In 2006, a group of local film lovers decided to organize an annual program focused on Israeli cinema. Their timing was prescient. After decades of near invisibility, Israeli films were suddenly winning accolades at festivals all around the world, and last year, an Israeli film was a contender for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for the fourth time in five years.
The first "Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema" (CFIC) was also an important event in my own life. In October '06, I was just beginning my second year as Arts & Culture critic for JUF News, and covering the CFIC has been a highlight of every year since. But as many readers already know, my husband recently took a new job in Brooklyn, so this will be my last monthly column.
Watching CFIC films year in and year out, I have immersed myself in Israeli history and culture, walking many metaphorical miles in the shoes of those who brought a wide variety of languages and traditions with them to Eretz Yisrael. I intend to continue my commitment to Israeli cinema in the future, and I hope you will too.
Israel's expanded presence on the world cinema scene has created new opportunities for collaboration with filmmakers from other countries. This year, you will hear a lot of Polish, as well as a surprising amount of Spanish.
For years, actor Vladimir Friedman kept busy playing displaced Russian physicians. But this year, in Salsa Tel Aviv, Friedman plays a Hebrew-speaking landlord renting to a group of illegal immigrants from Mexico. This tells me the huge influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union has been more or less absorbed, and newer arrivals are causing bigger cultural hiccups.
One of the Spanish speakers is beautiful Natalia Faust who plays an Argentine immigrant named "Anna" in Dusk (written and directed by Alon Zingman). Dusk, a Crash-type film with multiple storylines, stars well-known Israeli actresses like Orly Silbersatz (my pick for Best Supporting Actress last year), yet Faust more than holds her own.
Ami Drozd was one of the co-creators of the documentary The Name My Mother Gave Me (shown in 2010). This year he excels as writer/director of his first feature film, the semi-autobiographical My Australia.
TOP PICKS: Features
My top pick in the Feature category this year is My Australia. Told from the point of view of "Tadek" (Jakub Wroblewski), a kid growing up in Lodz in the early 60s, My Australia answers all those who wonder why Jewish Holocaust survivors didn't just "go home" after the Allies defeated the Nazis. Tadek thinks of himself as a devout Catholic, but mother "Halina" (Aleksandra Poplawska) has secrets. When Tadek and his older brother fall in with a group of anti-Semitic hoodlums, Halina decides it's time for them to leave Poland and join their relatives in Australia. Only after she has them safely at sea does Halina reveal the fact that their actual destination is Israel.
TOP PICKS: Documentaries
Three wonderful BioDocs that have already played in metro Chicago will be returning for encore screenings at this year's CFIC: Follow Me is the story of Yoni Netanyahu (commander of the 1976 raid on Entebbe), Incessant Visions is the story of Erich Mendelsohn (the architect who designed many of the first "important" buildings in Tel Aviv), and Torn is the story of Romuald Jakub Weksler-Waszkimel (a Catholic priest who discovers that his birth parents were Jews who perished in the Holocaust).
Of the new documentaries showing in Chicago for the very first time, my top pick is Lost Love Diaries. One year after losing her husband Elmie (to whom she was married for 62 years), Elisheva Lehman returns to Holland with her Israeli-born daughter Shula to look for traces of Bernie—the fiancé she lost in 1943.
And while she searches, we learn all about her. Elisheva's remarkable spirit is captured in this voiceover: "You know me, Bernie, forever the optimist. When you disappeared after the War, I ran ahead. I didn't look back, not even once. I decided to live, and I made every new day a festival." With four children, 10 grandchildren, and 13 great grandchildren at the time of filming, Elisheva Lehman is a true mother of modern Israel!
My Best Actor pick for 2012 is Yehezkel Lazarov who plays "Dov Markovsky" in Dina Zvi-Riklis' Yishuv drama The Fifth Heaven. Markovsky is a Russian-born physician who runs a small orphanage. As 1945 begins, the Jews of Palestine have ceased to fear a Nazi invasion, and they are eager to return to the business of statehood. But Markovsky, an idealist, can't turn his back on those already dependent on him for their minimal sustenance.
Most of the action takes place in the orphanage, and the large cast of women and girls who live there under his wing is terrific. My Best Supporting Actress nod goes to Rotem Zisman as "Bertha," a young woman engaged in a way too public affair with a British officer, but a close second is Esti Zakheim as "Paula," an older woman remembering the Warsaw in her glory days.
At the opposite end of the cinematic spectrum is Salsa Tel Aviv staring Angelica Vale as "Vicky," a Mexican woman who sneaks into Israel in search of a ne'er do well boyfriend. Vale is a very well-known singer/actress with a long list of Latin American film and concert credits. On the other hand, her counterpart, Israeli actor Angel Bonani, is a relative novice. And yet this bubbly confection is the closest thing I've seen to the Hepburn/Grant screwball comedy classic Bringing Up Baby in years. Gracias!
TZIVI'S 2012 "BEST OF FEST" LIST
Best Feature Film: My Australia
Best Documentary Film: Lost Love Diaries
Best Actress in a Feature: Angelica Vale in Salsa Tel Aviv
Best Actor in a Feature: Yehezkel Lazarov in The Fifth Heaven
Best Supporting Actress: Rotem Zisman in The Fifth Heaven
Best Supporting Actor: Angel Bonani in Salsa Tel Aviv
And here is my personal ranking of films on this year's schedule:
Narrative Features—Highly Recommended:
The Fifth Heaven
Salsa Tel Aviv
Docs over 60 Minutes—Highly Recommended:
Docs under 60 Minutes—Highly Recommended:
Life in Stills
Lost Love Diaries
About Yossi*… Yossi is a sequel to Eytan Fox's enormously successful film Yossi & Jagger. If you've seen Yossi & Jagger, then you will certainly want to see Yossi, but sorry to say, it doesn't really stand alone.
CFIC 2012 opens with a screening of Dolphin Boy at the Shedd Aquarium on Tues Oct. 23. Additional events are scheduled in Chicago on Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday. Then CFIC 2012 moves out to the AMC Northbrook Court for a week of screenings from Sunday, Oct. 28 through Sunday, Nov. 4. For complete details, visit: http://ChicagoFestivalOfIsraeliCinema.org.
I will be in Northbrook on Sunday, Oct. 28 to lead the Q&A after the 3:30 screening of The Fifth Heaven. I will also introduce the three films by women filmmakers scheduled for Monday, Oct. 29 (Lost Love Diaries, Life in Stills, and Off-White Lies). If you would like to meet there to discuss Israeli film, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Signing out now—thanks for the memories!
Jan Lisa Huttner (Tzivi) has served as the Arts & Culture critic for JUF News for the past 7 years. After 35 years in Chicago, Jan recently relocated to Brooklyn. Visit Jan's blog, www.SecondCityTzivi.com, for a complete online archive of all JUF News columns and posts plus additional interviews and reviews. Jan's Blog will also keep current with reviews of new films of special interest to Jewish viewers.