Tzivi's Cinema Spotlight

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After 35 years in Chicago, Jan Lisa Huttner (Tzivi) now lives in Brooklyn. Follow the link to read a sample from her new eBook "Tevye's Daughters: No Laughing Matter."

Tzivi’s Spotlight

Tzivi reviews Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict

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Who won World War II? As we prepare to commemorate the 71st anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Complex on Jan. 27, I would like to make the case that one of the big winners of World War II was Peggy Guggenheim. 

Say what?

In her superlative new documentary Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict, filmmaker Lisa Immordino Vreeland introduces her subject with quotes from talking heads who are often quite snide, and yet 95 minutes later, her heroine has triumphed. Despite all who would doubt or demean her, in spite of all who would endanger her wealth, her well-being and even her life, Peggy Guggenheim proved herself to be invincible.

We hear the name “Guggenheim” today, and we picture a world of people born with silver spoons. But Vreeland shows with a brief overview of PG’s family tree that the wealth of the Guggenheims (on her father’s side) like the wealth of the Seligmans (on her mother’s side) was entirely new money, all of which was made in America.

PG’s Seligman great-grandfather -- Joseph Seligman -- was born in Baiersdorf, Germany in 1819. At age 17, Joseph Seligman boarded a steamer at Bremen and sailed to America, where he worked as peddler in rural Pennsylvania. But by the time he died at age 60 in 1880, Joseph Seligman had amassed a fortune and founded a dynasty.

Meyer Guggenheim, PG’s paternal grandfather, was also born in the Old Country. He left Switzerland in 1847 at age 19, and started his new life in America in the import business. Then he saved his money, went west, and invested in Colorado mines. When Meyer Guggenheim died in 1905, he was the patriarch of one of the wealthiest families in late 19th century America.

Barbara and Meyer Guggenheim raised ten children (seven sons and three daughters). Babet and Joseph Seligman raised nine children (five sons and four daughters). But PG’s parents were both a bit rebellious, and when Florette Seligman married Benjamin Guggenheim in 1894, they began to distance themselves from their birth families. They set themselves up in grand style in Manhattan, yet by the time Florette gave birth to their third daughter in 1903, they had also grown distant from one another. Then Benjamin went off the Paris, where instead of achieving independence he ended up squandering much of his inheritance in ill-advised investments.

Truth being stranger than fiction, Benjamin Guggenheim literally sank with the Titanic on April 15, 1912, leaving Florette alone with her daughters in somewhat precarious financial circumstances. Benjamin’s brothers -- all of whom were extremely wealthy -- tried to keep them in the style to which they were accustomed, but as soon as Florette found out, she began downsizing. Perhaps some of the Seligmans also tried to help her, but if so, there is no record of it. So while PG carried a name that seemed to imply great good fortune, she actually had a childhood filled with tragedy and she grew up knowing she would always be thought of as an object of pity.

To everyone’s surprise, PG embraced her fate and turned it into a badge of honor. Rather than live as a “poor relation,” PG cast herself as a “black sheep,” and moved to Paris in 1920 at age 22. For the next 20 years, PG lived at the edge of Europe’s avant-garde. Name almost any famous person who passed through Paris in those years -- artists and writers, intellectuals and gadflies -- and it’s likely he or she supped at PG’s table. She loved their creative energy; they loved her money. It may not have been much money from her relatives’ perspective, but from a bohemian’s point of view, PG had it all.

And so, as the Nazis began their “rape of Europe” in 1939, PG was perfectly positioned to achieve her destiny as the savior of Modern Art. By the time of her death in 1979, PG had amassed one of the world’s greatest collections of 20th century paintings, sculptures, and other works of “fine art.” Along with her purchases, she also provided direct financial support to those once-famous who had fallen on hard times (e.g., Emma Goldman) and those who might never have become famous without her (e.g., Jackson Pollock).

And in the end, she also healed strained family relations by donating her collection --The Peggy Guggenheim Collection -- to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. For its part, the Foundation affirmed in a recent press release that it “has worked to make the name of Peggy Guggenheim and the renown of her achievements more celebrated than ever before and will continue to ensure that Peggy Guggenheim’s collection is honored and preserved.”

Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict is one of my favorite documentary films of 2015. Once I was introduced to her by filmmaker Lisa Immordino Vreeland, I couldn’t get enough. I ended up reading both versions of her autobiography (the randy original from 1946 and the cleaned-up version released in 1960), the new biography Peggy Guggenheim – The Shock of the Modern by Francine Prose (published last year in Yale University Press’s prestigious “Jewish Lives” series), “The Cicerone” (a short story published in a Mary McCarthy collection called Cast a Cold Eye in which a fictionalized Peggy appears), and A Not So Still Life (the memoir published by her step-son Jimmy Ernst in 1984 in which a very real Peggy appears).

Then I re-watched Pollock (the film released by Ed Harris in 2000 in which he plays Jackson Pollock, Amy Madigan plays Peggy Guggenheim, and Marcia Gay Harden plays Pollock’s very Jewish wife Lee Krasner). Then I re-watched Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict a second time, and knowing so much more about her, I loved Vreeland’s film even more.

In her own way, PG -- the granddaughter and great-granddaughter of German-speaking Jewish immigrants from Europe -- lived in defiance of Hitler and his murderous assault on everything precious to Western Civilization. He lost. She won. And through her, countless cultural treasures have been preserved for future generations. May her memory be for a blessing.

Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict opens Friday, Jan. 8 at the Music Box Theatre on Southport Ave. For showtimes, call (773) 871-6604. To purchase tickets, visit: http://www.musicboxtheatre.com/

For more photos and links, visit Jan's blog.

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Top Photo: Peggy Guggenheim looking through sculpture, Courtesy of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection Archives, Venice. (NOTE: Per filmmaker Lisa Immordino Vreeland, this sculpture is not part of PG’s collection.)

Bottom Photo: Marguerite "Peggy" Guggenheim (1898-1979) and her first husband Lawrence Vail (1891-1968) with their children Pegeen Vail Hélion Rumney (1925-1967) and Michael C. Vail aka Sindbad (1923-1986).

Photos courtesy of filmmaker Lisa Immordino Vreeland.

Tzivi reviews The Big Short

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The Big Short -- the best film of 2015 -- opens in limited release today in most major American markets including Chicago.

I say “the best” with confidence because I have now seen almost all of 2016’s Oscar contenders. It’s true -- I have attended innumerable private screenings in the past two months as a member of New York Film Critics Online, and my Brooklyn apartment is flooded with “For Your Consideration” screeners from all the major distributors. When the Golden Globe nominations were announced yesterday, there was only one top film on the list that I hadn’t seen -- The Revenant -- and that’s only because I had the flu the night of my NYFCO screening.

Based on The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, the non-fiction best-seller published by Michael Lewis in 2010 which inspired the screenplay by director Adam McKay and his co-writer Charles Randolph, The Big Short uses bravura filmmaking techniques to tell one of the most important stories of our era: the collapse of worldwide financial markets in 2008.

We refer to this now as the “Subprime Mortgage Crisis,” as if it were over and done. But reverberations are still evident in almost every country on this planet, especially our own (embroiled as we already are in one of the most contentious presidential elections in American history). When the dominos began to fall midway through the film, one character said to another, “This thing is hitting Europe. Greece and Iceland are finished. Spain is teetering,” chills ran up and down my spine.

So it is important for us to strap ourselves into a careening car on this wild rollercoaster, and give ourselves over to those with the talent and skill to explain how we got here. Luckily, McKay and Randolph lay it out for us in bite-sized pieces, with tremendous support from film editor Hank Corwin (the MVP on their huge and phenomenal team).

The plot (the cast of which includes major stars like Christian Bale, Brad Pitt and Marisa Tomei as well as up-and-comers like Hamish Linklater, John Magaro, Rafe Spall, Jeremy Strong and Finn Wittrock) follows four sets of idiosyncratic outsiders, all of whom sensed that something was deeply wrong with the Housing Bubble. So they bought insurance on bonds everyone else considered totally secure. The title The Big Short refers to the fact that they “shorted” the market when everyone else went long, but hey, let Margot Robbie explain it!

