04/11/2013 02:15 EDT | Updated 06/11/2013 05:12 EDT

Toronto Jewish Film Festival opens with CowJews & Indians

Filmmaker Marc Halberstadt plays out an extended analogy in the Toronto Jewish Film Festival's opening film, titled CowJews & Indians: How Hitler Scared My Relatives and I Woke Up in an Iroquois Longhouse — Owing the Mohawks Rent.

The Nazis had forced his Jewish grandfather to give up his property in Germany, but decades later, American Halberstadt realized he was himself living on Mohawk land in New York.

“I started out to try to get my family’s property back in Germany," Halberstadt told CBC News.

“Once I got to Germany, after some time there, I realized I was a hypocrite because here I am complaining about the property taken away from my ancestors, when in America I’m living on land taken away from the ancestors of Native Americans.

“If the Germans owed me 65 years of back rent and I owed the Native Americans 65 years of back rent, why not let the Native Americans collect directly from Germany and cut out the middleman?”

In his film, which gets its Canadian premiere Thursday at TJFF, Halberstadt recruits a group of Mohawk and Lakota heritage to travel to Germany and argue that the Germans should pay reparations directly to them for property Jewish families lost to the Nazis.

Not such a far-fetched idea

It proves not to be such a far-fetched idea, as the group members are able to get German lawyers to examine the legal precedent on their behalf and find locals surprisingly supportive.

CowJews & Indians is Halberstadt’s first feature and its trickster premise stirs up awareness of what Native Americans lost with the arrival of Europeans.

The Native Americans agreed to participate with the documentary for various reasons, Halberstadt said.

“I presented my idea and I offered to pay for travel expenses and living expenses and different people went for different reasons,” he noted.

One of the Lakota group members had a great-grandfather buried in Germany, while another wanted to further his art career. A third individual, a working comedian, was looking for comic insight into a difficult issue. Halberstadt will answer audience questions after Thursday night's screening of his film.

Exploring Jewish identity

The Toronto Jewish Film Festival focuses on movies that explore Jewish identity, this year including documentaries that profile Neil Diamond, Roman Polanski, Serge Gainsbourg and late New York mayor Ed Koch.

There is also a spotlight on African films, with five movies from West Africa set to screen.

400 Miles to Freedom, a 2012 documentary about Ethiopian Jews making their way to Israel, will have its Canadian premiere at the festival. The film’s co-director Avishai Yeganyahu Mekonen recounts his family’s exodus from Ethiopia in the 1980s, a long journey, by foot, that included his being kidnapped at age 11. Israel gives his family a mixed welcome, insisting the Ethiopians "convert" to Judaism, although they are already Jews.

Feature fiction films on the TJFF program include:

- My Best Holidays, a French comedy set in the 1970s about a Jewish Algerian family taking a vacation in a French rural village never visited by Jews before.

- God’s Neighbors, an Israeli movie that screened at Cannes about a religious gang that enforces a strict moral code in a Jaffa suburb and what happens when its leader is attracted to a girl who won’t follow the rules.

- Aliyah, about a young Parisian who is selling drugs to pay off his brother’s debt and also to raise enough money to immigrate to Israel.

The Toronto Jewish Film Festival runs April 11-21, with movies screening around the Greater Toronto Area.