The work of Montreal director Joe Balass, whose contribution to the Jewish cultural oeuvre is peppered with stories of displacement, resilience and self-acceptance, has been chosen by the Toronto Jewish Film Festival for its 2014 festival showcase.
Balass has three films screening in the festival, what he calls his Iraqi Trilogy. All three are documentary features telling stories of fractured identity and the struggle to acclimate to new languages, cultures and continents. The first to be screened is the historical Baghdad Twist. In addition to shedding light on an eradicated population of Iraqi Jews, Balass humanizes his birthplace, which is often associated with war. “The film is trying to imagine a place that no longer exists,” he says. “The basic premise . . . is that I saw an old Super 8 film of a wedding in 1965 Baghdad — an Iraqi/Jewish wedding — where people were dancing the twist. And then, a couple of years later, people were being imprisoned and hanged, tortured. And things deteriorated so rapidly that we were forced to leave.”
Add a dash of queer to Balass’s already rich cultural background and you get Nana, George and Me, which includes interviews with his nonagenarian grandmother and flamboyant uncle, George, who divulges sexy secrets from his ostentatious London mansion (George’s monologue about foreskin is a highlight).
The final film in the trilogy is a French-language documentary called La Longueur de l’Alphabet (The Length of the Alphabet). The film profiles Canadian writer Naïm Kattan, whose extensive literary history is interwoven with archival footage and personal interviews that detail his experience moving to La Belle Province early in his career. “For me, Naïm represents the new generation of Iraqis — that transplanting of the flower that was cut in Iraq — and watching it blossom,” Balass says. “I think we’re all like lotus flowers in that sense. We can float around and still bloom.”