Margot Robbie is the gorgeous actress who played Leonardo DiCaprio’s trophy wife in The Wolf of Wall Street two years ago. “Here is Margot Robbie to explain,” says narrator “Jared Vennett” (Ryan Gosling). Cut to Margot Robbie (the real Margot Robbie). Sipping champagne in a bathtub filled with bubbles, Robbie is the epitome of decadence (just as her character was in The Wolf of Wall Street). “Short means bet against. Got it? Now get lost.”

This scene serves multiple purposes for the audience. It relaxes us and gives us a laugh, and it also cushions us from all the jargon to come. This is important because jargon was one of the primary weapons used to defraud investors like us and the people who were supposedly acting in our interest (like our pension fund managers). Acronyms like “CDO” buzzed around us like bees. Collateralized Debt Obligation? Say what?

But using Margot Robbie as the first of several celebrity explainers is also an archway for McKay and Randolph to signal that “the wolf” in The Wolf of Wall Street turned out to be a chump, whereas the guys who looked like sheep were the ones who actually succeeded. In the end, as big-name financial institutions like AIG, Bear Stearns, and Lehman Brothers implode, the “insiders” who considered themselves “players” are all turned out.

Insofar as this mess has a moral center, it belongs to a Jewish guy introduced early on by his Rabbi. “Mark is an excellent student of the Torah and the Talmud,” the Rabbi tells Mark’s beaming mother. When she fails appreciate his concern, the Rabbi continues: “He’s looking for inconsistencies in the word of God!”

Mark is a character named “Mark Baum” who is closely modeled on a real person named Steve Eisman, and this anecdote comes directly from Eisman’s mother Lillian. It can be found in the first chapter of The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, almost verbatim. 

“Mark Baum” (like Steve Eisman) was the head of a hedge fund called FrontPoint Partners. One day a guy from Deutsche Bank named “Jared Vennett” (the Ryan Gosling character based on another real person named Gregg Lippmann) called the wrong number and ended up making a pitch to Baum and his core team members, numbers guy Vinny Daniel (whose actual name really is Vincent Daniel) and trader Danny Moses (whose actual name is Daniel Moses). This fluke leads the beginning of FrontPoint Partners’ involvement. They know Vennett is only looking out for “number one” -- as Vennett later admits, “I never said I was the hero of this story” -- but his mere appearance signals to them that the waters are far murkier than they realized.

Even though he is inherently skeptical, the more Baum learns, the more anxious he becomes. He sends his guys down to Miami in 2006 to look at a pricey new housing development, and it turns out to be a ghost town. He travels with them to the American Securitization Forum in 2007, and finds thousands of people partying with no thoughts of tomorrow. Breaking the fourth wall, Vennett tells us: “It was at that moment in that dumb restaurant in Las Vegas with that stupid look on his face that Mark Baum realized the whole world economy might collapse.” Soon after, Baum says to his wife: “It’s all so much uglier and more twisted than I could have imagined.” “Stop trying to save the world,” she says. But he can’t.

Mark Baum is played by Steve Carell in a transformative performance that raises him to the rank of one of the greatest actors of his generation (a remarkable feat for someone who got his start as a Second Banana in “bromance” comedies). Carell totally owns the climactic scene in which Baum is invited to debate a bullish investor from Bear Stearns at the very moment Bear Stearns stock goes into freefall. While Vinny tracks the numbers on his BlackBerry, Baum puts the whole mess in perspective: “For 15,000 years, fraud and short-sighted thinking have never, ever worked. Not once. Eventually people get caught. Things go south. When the hell did we forget all that?”

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The Big Short opens today in limited release at the AMC River East and the Regal City North on Western Ave. Suburban locations include Bolingbrook, Crystal Lake, Elgin, Lake Zurich, Lincolnshire, Skokie, and Woodridge. The Big Short will expand to additional Metro Chicago theatres on Dec. 23.

