Tzivi's Cinema Spotlight


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 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:

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:

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

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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!


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:

You can also purchase tickets from the Landmark Theatres website:

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:


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


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

Tzivi's Chicago Jewish Film Festival '15 top picks

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The second annual Chicago Jewish Film Festival opened this weekend at the Century/CineArts in Evanston. Screenings run all week at Century/CineArts and three additional venues: Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie, and Landmark’s Century Cinema and the Victory Gardens Theatre, both in Lincoln Park.

Just like last year’s inaugural program, the 2015 CJFF offers a diverse and well-curated selection of narrative features and documentaries. Some of them have already played in local art houses and some are completely new to Metro Chicago. No matter – the schedule contains good options for everyone, and just because a film of interest already came and went once, that doesn’t mean you should not jump at a new chance to see it on another go around.

The narrative features are 24 Days, The Dove Flyer, Friends from France, Mr. Kaplan, and Nora’s Will, plus the short feature Moses on the Mesa.

The documentaries include Compass Cabaret 55, Havana Curveball, Invitation to Dance, Kabbalah Me, Little White Lie, Night Will Fall, Sammy: The Journey, The Outrageous Sophie Tucker, The Return, The Sturgeon Queens, and Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholem Aleichem.

Full Disclosure: I have personally seen all of the features, but only about half of the documentaries. That said, my picks are Friends from France of the features and Little White Lie of the documentaries.

Friends from France returns us to the days when Jewish intellectuals in the former Soviet Union were under constant surveillance. Two cousins from Paris travel to Moscow posing as newlyweds. “Carol” (Soko), a dedicated activist, has memorized the names of a list of Refuseniks. Every evening, they excuse themselves from their tour group and pretend to canoodle, but they are actual making contact.

Jerome (Jeremie Lippmann) calls name after name on Carol’s list, announcing himself each time as “your friend from France.” Then off they go to a clandestine meet-up. This is an unforgettable film about dignity and the human spirit that will make you proud to be Jewish, even more proud than you probably are already.

Little White Lie is a stunning film that I first saw last October at the Margaret Mead Film Festival at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. Months later, when I saw it on the CJFF ’15 schedule, I knew I would recommend it, but I frankly had no idea how relevant it would suddenly be.

A young girl named Lacey Schwartz grows up in a comfortable and supportive Jewish family in Woodstock, New York. Everyone knows her and loves her, and when she expresses vague anxieties about her curly hair and her skin color, they tell her not to worry. There are Sicilian ancestors in the family tree and she looks just like them … but when she begins classes at a new high school which is much larger and far more integrated than her primary school, all the African-American girls instantly recognize Lacey as African-American, and eventually her mother, Peggy, must reveal the truth about her own life and therefore about Lacey’s life too.

After a week of debate ad nauseam about Rachel Dolezal, the woman from Spokane who identified as African-American even though the parents who raised her were white, you might think Little White Lie is the last thing you want to see, but that would be a mistake. Whoever her father is, Lacey Schwartz is a member of the mishpacha, and the Jewish community needs to acknowledge her and what her life story tells us about ourselves as Jewish Americans.

Click here for more on Friends from France.

Click here for more on Little White Lie.

Click here for CNN’s story “Who is Rachel Dolezal?”

For complete details on times and tickets, click here to visit the CJFF15 website.

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Top photo: "Jerome" (Jeremie Lippmann) and "Carole" (Soko) introduce themselves as 'friends from France'."

Bottom photo: Lacey Schwartz celebrates her Bat Mitzvah in Woodstock, NY.

Photo courtesy of the Chicago Jewish Film Festival.

Tzivi reviews 24 Days

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24 days with family

The harrowing but critically important French film 24 Days opened last Friday at the Wilmette Theater.

When last year’s Jerusalem Film Festival gave 24 Days their Lia Award celebrating films dealing with Jewish Heritage, they wrote: “This suspenseful drama manages to avoid clichés and intricately presents the experience of anti-Jewish violence in France. This is a film of great social significance that shows the tragic consequences that arise when violence is ignored and when racist stereotypes are accepted.” 

That was last July, well before “Je Suis Charlie” and the four murders at the Hyper Cacher kosher market in January. So even if you don’t feel up to going, you know in your heart that you should go, if only to bear witness.

