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Toronto Filmfest on Collision Course With Jewish Holidays

Festival begins on Rosh Hashanah and ends on Yom Kippur — festival producers say they can’t help it

One of North America’s key film festivals is running smack into a conflict with the Jewish High Holy Days, but the Toronto International Film Festival says there’s not much it can do about it.

Except add some duplicate screenings.

This year’s festival, the 35th anniversary edition of the festival that serves as a key showcase and market, and the unofficial kickoff to awards season, begins on Sept. 9, the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Yom Kippur begins at sundown on the festival’s second-to-last day.

Paul Giamatti and Dustin HoffmanWith both the beginning and end of the festival running into the most important of the High Holy Days, wrote Martin Knelman at Toronto.com, “observant Jews will be absent from TIFF on four key days of the 10-day festival. A very large proportion of the festival’s key supporters, its Gold Patrons, are Jewish. So are many of the industry players. Ditto many of the buyers, sellers, agents, publicists and producers who come to TIFF from L.A. and New York.”

But TIFF had virtually no choice in changing its traditional start date of the first Thursday after Labor Day, the festival’s co-director, Cameron Bailey, told TheWrap.

The Venice Film Festival takes place immediately before Toronto, and the San Sebastian festival immediately afterwards.

“All three festivals are big international events, each needing our own discrete dates,” Bailey said. “Any move creates innumerable problems with prints, talent, journalists and industry who often attend all three events. We are all festivals sanctioned by the International Federation of Film Producers’ Association and date moves are not only highly discouraged, they are also highly political. In effect, we are locked into our dates and always will be.”

In addition, he said, the festival shares its gala venue, Roy Thompson Hall, with the Toronto Symphony, which schedules its dates around the traditional TIFF schedule.

Bailey did say they were trying to accommodate those who were forced to miss events because of the holidays. Films that screen on the most sensitive days, he said, also will screen at different times during the festival.

“We are committed to being particularly sensitive to religious holidays when making decisions about the Festival schedule, including repeats of the opening night film, and the offerings available to all festivalgoers,” he told theWrap. “In years like this where we are opening and closing on the high holidays, we have worked closely with a number of key stakeholders including sponsors and donors, and have achieved acceptable compromises.”

An informal survey of companies and filmmakers attending the festival didn’t uncover any who were anticipating significant difficulties because of the schedule, although a spokesperson for Astral Media confirmed that the Canadian company is scaling back its activities and not hosting its traditional opening-night party “out of respect for those who wish to spend the holiday with family and friends.”

Astral will still sponsor TIFF’s opening night, for the 23rd year, but will only send “a small contingent of staff” to the screening of the film “Score! A Hockey Musical,” one of 19 Toronto selections that the company’s networks have helped finance.

The choice of that opening-night selection itself may have been impacted by the holidays. Before the festival, many longtime festival-watchers expected that the fest might open with “Barney’s Version,” a Canadian film starring Paul Giamatti and Dustin Hoffman (photo above), directed by Richard J. Lewis and drawn from the comic novel by Jewish writer Mordecai Richler. 

Although producer Robert Lantos has been involved with nine previous TIFF opening-night films, “Barney’s Version” will screen later in the festival, after holding its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival. While Lantos has not commented publicly, the Toronto Globe and Mail flatly stated, “he opted not to have the world premiere is Toronto given that TIFF’s opening night falls on Rosh Hashanah.”

Given its fixed position on the calendar, the festival has taken place during the Jewish holidays in the past, as well as occasionally conflicting with the Muslim holiday of Ramadan.

“It’s something to be mindful of,” TIFF’s documentary programmer Thom Powers told theWrap, “just as last year Ramadan was during the festival, and that was something to be mindful of.”