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Top Photo: Steve Carell as Mark Baum in The Big Short

Bottom Photo: Carell and Ryan Gosling.


Tzivi reviews A Voice Among the Silent

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On March 18, 1949, President Harry S. Truman appointed James Grover McDonald "Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary" -- a person invested with the full power of independent action on behalf of their government in a foreign country -- to the newly declared State of Israel.

Who was this man, and how did he come to receive such a profoundly significant title at such a critical moment in the history of the Jewish people?

The answer is fascinating, and well-explained in Shuli Eshel's new documentary A Voice Among the Silent: The Legacy of James G. McDonald, which will be honored with a special screening at the Gene Siskel Film Center on State Street this Sunday (Nov. 22).

This is a case in which there is no reason to speculate. Although born in Ohio to a relatively ordinary Christian family, McDonald began his ascent as a student at Indiana University. After receiving his bachelor's degree in 1909, he completed a master's degree in History, Political Science, and International Relations at IU in 1910, after which he was selected for a prestigious teaching fellowship at Harvard University.

Because his mother was German, McDonald spoke German fluently. Therefore, this very tall -- and very "Aryan-looking" -- fellow made friends with students at Harvard who later rose to become prominent members of the Nazi Party. Ironically, this gave him access to highly placed individuals after he left academia to become Chairman of the Board of the Foreign Policy Association. In 1933, all of these connections lead to his appointment as League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Coming from Germany. So he was literally in the right place at the right time to offer detailed information to Franklin Roosevelt and his cabinet from 1933 through to the end of World War II.

Eshel's achievement in A Voice Among the Silent is to explain McDonald's career step-by-step with a clear linear line from a Midwestern childhood to the world stage. In this she is much aided by on camera interviews with McDonald's daughter Barbara McDonald Stewart. Now a historian in her own right, Stewart has collaborated on the publication of three edited editions of her father's voluminous diaries:

  • Advocate for the Doomed: The Diaries and Papers of James G. McDonald(1932-1935)
  • Refugees and Rescue: The Diaries and Papers of James G. McDonald(1935-1945)
  • To the Gates of Jerusalem: The Diaries and Papers of James G. McDonald(1945-1947)

Eshel -- an award-winning filmmaker who was born in Israel but has long resided in Chicago -- is best known locally for her beloved documentary Maxwell Street: A Living Memory which premiered to a record crowd at the Chicago History Museum in 2002 (I remember! I was there!), and has since aired numerous times on WTTW (Chicago Public Television).

Sunday's screening at the Gene Siskel Film Center begins at 5:15 PM, and Eshel will be there in person for a Q and A after the credits roll.

For tickets, visit the GSFC website: www.siskelfilmcenter.org

For more information about Eshel and links to all documentaries now available on DVD (including A Voice Among the Silent and Maxwell Street: A Living Memory), visit her website: http://shulieshel.com/

The screening begins at 5:15 PM. For tickets, visit the GSFC website: www.siskelfilmcenter.org

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American Ambassador James G. McDonald with Israeli President David Ben Gurion.

Top Photo: Note portrait of Theodor Herzl in the background.

Bottom Photo: Note map of Eretz Yisrael in the middle.

CFIC '15: The Gett Trilogy

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The 10th annual Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema begins this week, and as regular readers already know, I will be flying in from Brooklyn to participate in a special screening of The Gett Trilogy on Tuesday, Nov. 3.

This is something of a high-risk venture for the CFIC, because the initial release of Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem was a “2014 event” rather than a “2015 event.” Gett received an Ophir Award as Best Picture of the Year from the Israel Film Academy in September 2014, and it received a Golden Globe nomination from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association in December 2014 in the Best Foreign Language Film category. In between, Gett also made its first Chicago appearance at the 2014 Chicago International Film Festival in October, and then played at both local Landmark Theatres -- the Century Center Cinema in Lincoln Park and the Renaissance Place Cinema in Highland Park -- in February and March.

