Xavierpop Does #TJFF12 – Toronto Jewish Film Festival Reviews – Part IV
Our coverage of the 20th Toronto Jewish Film Festival continues as the festival enters the week. Catch out the earlier parts of our coverage with Part I, Part II, and Part III. The festival is also offering some free screenings as well, so make sure to check them out. Below you will find Part IV of our coverage with Part V coming a little later.
Hopefully you can catch some of these great films as the festival has programmed a wonderful lineup with some lovely and eclectic films.
Portrait of Wally
“Portrait of Wally” is a painting by Austrian Egon Schiele from shortly before WWI of his model and muse. It is also the subject of this very involving documentary, which uses a cultural artifact as a means to get inside the breadth of the effects that a war and a holocaust has on all the lives of those who came to possess the now famous work. Schiele is described as a young libertine, living the artist’s life on the fringe in Vienna. A student of Gustav Klimt, Schiele was an early Expressionist, focusing mostly on the human body in self portraits as well as a multitude of women, many appearing in cheerfully salacious paintings. Schiele was essentially a rock star to his contemporaries, but whose works where seen as disturbing by more elite, white-collar circles.
Schiele died before he reached the age of 30, and many of his works were retained by Lea Bondi, who he knew personally. A curator herself, “Portrait of Wally” hung in her gallery until 1939 when the Nazis came and crashed the party, with an official seizing the painting. We learn in the film that Bondi would spend the rest of her life trying to get the painting back.
What follows is a fairly convoluted narrative that somehow we’re able to digest without ever losing ourselves, and that’s a testament to the film’s director, Andrew Shea, who breaks off just enough for us to chew on before giving us another thread that introduces us to some other curator person. We meet Leopold, the painting’s present owner, as well as his wife, who simply feels it in her bones that the work is the property of her and her husband.
“Portrait of Wally” is careful not to ever get too legalese on us, either. One interview distills something having to do with the laws on recovering artifacts from the war while the next one breaks down the details of 1920’s Vienna, for instance, at the same time that we’re drinking in gorgeous Schiele paintings dripping with a modern sexual energy. As the legal drama ensues, we come to understand the importance and the urgency of the players involved and how attached they are to these stunning works.
This is one of the most compelling movies at the festival, and deserves the wider release it is sure to get once it’s done running the festival circuit.
How to Re-Establish a Vodka Empire
First-time director Daniel Edelstyn has fashioned a quirky and surprisingly satisfying documentary of the exploration of his Jewish Ukrainian roots after he discovers hidden diaries of his father’s mother, Maroussia Zorokovich. He was too young to remember his father, and now the new-found artifacts set off the adult Edelstyn on a personal journey fueled by a lifetime of curiosity and nostalgia for his father, as well as the rest of his family tree.
Edelstyn and his wife Hilary journey to the Ukraine armed only with the name Zorokovich, since the journals are long on juicy material, but short on details and facts. All they’ve got is that last name and their connection it has to his great-grandfather’s fortune in the vodka business. They discover a sugar factory that has long since been shut down, and Daniel is surprised to find himself an heir to the family’s vodka factory that is the commercial backbone of that small town. Go figure.
Edelstyn has an everyman’s presence throughout, with a look that reminds you of Oliver Twist if he were all grown up. Perhaps that has something to do with what is no doubt at times the boy inside the man, finally fulfilling a journey to complete himself in a way.
“How to Re-Establish a Vodka Empire” does not have any big points to make. It sees us through revolution, immigration, displacement, and other sordid historical events with grace and fascination. The film follows Daniel Edelstyn shooting himself taking this journey with sequences of wonderful old archival footage of the Ukraine and long-ago figures like Stalin, and also uses droll re-enactment’s to convey and illustrate passages in his grandmother’s diaries. It is not told with urgency and it does not ask us to care. It simply shows Edelstyn showing himself and then finally showing us, this remarkable document of 20th century Ukraine and this most unique of family stories. That it shows it with such joy is enough, and it reminds us that learning history need not be a boring affair having to do with the memorization of facts, but can be something we can actively engage in just by asking questions and then going after the answers.