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’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

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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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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.

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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.

Tzivi reviews Woman in Gold

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Adele Bloch-Bauer died of meningitis in 1925 at the age of 42. As the wife of wealthy businessmanFerdinand Bloch-Bauer, she was one of the most highly lauded hostesses of Viennese society in its period of greatest artistic and intellectual achievement. Among the luminaries who attended Adele's salons are names still famous today, including musicians such as Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss, and painters such as Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka. In 1907, in the midst of his "Golden Phase," painter Gustav Klimt, the founder of the movement known as the Vienna Secession,did his first portrait of her, and this one painting-"Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I"-has come to represent the entire period.

So where does this painting belong, now thatVienna Secession and all who were a part of it have passed into history? This is the challenging question taken up in the new drama Woman in Gold.

Adele and Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, all of their relatives and most of their friends were Jewish. It was, in fact, the astonishing wealth of self-made Jewish entrepreneurs which fueled the Vienna Secession. In 1925, when Adele died so tragically young, Jews had every reason to believe that they had built a permanent place for themselves in a modern Austrian nation newly born in the cataclysmic aftermath of World War I. But less than ten years later, the Nazi Party had assumed control of Germany, and three years later Germany annexed Austria in the Anschluss of March 1938. By the time Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer died in Switzerland in November 1945, the Jews of Vienna had either fled or perished in War World War II, and almost all of their property-including "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I" and four other Klimt painting commissioned by and paid for by Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer-had been confiscated.

So on one level, Woman in Gold is yet another film about the Holocaust (as if there can ever be too many). Structurally it is a court room drama which chronicles the efforts of Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer's surviving heirs to prove their claim to some of his expropriated property. But it is also more: Woman in Gold is really a meditation on the meaning of the term "restitution." Once something is stolen, can it ever be restored?

Helen Mirren stars as fussy, feisty protagonist Maria Altmann, but the central character is actually her attorney E. Randol Schoenberg (aka "Randy") played by Ryan Reynolds.

We meet Maria Altmann three times in the course ofWoman in Gold. Early scenes show young MariaBloch (played by actress Nellie Schilling) growing up in a world of luxury and refinement. Her mother Therese was Adele's older sister, and Adele, who was childless, doted on her two nieces Louise (born in 1908) and Maria (born in 1916). The famous Klimt portrait of her aunt is already part of young Maria's world, and the woman who posed for it, the real woman she knows personally, is always as perfectly adorned as Klimt painted her. 

By 1937, when Maria (now played by Tatiana Maslany) marries handsome Fritz Altmann (Max Irons), Adele has become an icon as well as an omnipresent memory. Maria's loving uncleFerdinand gives her the necklace seen in the portrait as a wedding gift. Their wedding reception is a high society event with a dash of Klezmer. And then the bottom falls out of their world. Maria and Fritz flee, leaving everyone and everything behind them.

California, 1998. Louise has died, leaving letters from Uncle Ferdinand in the boxes now stored in Maria's bungalow. Maybe Randy, the son of Maria's friend Barbara, can take a look at these papers and give her some advice?

And so it begins. At first Randy is none too pleased. "Thanks, Mom," he mutters to himself after promising Barbara that he will call Maria and do what he can. But then he googles, realizes the market value of the paintings in question, and sets his shoulder to the wheel.

In the battle that ensues, Maria never changes. Mirren plays her as an archetypal "Yekke" (Yiddish slang for the kind of German Jew who is a bit too buttoned-down). Maria is always precise about both her diction and her appearance, and she is strict in her demeanor. 

Randy, on the other hand, changes a great deal overtime. By the end, Randy has become a mensch, not only coming into his own as a man but also assuming his role as member of the Jewish community. E. Randol Schoenberg, it turns out, is not just any Schoenberg, he is the grandson of composer Arnold Schoenberg, and thus is heir to a cultural legacy as exalted as Maria's own.

Maria and Randy make their case. This will not be big news to anyone who knows that "Portrait ofAdele Bloch-Bauer I" now hangs in the Neue Gallerie, a Manhattan museum devoted to 20thCentury German and Austrian art. So the suspense lies not in the outcome but in the process. How does fighting for his own legacy change Randy's view of himself? How does restoration of property lead to dignity reclaimed?

Woman in Gold is not a documentary, it is a narrative feature. In other words, a very complicated story is reduced to a runtime just under two hours. So have some of the facts of the matter been stretched? Definitely. But is the core solid? Yes.

When I reviewed Portrait of Wally, an excellent 2012 documentary by Andrew Shea that deals with similar issues, I felt there was closure in the return of an Egon Schiele painting to Vienna. I feel the same way about Woman in Gold even though the end result is the opposite. The Vienna of Adele Bloch-Bauer-the Jewish Vienna of the early 20th Century-can never be restored. That spirit, in so far as it lives anywhere, now lives in New York.

Woman in Gold opens today (April 1) at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema in Lincoln Park and on Friday (April 3) at the Landmark Renaissance Place Cinema in Highland Park. For schedule information, visit: http://www.landmarktheatres.com/chicago

To learn more about the case, read Maria Altmann's obituary in the 2/17/11 issue of The Economist, or watch the 2008 documentary Adele's Wish online.

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Helen Mirren as "Maria Altmann" and Ryan Reynolds as "Randy Schoenberg in Woman in Gold.

Photo credits: Robert Viglasky © The Weinstein Company

Tzivi applauds Gett

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Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem is the story of a woman who is determined to obtain a divorce even though her husband is equally determined to prevent it. Because Viviane and Elisha are Israelis, they can only divorce in a ceremony presided over by the three Rabbis who comprise a Bet Din (religious court), and the Rabbis will only proceed if Elisha agrees to give his free and unfettered consent. And thus his wife--Viviane Amsalem--begins a five year ordeal which reveals the degree to which Israeli women are "chained" to their husbands not just by custom but also by law.

