Pathos, humour and more at TJFF

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Country of origin: Philippines

Thursday, May 8, 6:30 p.m.
ROM Eaton Theatre (100 Queen’s Park Circle)

Sunday, May 11, 4:30 p.m.
Famous Players Canada Square Cinema (2200 Yonge Street)

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Israel is hardly on the radar when one talks about the plight of the Philippines’ 2.2 million Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs), and conversely, the reality of OFWs is hardly ever mentioned when one discusses Israel. Transit, Filipino filmmaker Hannah Tabitha Espia’s first full-length independent film, will likely change that.

A poignant film about the life and struggles of Israel’s migrant Filipino community, Transit is one of 23 films from around the world featured in the 22nd Toronto Jewish Film Festival, May 1 to 11. [It was also the Philippine entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2014 Academy Awards.]

Set mostly in Tel Aviv, Transit tells the story of Moises (Ping Medina) and his sister Janet (Irma Adlawan) who live in perpetual fear that their children will be deported anytime soon. Moises’ son, Joshua (Marc Justine Alvarez) was born in Israel and speaks fluent Hebrew, but an Israeli law has been passed (2009) that children of migrant workers under the age of five must be sent back to their parents’ home country. Janet’s teenage daughter, Yael (Jasmine Curtis-Smith), is half-Israeli, half-Filipino, and she boldly asserts that she will never be sent away because she is an Israeli, but her mother will hear none of it. “You are Filipino!” Janet says with every force she could muster even though she knows her Hebrew-speaking daughter’s heart belongs to an Israeli Jew and to Israel.

Transit benefits greatly from a talented ensemble who on many occasions, had to speak Hebrew. Curtis-Smith and Alvarez display admirable wisdom beyond their years as performers and at times they steal the thunder from Adlawan and Medina, both veteran actors. The dialogue is powerful; the overwrought histrionics and melodrama, which characterize many Filipino films is, for the most part, kept at bay.



More importantly, Transit is a film of many layers and it explores the big and small tragedies that often unravel the lives of migrant workers. Moises, who works as a live-in caregiver to an amiable Israeli senior, is a single father because Joshua’s mother left them for the promise of a better life with an Israeli; she flatly refuses to give in to his request to adopt their son so he could stay in Israel. It is not clear whether Janet, who works as a maid for a kind Israeli woman, was ever married to Yael’s Israeli father; she simply says it’s a past that doesn’t merit any discussion.

Laudably, the film explores the effects of migration on children. Israel is home to about 100,000 OFWs and about half of them have legal documents, while others have legal permits that have expired, leaving them undocumented. Ugly truths are exposed in the all-too familiar setting of a Filipino birthday party with the requisite merrymaking, cake and pancit (Filipino noodles): There is talk of how youngsters are taught how to lie and to hide to avoid deportation, and of fellow Filipinos with no status who become informants to save their own skins. In a corner, Filipino-Israeli teens huddle and wonder about the whole question of identity. They have inherited their parents’ neuroses but they also want to fit into the only place they have ever known. They wonder, “Would living in the Philippines be any different?”

Besides opening a window into the lives of migrant workers, the film allows us to see a different Israel. It is not an Israel gripped with tension amidst its continuing conflict with Palestine, nor is it a prosperous Israel whose citizens enjoy an affluent Western lifestyle. Rather, we see the landscape of its underbelly, where migrant workers are largely invisible: they  live in dusty, rabbit-warren-like apartments wall-papered with faded posters and photographs, constantly pounding the gates of heaven for grace and deliverance.


Country of origin: Israel

Monday, May 5, 6:00 p.m.
Koffler House (569 Spadina Avenue)

Tuesday, May 6, 5:30 p.m.
Famous Players Canada Square Cinema (2200 Yonge Street)

Director Roni Rainhartz’ Poison is a simple but thought-provoking [and cinematically beautiful] drama about the choices that face Chen, a female soldier who successfully finishes basic military training in southern Israel. Could she, would she be able to train snipers and handle the call they will make if they successfully kill their targets? Sivan Cohen, who plays Chen, has a face that a camera adores but she also has the acting chops to pull her role off.

I’m a Mitzvah
Country of origin: United States

Wednesday, May 7, 9 p.m.
ROM Eaton Theatre (100 Queen’s Park Circle)

Friday, May 9, 3:30 p.m.
Famous Players Canada Square Cinema (2200 Yonge Street)

A hilarious short film about a self-absorbed Jewish American (Ben Schwartz) who must transport the un-embalmed body of his Jewish American friend back to America but is instead stranded overnight in rural Mexico. The film’s humour would have been macabre were it not set in Mexico, where death is celebrated and not just on the annual Day of the Dead festival.

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