Toronto Jewish Film Fest celebrates 25 years with new streamer

With the long-term goal of helping grow festival audiences, TJFF Online aims to roll out 25 films this year.
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The Toronto Jewish Film Festival is kicking off its 25th-annual edition today (May 4), with more than 105 films screening over the course of the 10-day event.

To celebrate the milestone, TJFF has also launched a new online streaming platform, TJFF Online. The platform currently features five films, all available to view for free, with plans to roll out 25 over the course of the year. The films are a selection of fan favourites from the festival’s history. 

TJFF founder and artistic director Helen Zukerman told Playback Daily that she was tired of looking at the shelves in her office, jam-packed with DVDs and VHS tapes of classic films that few people outside the non-profit have access to. “Filmmakers spend their time maxing out their credit cards and borrowing money from anybody they can, then the films make the rounds at film festivals for a couple of years – if they’re lucky – and then they sit on the shelves,” she said.

With TJFF Online, she said, the films, which all celebrate Jewish culture and history, are available to anyone in Canada. While the goal of the platform is clearly to bring hidden gems out of hiding, Zukerman added that, in the long-term, TJFF hopes the platform will help increase awareness for the festival. For now, she said, the platform (which is seed funded through a private donation) remains free as the festival wanted to present it as “a gift” to audiences in its 25th year. In the future, and as it expands, TJFF Online could move to a pay-per-view model for future films, added Zukerman.

The online streamer currently hosts German director Stefan Schwietert’s 1997 documentary A Tickle in the Heart (pictured) and the 2007 drama Noodle, directed by Israeli director Ayelet Menahemi, among others. Program manager Jeremie Abessira said part of the challenge of launching the platform has been tracking down the rights holders to get permission to put the films online, as some distributors have given up distribution rights for older films. Of those who have been tracked down, some have allowed their older works to be made available online for free, while others have asked for a “modest” licence fee, said Zukerman.

Despite the logistics of tracking down filmmakers and distributors of films that came out 25 years ago, Abessira has big plans for the platform. As TJFF adds more films online it will continue to promote the offering through the festival, social media and with the help of the producers and directors whose films will be made available. In future, in addition to continually adding more films, Abessira hopes to expand the VOD to include Q&As with filmmakers and other resources for film scholars.

And perhaps by the festival’s next major anniversary, the platform will have morphed into something much bigger.

“We hope that directors and producers will [someday] contact us,” he said. “The same way people today submit a film to a festival all over the world, tomorrow they might be submitting a film to get accepted to the platform.”