This is strong stuff, fully intended to galvanize public opinion by using the full power of artistic expression to create societal change. Does it succeed? Only time will tell, but the answer right now appears to be yes. When co-writer/co-director Shlomi Elkabetz did his Q&A after the January 15 screening of Gett at the 2015 New York Jewish Film Festival, he announced that Gett would be screened at the annual conference of rabbinical judges, and just today Haaretz reported that it actually happened.

So suffice it to say that you will want to see Gett yourself when it opens in Metro Chicago tomorrow (2/27/15) at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema in Lincoln Park and the Landmark Renaissance Plaza Cinema in Highland Park. Don't be intimidated by the fact that Gett is the third and final chapter in a trilogy of films which include To Take a Wife (2004) and Shiva (2008). I have seen all three films, and I can assure you that each one is free-standing and self-contained.

You do not need to know anything in advance to appreciate the drama inherent in Gett. However, regular readers will anticipate that I have already posted reviews of all three films, and I have also posted an overview of the complete trilogy on my Blog Second City Tzivi. So if you would like to do some homework before you go, START HERE.

Full Disclosure: The first time I saw Gett was when I watched it on my computer way back in September, right after I watched Zero Motivation (which I also watched on my computer). At the time, although I liked both films very much, I thought that Zero Motivation was just a little bit better than Gett. So when I wrote my Ophir Update post, I expressed surprise that Gett (which had received 12 Ophir Nominations from the Israel Film Academy but only won two) won Best Picture even though Zero Motivation (which had also received 12 Ophir Nominations) had won six (including Best Director, Best Actress, Best Screenplay, plus Best Casting, Best Editing, and Best Music).

Now that I have seen both films on big screens, however, I see that the members of the Israel Film Academy were correct: seen as intended--on a big screen--Gett is an overwhelming experience. You simply will not feel the claustrophobia of the courtroom as Viviane does unless you enter that cavernous space with her. And if you do, some thoughts and opinions you may never have questioned before, may well be forever changed.

For schedule information and links to online ticket purchase, visit the Landmark Theatre website.

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Top photo: Ronit Elkabetz as "Viviane Amsalem" in Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem. Photo courtesy of Music Box Films.
Botton photo: Members of the Bet Din from left: Rami Danon, Eli Gorstein, and Roberto Pollack. Photo courtesy of Music Box Films.

Tzivi reviews Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholem Aleichem

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"I carry Sholem Aleichem with me. I have my entire life… So these two stories, these two journeys are intertwined, his and mine, even though we never met… This is my legacy. People should know who I am and what informs me… I am a shtetl Jew. I am. Even though I've never lived in a shtetl, I come from there. These are my rules. This is how I think. This is how I dream." Theodore Bikel (1/11/15)

Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholem Aleichem, a new documentary from the National Center for Jewish Film, is an intentionally personal story told by one of the most accomplished and politically-influential Jewish entertainers of the 20th Century. Director John Lollos combines  scenes from Bikel's acclaimed solo performance Sholem Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears with footage filmed at the annual Sholem Aleichem Yahrzeit in Manhattan in 2013. In addition to the songs, monologues, and moments of reflection from Bikel, Lollos also includes narration by Alan Alda to provide context (written by Lollos and his co-Producer Marsha Lebby), plus interviews with a wide variety of talking heads. It makes for an enchanting and fast-paced 75 minutes.

Bikel begins-appropriately enough-with a scene from Sholem Aleichem's "Modern Children" which is the third of the eight Tevye stories (the one about Tzeitel and Motel). This is followed by appreciative remarks from Sheldon Harnick (the genius who wrote the lyrics to all the songs in Fiddler on the Roof), as well as Yiddish Theatre star Fyvush Finkel, and Michael Wex (author of the popular book Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All Its Moods).

From there, Bikel introduces the audience to Kasrilevke (the mythical setting of many of Sholem Aleichem's best stories), followed by comments from Allen Lewis Rickman (the actor who played the shtetl husband at the beginning of the Coen Brothers' hilarious film A Serious Man).

Having ensured that we now know a bit about Sholem Aleichem, Bikel switches to the first person to tell us more about himself. How many people watching Theodore Bikel play a patriarchal Tevye on stage remember that he was once a handsome young folk singer? I do. As I told Bikel when we spoke on the phone on January 11: "Your music was part of my cultural background when I was growing up in the '60s. You were singing about liberal causes and enriching the world." To which Bikel replied: "I plead guilty for all of it."

Indeed, in addition to albums with titles like "Theodore Bikel Sings Jewish Folks Songs" (sung in Yiddish) and "Theodore Bikel Sings Songs of Israel" (sung in Hebrew), Bikel can also be found on the album "Greatest Folksingers of the 'Sixties" side-by-side with the likes of Joan Baez, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band!

As the two intertwined stories unfold, Bikel continues to tell more Sholem Aleichem stories, perform more Yiddish songs, and do more personal and professional reminiscing. Meanwhile Finkel, Harnick, Rickman and Wex are joined by many others who combine to form an Ashkenazi-accented "Greek Chorus." And as they all speak, Lollos artfully inserts just the right imagery, from Marc Chagall's paintings to Roman Vishniac's photographs to signs posted in the American South in the Jim Crow Era: "No Negroes, No Jews & No Dogs Allowed."

Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholem Aleichem is a film to see in a theatre and also to buy on DVD. See it once with an appreciative audience and you will want to watch it at home-again and again-with your family.

To read more snippets from my interviews with Theodore Bikel and John Lollos, follow THIS LINK to the JUF News "Arts & Entertainment" section.

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Photos courtesy of the National Center for Jewish Film.

 

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