Director Alexandre Arcady wrote the screenplay with Emilie Frèche who helped write the source book 24 Days, The Truth about the Death of Ilan Halimi with Ruth Halimi (the mother of Ilan Halimi), so it is no surprise that the adaptation is told from Ruth’s point of view. Nevertheless the filmmakers (who also include award-winning screenwriter Antoine Lacomblez) have done their best to adhere to the facts of the case, adamantly refusing to make their story anymore “sensational” than it already is.

Briefly stated, the facts of the case are as follows:

On January 20, 2006, Ilan Halimi, a 23-year-old cell phone salesman, is abducted. After Shabbat dinner at his mother’s apartment, he leaves for a meet-up with a young woman customer and never returns. Unbeknownst to him, she is working for a group calling itself “The Gang of Barbarians.” Ilan is hustled into a car and spirited away to a vacant apartment in Bagneux (a slum on the southern edge of Paris).

On January 21, 2006, the next day, Ilan’s family receives the first in a series of ransom demands. The first demand is for 450,000 Euros (approximately $500K), an amount incalculably greater than his family’s ordinary middle class resources. The family contacts the police. Working under the assumption that they are dealing with a routine case of extortion, the police instruct the family to keep the abduction as quiet as possible while they pursue leads and zero in on the perpetrators.

On January 29, 2006, nine days after his abduction, Ilan is moved from the apartment to the boiler room of a neighboring building. In the interim, Didier Halimi, Ilan’s father, has become the voice of the family. Didier, extensively coached by a police psychologist, engages in numerous telephone negotiations with gang leader Youssouf Fofana. Ruth Halimi, on the other hand, is told to return to work and act in public as if everything is normal.

Unable to get money from Didier, Youssouf contacts a rabbi who has had no prior relationship with the Halimi family. When they demand ransom money from him, the rabbi immediately contacts the police. At this point, the Halimis realize their son was abducted because he was Jewish, but the police continue to treat the case as extortion, rejecting any anti-Semitic implications.

On February 13, 2006, 24 days after his abduction, Ilan is found in the woods near the train tracks at Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois (about 15 miles south of Paris). He dies en route to the hospital.

On February 23, 2006, 10 days after Ilan’s death, Youssouf Fofana is arrested in Côte d'Ivoire (his parents' homeland). 

On March 4, 2006, Fofana is extradited to France.

On February 9, 2007, Ilan’s body -- exhumed from the Cimetière Parisien de Pantin near Paris at the request of his mother -- is reburied on Har HaMenuchot in Jerusalem.

On February 18, 2008, Youssouf Fofana and 20 accomplices are brought before the Criminal Court. Fofana is sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole for 22 years. Nineteen suspects receive prison sentences for kidnapping and assassination. Seven other suspects are sent to prison for obstruction of justice.

Rather than dwell on the gruesome physical details of Ilan’s captivity, the filmmakers focus on the mental torture of those who are desperate to save him. Zabou Breitman is riveting in the central role of Ruth, playing her most heartbreaking scenes with Pascal Elbé as Didier (an ex-husband from whom she has been divorced for decades) and Jacques Gamblin as Commandant Delcour (the skeptical head of the Police investigative team).

Elbé is also tasked with playing monkey-in-the-middle between Tony Harrisson (blazing hot as Youssouf Fofana) and Sylvie Testud (icy cold as police psychologist Brigitte Farell). The fact that Sylvie Testud -- winner of multiple César Awards and the best-known member of this cast -- is in such a small role, adds to the subtext. Even the best of us may think we know more than we do, and resist explanations that fall outside our comfort zone.

Syrus Shahidi, cast as Ilan, is only seen at the very beginning, but establishes himself easily as a sweet and loveable son. What is most important, in context, is his convincing portrayal of an “everyman.” Ilan was just a guy with his whole life ahead of him, until that life was cut tragically short.

For more information, including tickets and times, visit the Wilmette Theater website.

For addition locations in the USA plus VOD link to iTunes, visit the Menemsha Films website

Read more “Real-to-Reel” background on my blog.

24 days Ilan and mother

Top photo: Zabou Breitman as Ruth Halimi with Pascal Elbe as her ex-husband Didier, plus Alka Balbir as their daughter Yaël and Audrey Giacomini as Ilan’s friend Mony.

Bottom photo: Zabou Breitman as Ruth Halimi with Syrus Shahidi as her beloved son, Ilan.

Photos courtesy of Menemsha Films.


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