her father's death will be released in exchange for a captured Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldier.

Using her position in a surveillance drone unit, the character attempts to prevent the exchange by locating the captured soldier before the trade can take place. But even her IDF colleagues question her methods.

A screen capture from the suspense thriller Listen — one of the showings of the Windsor Jewish Film Festival.
A screen capture from the suspense thriller Listen — one of the showings of the Windsor Jewish Film Festival. (Menemsha Films)

"It's even more appropriate today because it raises questions," Selby said. "Yes, it's going to be controversial. But I would hope people who see it would come away with a sense of how damned complex the whole situation is."

Meanwhile, Wednesday's 2:30 p.m. matinee screening goes to the opposite end of the spectrum: Less Than Kosher is a wacky musical comedy made with Generation Z viewers in mind.

Shot entirely in Toronto, the movie follows a young Jewish-Canadian woman whose failing efforts to become a pop star lead to her performing as the cantor in her local synagogue — whereupon she becomes an unlikely social media sensation.

Actress Shaina Silver-Baird in the lead role of the musical comedy Less Than Kosher.
Actress Shaina Silver-Baird in the lead role of the musical comedy Less Than Kosher. (Menemsha Films)

"The cantor traditionally chants the sacred music," Selby explained. "What follows is a cultural clash between the young modern and the old traditional, plus a little love story."

"I mean, it's totally different from what people might imagine a Jewish film to be," Selby added, with relish. "Much of North American cantorial music is modern stuff. It's got beat, it's got life."

According to Selby, part of the challenge for the festival's selection committee was to find films that break the assumption that Jewish cinema is focused on the Shoah, or Holocaust, and the Jewish experiences during the Second World War.

That said, this year's festival does have offerings depicting that timeframe.

A screen capture from the film The Annette Zelman Story.
A screen capture from the film The Annette Zelman Story. (Menemsha Films)

The Annette Zelman Story — which screens on Thursday at 2:30 p.m. — portrays the romantic life of a young French-Jewish woman in Nazi-occupied Paris, circa 1942.

Zelman and her paramour — a young Catholic man — struggle to protect her from being deported to the death camp in Auschwitz. But their future together is doomed by a key betrayal.

Stuart Selby, a member of the selection committee of the Windsor Jewish Film Festival.
Stuart Selby, a member of the selection committee of the Windsor Jewish Film Festival. (CBC Windsor)

"This is not the usual story," Selby said. "It's a very personal story. It's brutal because the Nazi regime was brutal... But, I mean, I've seen Macbeth, I know how Macbeth ends up, and I'm always interested in seeing it again."

The complete list of films can be found at www.windsorjewishfilmfestival.ca.

Screenings take place at 2:30 p.m., 5:30 p.m., and 8 p.m. Admission is $14 per showing or $39 for three films. Tickets can be purchased at the theatre or on the website.