Nevertheless, even if you have already seen some -- or all -- of The Gett Trilogy already, I sincerely believe that the opportunity to see all three parts together should not be missed. I will go so far as to say this will be a cultural experience somewhat akin to signing up for one of the Lyric Opera’s Ring Cycle weeks (an experience hubby and I both cherished).

I will be with you all day on Nov. 3 to watch all three films in person, and that’s really saying something because I have already seen Gett three times, and I have seen both To Take a Wife and Shiva twice. But great works of art are inherently open to multiple interpretations, and different facets often resonate based on changes in your own life. (For a wonderful analysis of this phenomenon, get yourself a copy of Nothing Remains the Same: Rereading and Remembering by Wendy Lesser.) 

Just a few weeks back, I actually found myself arguing with another film critic here in NYC about our contrasting interpretations of Gett, so I will be looking with new eyes. Maybe she is right? Maybe I missed something? Who knows? As I always say: “You don’t know until you go!”

Let me stop now and back-up, because even though I have written JUF posts about all of the 2014 events mentioned above, many of you reading now are probably new to The Gett Trilogy and are therefore thoroughly baffled.

Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem is the third film in a trilogy about an Israeli woman named Viviane Amsalem who is seeking a divorce decree (a “gett”) from the Bet Din (Rabbinical Court). Viviane Amsalem is played by Ronit Elkabetz, one of Israel’s most highly lauded actresses. She has also starred in well-known Israeli films such as Late Marriage and The Band’s Visit, as well as high-profile French films including The Girl on the Train.

In addition to her starring role as Viviane, Elkabetz also co-wrote the screenplay and co-directed the production in collaboration with her brother Shlomi Elkabetz. The story is loosely based on the life of their parents. Together they collected awards from film festivals all around the world, including a “Silver Hugo” for Best Screenplay from the 2014 Chicago International Film Festival jury.

To Take a Wife, the first film in the series, was released in Israel in 2004. Although it was shown in various film festivals around the world, it was not widely available in the USA until a DVD was released in 2009.

Shiva, the second film in the series, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2008 was released in Israel a few months later. I saw it the following year at CFIC ’09. (It appears on the “Highly Recommended” list at the end of my JUF post.) Yet once again, it was not widely available in the USA until the DVD release, also in 2009.

However, worldwide acclaim for Gett has fed interest in the first two parts of the trilogy, no doubt related to greater awareness of the agunot (“Chained Women”) issue in the Jewish world at large since 2004.

Let me cut to the chase: If you have only seen Gett, it will be almost impossible to feel one iota of respect for Viviane’s husband, Elisha. It’s very difficult to understand the motivations of a man who would treat any woman like this (for decades?!?), but here I remind you that Ronit and Shlomi have based these characters on their own parents. So Elisha is not just a “monster” to them, he is a man presumably much like their own father.

Watch the entire trilogy, and you will see how actor Simon Abkarian wins our grudging sympathy for someone who knew his place growing up in Morocco, but cannot find his way after making aliyah. Elisha is not the first man in his position who tried to reclaim lost dignity by lording it over his family. And with so many displaced people now flooding the developed world, we should be more grateful than ever that Ronit and Shlomi have empathy for Elisha even though they are clearly rooting for Viviane.

Screenings on Nov. 3 are as follows:

  • To Take a Wife at 4 p.m. (runtime 97 minutes)
  • Shiva at 6:30 p.m. (runtime 103 minutes)
  • Gett: The Trial of Vivian Amsalem at 8:45 p.m. (runtime 115 minutes)

Remember: I will be watching with you, and I will be available to answer questions and provide continuity from beginning to end.

Note that there will also be a dessert buffet for sponsors at 2:30 p.m. at which I will present “Jan’s Guide to Gett” (an overview of character arcs and major themes). If you would like to attend, please send me an e-mail message ASAP: tzivi (at) msn (dot) com.

Todah Rabah to CFIC Executive Director Cindy Stern for inviting me, and to the five sponsors -- Hadassah, Na’Amat, ORT, Shalva, and Teddie Kossof Salon -- who are making this extraordinary day possible.

I hope to see some of you there!

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Click here to read my post “Tzivi’s Guide to the 10th annual Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema” for the October issue of the JUF News.

