Chicago has a new film festival!
Beginning tonight, the Chicago Jewish Film Festival will show 10 films over two long weekends. Screenings will be held at the Cinemark/Century in Evanston, the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie, and the Music Box Theatre on Southport, with related programs at the Victory Gardens Theatre in Lincoln Park and at the Mayer Kaplan JCC in Skokie.
Of the 10 films on offer, I have seen six and all six - three documentaries and three feature films - are Highly Recommended.
The three documentaries - Before the Revolution, Crime After Crime, and Marvin Hamlisch: What He Did For Love - span decades locations, and genres. On the other hand, the three features - Hannah Arendt, La Rafle, andThe Pin - are all focused on the Holocaust.
Although two of these films - Before the Revolution and The Pin - are new to Chicago, the others have already played somewhere in the metro area, and some of them are even available on DVD at this point. No matter. Nothing equals the experience of seeing a film with a live audience… and then heading out to discuss it with your friends once the credits roll!
Here are synopses of the six films in alphabetical order. Each synopsis has a link back to my full review (which also contains photographs and additional background information).
In the 21st Century, Iran is a major power in the Middle East and one of Israel's greatest existential enemies. So it will no doubt surprise many people to learn that in the 20th Century, the Iranian government had a close relationship with the Israeli government. In fact, in pursuit of modernization for his then-backward country, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (the last Shah of Iran) was heavily dependent on Israeli talent.
And because one of the many Israeli technocrats who worked in Iran was his father, filmmaker Dan Shadur is now able to provide a fascinating first-hand account of what is was like to be an Israeli child growing up in Teheran in that "golden age" before Ayatollah Khomeini drove the Shah from power. (Documentary)
Joshua Safran is a California attorney specializing in property law when he agrees to represent a battered woman named Debbie Peagle who is determined to overturn her murder conviction.
Filmmaker Yoav Potash follows Safran for years as he digs deep into Torah for sustenance through a long and exhausting appeal process. Since Safran is always unplugged on Saturdays, he's the last to receive an important update at critical point in the appeal, but he returns from his Shabbat observance refreshed and renewed.
Watching Safran battle on thus becomes an uplifting Jewish experience far deeper than a typical Law & Order episode "ripped from the headlines." (Documentary)
Barbara Sukowa stars as Hannah Arendt, the German-born political philosopher best-known today for her books on 20th Century totalitarianism.
Director Margarethe von Trotta's film (based on a screenplay by Pamela Katz) focuses on Hannah Arendt's attempts to introduce nuance into discussions of the Holocaust when she covered the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961.
The result was an uproar that started in the pages of The New Yorker magazine and still resonates today. (BioPic/Drama)
Melanie Laurent stars as Annette Monod, a member of a prominent French Protestant family who cared for Jewish children rounded up in 1942 and herded into the Vélodrome d'Hiver (a sports stadium near the Eiffel Tower known colloquially as the "Vél d'Hiv").
If the name Vél d'Hiv already sounds familiar to you, it's probably because you either read Tatiana de Rosnay's best-selling novel Sarah's Key (published in 2007), and/or saw the film adaptation released in 2011 (which starred Kristin Scott Thomas as an American journalist).
But writer/director Rose Bosch feels no need to engage our sympathies by adding a contemporary heroine. Bosch keeps La Rafle firmly anchored in the horrific events of 1942, and her film is all the better for it. (BioPic/Drama)
This is filmmaker Dori Berinstein's third Broadway documentary. The first was ShowBusiness: The Road to Broadway, which I reviewed for the JUF when it played at the Music Box Theatre way back in June 2007. The second was Carol Channing: Larger Than Life, which received a "Gold Hugo" nomination in the documentary film category from our 2011 Chicago International Film Festival.
When I asked her about the affinity between Jews and Broadway, Berinstein said: "Theater makes you think and theater makes you feel. There's a long, very wonderful history of Jews being involved in this art form, and having used it to create change in the way people see the world. It's also just an inspiring, transporting art form, so what's not to love?" And that is the story of Marvin Hamlisch in a nutshell.
Born into a family that had no grandparents, Hamlisch used music to "create change in the way people see the world," and Berinstein, with her extraordinary insider access, makes it clear that Hamlisch (who died in 2012 at the age of 68) lived a life well-lived. He was not only an "EGOT" (that is, the winner of an Emmy, a Grammy, and Oscar, and a Tony), he also won a Pulitzer Prize, two Golden Globes, and shelves full of additional honors and testimonials. His legacy is enormous.
Marvin Hamlisch: May his memory be for blessing. (Documentary)
This haunting film about two young people who find each other in a barn at the edge of the Russian border has somewhat the same feel as The Last Act of Lilka Kadison (which some of you may have seen at the Lookingglass Theatre Company at Water Tower Place back in 2011).
Unlike so many Holocaust films, The Pin is delicate & understated, showing how the power of imagination under impossible circumstances became a tool of survival.
Note that all of the dialogue in The Pin is in Yiddish, with English subtitles of course. (Romance/Drama)
The Chicago Jewish Film Festival is sponsored by the Jewish Community Center of Chicago (JCC Chicago) with support from The Mrs. Zollie Frank Fund and the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. Additional participants include the Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema, the Chicago YIVO Society, the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute and ShPIeL-Performing Identity Theatre.
Yasher Koach to Artistic Director David Chack and the 2014 CJFF Mishpokhe.
For more details (including schedules and tickets), visit the CJFF website.
Unfortunately I have yet to see the other four films: Blumenthal, Closer to the Moon, Megillas Lester, and Precious Life. I hope to catch up with all of them soon!
Top photo:From Before the Revolution. Photo courtesy of Heymann Brothers Films.
Bottom photo: From La Rafle. Photo courtesy of Menemsha Films.