For a complete program schedule, visit the CFIC ’15 website.

Click here to buy CFIC ’15 tickets   

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Viviane Amsalem (Ronit Elkabetz) and her attorney (Menashe Noy) face off against her husband Elisha Amsalem (Simon Abkarian) in one of their innumerable appearances before the Rabbinical Court. (Photo courtesy of the Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema.)

Tzivi reviews Rosenwald

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“You can look at the people who got grants from Julius Rosenwald, and say, these are the predecessor generation to the civil rights generation that I’m a part of. And I’m a predecessor generation to the Obama generation that resulted in the election of the first black president of the United States.”

-Renowned Civil Rights Activist Julian Bond

Rosenwald, filmmaker Aviva Kempner’s latest documentary, opened in Metro Chicago Friday. Kempner is already highly-respected for her award-winning films The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg and Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, but Rosenwald has special significance for members of Chicago’s Jewish community because Julius Rosenwald was one of our own.

Although he was born and raised in Springfield -- very close, in fact, to the residence of then President Abraham Lincoln -- Rosenwald lived most of his life very close to the University of Chicago Campus where there is now a building built in his honor called Rosenwald Hall.

“All Gaul is divided into three parts,” said Julius Caesar, and so is Kempner’s film. Part One provides an overview of how this child of German Jewish immigrants became the logistical genius who turned Sears, Roebuck and Company into one of the most successful mercantile enterprises in the history of American Business. Part Two explains how Rosenwald used his vast -- and most unexpected -- resources to build Rosenwald Schools for African-American children all across the South. Part Three shows how he went on to create the Rosenwald Fund which sponsored the early work of some of the USA’s greatest African-American artists.

This film, which was in the making for more than a decade, arrives in theaters at the perfect moment. Just as the U.S. is finally facing the enormity of the #BlackLivesMatter campaign, America’s Jewish community is learning how many members of our own mishpacha are biracial. Given the enormous role Jewish-Americans played in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, this should not be a surprise, and yet it seems that it is. We know that many famous people such as Rain Pryor, Lani Guinier, James McBride and Rebecca Walker are both Black and Jewish. And, in fact, Julian Bond’s wife, Pamela Sue Horowitz, a former staff attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center, is also a Member of the Tribe.

Rosenwald helps us understand that the Jewish role in the history of the African-American experience did not begin or end with the murder of three Civil Rights workers -- Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Mickey Schwerner -- in 1964. The ties that bind the Jewish-American community and the African-American community were tied tight and tied forever by Chicago businessman, philanthropist, and mensch Julius Rosenwald.

On a personal note, I saw Rosenwald for the first time on July 9 at a private event for members of the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan. Filmmaker Aviva Kempner gave a brief introduction before the screening and then participated in a panel discussion after the credits rolled with Julian Bond, NYU Professor Hasia Diner, former LBJ speechwriter Eli Evans, and Rabbi David Saperstein. It was an unforgettable evening, made especially poignant by the fact that it was one of Julian Bond’s final public appearances. He died in Florida on Aug. 15 at age 75. But you would never have predicted that on July 9. He was elegant, eloquent, and in full command of his faculties. Those few moments at the end, when I spoke with him one-on-one at the reception, were joyous. He was there to celebrate the life of Julius Rosenwald, and he worked the crowd -- me included -- like a champ.

Rosenwald is now playing in Metro Chicago at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema in Lincoln Park and the Landmark Renaissance Place in Highland Park. For schedule information and tickets purchases, visit her website: http://www.rosenwaldfilm.org/home.php

You can also purchase tickets from the Landmark Theatres website: http://www.landmarktheatres.com/chicago/film-info/rosenwald

Follow this link to read more JUF News coverage of the film by JUF News Executive Editor Cindy Sher: 

For more photos and links, visit my blog.

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Top Photo: Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington, Tuskegee Institute (1915) courtesy of Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library

Bottom Photo: Director Aviva Kempner with Julian Bond at the 2015 Washington Jewish Film Festival. Photo credit: Aryeh Schwartz (WJFF)

Tzivi’s CFIC ’15 Sneak Peek

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Announcing a special milestone for Metro Chicago’s Jewish community: The 10th annual Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema opens October 28 at AMC Northbrook Court!

As in all prior years, CFIC ‘15 offers an excellent mix of full length feature films, documentaries, and shorts. And this year the schedule also includes six episodes of Fauda (one of Israel’s most popular television series).

The six documentaries include East Jerusalem, West Jerusalem; Farewell Herr Schwartz, Guardians of Remembrance, Lia, The Polgar Variant, and Silicon Wadi.

The eight full length features are Afterthought, Apples from the Dessert, Encirclements, The Farewell Party, Is That You?, Sweets, Tuviansky, and Yona.

This year’s narrative shorts are Aya, Dear God, and Welcome and Our Condolences (which will all be shown together as one single program).

Last but not least, the CFIC ’15 schedule also includes all three parts of “The Amsalem Trilogy” including Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (which was named Best Feature of 2014 by the Israel Film Academy last September and went on to receive a Golden Globe nominated in the Best Foreign Film category in December). Gett had its Chicago Premiere at the 2014 Chicago International Film Festival back in October, but this will be your first chance—and probably your only chance—to see all three parts of the trilogy in sequence on a big screen. Believe me: If you have already seen Gett and you found it a powerful experience, well, you ain’t seen nothing yet!

And to prove the point, I am proud to report that the CFIC Committee had asked me to guide you through it. I will be in Northbrook on Nov. 3 to answer any questions about “The Amsalem Trilogy,” and discuss how the three pieces--To Take a Wife, Shiva, and Gett--combine to make one of the most powerful statements in the history of Israeli cinema and one of the most powerful feminist statements in the history of world cinema as well.

And now for the teaser: This year’s CFIC Sneak Peek is Silicon Wadi, a superlative documentary about four Israeli Start-Ups. Two teams will succeed and two teams will fail, but as the film moves into its third act, I challenge you to guess the winners. This is one of the most riveting 82 minutes ever captured on film, and I was frankly stunned by the outcome. I commend all four teams for their courage in allowing filmmakers Daniel Sivan and Yossi Bloch to keep their cameras rolling through all the ups and downs. And I compliment the filmmakers on their inventive camera moves and musical choices. At one point, contracts fly around a conference room table while Edvard Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” (the music associated with the English words “On Oct. 31 when the sun goes to rest…”) goes from a whisper to a roar on the soundtrack. Everyone in the room is too busy signing to speak, so it is the music that carries the message. Bravo!

My full list of Top Picks and rankings-by-category will be in the October issue of the JUF News. Meanwhile start penciling in dates on your personal calendar today. The full schedule is already posted on the CFIC ’15 website: http://israelifilmchi.org/

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The ShopRooster team makes a YouTube video that goes viral. (Photo by Daniel Sivan)

Tzivi reviews A Borrowed Identity

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In the opening moments of Eran Riklis’ translucent new film A Borrowed Identity, we see a young man on a Jerusalem rooftop looking out over the evening skyline. He is utterly alone, smoking, silent.

Flashback to 1982. A boy named “Eyad” (Razi Garareen) floats high above the houses in the Palestinian village of Tira, trying to fix a television antenna. The Israelis have just invaded Lebanon and his father “Salah” (Ali Suliman) wants a clearer picture of the goings on. Salah is hoping this will finally be the beginning of the end of the state of Israel. Surely the Arab armies will mobilize and the Jews will scatter?

Flashback to 1988. Teenage “Eyad” (Tawfeek Barhom) is more than just the apple of his father’s eye. Eyad is the repository of all of Salah’s hopes and dreams. And so, when Eyad is accepted into a prestigious boarding school in Jerusalem, Salah insists that he go. Eyad will learn from the Jews and turn their teachings against them. Eyad will become Salah’s shield against disappointment and satisfy needs so long deferred.

But Eyad is just a kid, and once he settles into his new school, Eyad wants what most kids want—he wants to fit in. And so begins the process of transformation by which Eyad becomes “Yonatan,” the Jewish man with an Israeli passport who smokes cigarette after cigarette on that Jerusalem rooftop.

Director Eran Riklis is an internationally-known Israeli filmmaker who has made a number of significant films about Palestinian/Israeli relations including Cup Final, Lemon Tree, The Syrian Bride, and Zaytoun. He has won awards from film festivals all around the world, and here in Chicago he was nominated for Golden Hugo awards twice by the Chicago International Film Festival (for The Syrian Bride in 2004 and for Lemon Tree in 2008). Since I have seen all of these films—and several other Riklis films as well—I can say without hesitation that A Borrowed Identity is his “personal best” to date.

This is Riklis’ first collaboration with Sayed Kashua, an Arab-Israeli journalist best-known for his comedy series Arab Labor, for which he received two “Best Script of a Comedy Series” awards from the Israel Television Academy in 2011 and 2012. (Episodes of Arab Labor have appeared regularly on our Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema schedules.) Riklis and Kashua make a terrific team, seamlessly melding the particular and the universal to create a powerful, unforgettable 20th Century narrative.

I say 20th Century because some of the things Eyad was able to do then would probably not be possible now. Security is much tighter since 9/11, and the ubiquity of cyberspace would undoubtedly limit Eyad’s ability to simply disappear when Yonatan goes off to study in Berlin. And yet, who knows? Someone smarter than me—someone as smart as Eyad—will probably find new ways. So still the voice in your mind that says “Impossible!” when Eyad gets to the checkpoint, hands over someone else’s I.D. card, and is told to drive on. He “passes,” he gets away with it, as so many others have before him.

And what happens to Salah? We never know, and perhaps Eyad will never know either. That is the high cost of passing from one culture to another. A father makes sacrifices to give his son a better life and all too often that son moves on, ashamed of where he came from, and determined to be accepted for who he really is even before he knows who he will actually become.

The actors ground the narrative arc of A Borrowed Identity, turning all of the characters into highly specific human beings who must be exactly who they are no matter how we see their “Big Picture.”

The scenes set in the village of Tira revolve around Salah and his nemesis “Jamal” (Norman Issa). Salah was the smart one as well as the handsome one—the one who went to study in Jerusalem but ended up imprisoned for his political activities. Jamal, now the principal of the elementary school, gets his revenge by endlessly taunting Eyad. “Your father is a fruit picker!” “My father is a terrorist!” “Your father is a fruit picker!” “My father is a terrorist!” Whack goes Jamal’s ruler while Eyad chokes back his tears.

On the edges of this drama hover Eyad’s mother “Fahima” (Laëtitia Eïdo) and his grandmother “Aisha” (Marlene Bajali). These women cannot rescue Eyad from his father and the battles he fights on his father’s behalf, but their love cushions him, and Grandmother Aisha finds ways to tell him details that her son Salah will no longer reveal to others.

Once in Jerusalem, Eyad is befriended by “Naomi” (Danielle Kitzis), a classmate who is shocked that Eyad will not even correct the people who are mispronouncing his name. (His name is AY-yad, not ah-YEED.) Naomi teaches Eyad how to make the “P” sound required for proper Hebrew pronunciation, and he falls head over heels in love with her.

His other friend is “Edna” (Yael Abeccassis), the mother of a boy with muscular dystrophy. By teaching him the whats and wherefores of her life daily life, Edna inadvertently becomes Eyad’s de facto “Jewish mother.” And then the day comes when they both realize there is no turning back... As the great American novelist Thomas Wolfe said: “You Can’t Go Home Again.”

Opens Friday, July 3 at the Gene Siskel Film Center on State Street.

Visit my Blog Second City Tzivi for more thought on and pictures from A Borrowed Identity

shabbatsheledna

Top Photo: Salah (Ali Suliman) watches the news in Tira.
Bottom Photo: Edna (Yael Abeccassis) serves Shabbat Dinner to Eyad (Tawfeek Barhom) and her son (Michael Moshonov) in Jerusalem.
Photo Credits: Eitan Riklis

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