Fourth Annual JCC Chicago Jewish film festival kicks off March 9

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The Fourth Annual JCC Chicago Jewish Film Festival opens March 9 and includes an Academy Award nominee and an exclusive special showing of a star-studded film prior to its national debut.

"We have our richest line up in terms of quality of film and the level of acclaim we are bringing to screens across Chicagoland," said Addie Goodman, executive vice president of JCC Chicago.

The Festival kicks off with the Oscar-nominated documentary, Life, Animated , inspired by the bestselling book by Ron Suskind. The film follows a young man, Owen Suskind, who received an autism diagnosis at the age of 3 when he suddenly stopped communicating.  His parents later discovered that by watching animated Disney films, Owen had found a way to reconnect with the world and create his own path.

Owen's mother, Cornelia Suskind, will join festivalgoers on opening night at the Landmark Renaissance Place Cinema in Highland Park for a special discussion following the film's screening. (Check out an interview with her on the next page.)

While Goodman is looking forward to all of the Festival's features, she says Life, Animated is one of the films that has her most excited.

"JCC Chicago is doing a lot of work with the special needs community and inclusion," she said, "and [this film] really speaks to a lot of the core programs we are working on today in welcoming all the families that come through our doors."

The Festival will showcase 25 films at seven different venues across the metropolitan area over 10 days from March 9 to March 19. In addition to the screenings at theaters in the suburbs and city, the Festival teams up with different parts of the Jewish community for specialized programming and showings.

On Sunday, March 12, the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center will host four different films about the Holocaust. The day includes a special session with director, Cellin Gluck, whose film, Persona Non Grata , tells the story of a Japanese diplomat who saved the lives of 6,000 Jews during World War II. Gluck will be introduced by one of those survivors.

There are other special events throughout the Festival to hear from filmmakers, guest speakers, and even some of the people featured in the movies, all listed on the website.

The Film Festival also seeks to attract a younger audience with free screenings of The Wizard of Oz on March 11 in Highland Park and Lakeview. The classic movie's Academy Award winning song, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," was written by two Jewish composers right before the outbreak of World War II.

Goodman says a team of viewers comprised of JCC staff, lay leaders, and volunteers work over many months to ensure the community is presented with a variety of high caliber films from different genre that also have a Jewish link.

"Our Chicago Jewish Film Festival is really about Jewish peoplehood. The film could be set in a community that is identifiably Jewish. The director or producer could have Jewish roots or the film could be rich with Jewish values...It's also really important to us that the film festival is highly accessible. We want to have not only films that resonate Jewishly, but also that might introduce Jewish film to the community."   

To purchase tickets for the Festival and see the full schedule, visit  

Mimi Sager Yoskowitz is a Chicago-area freelance writer, mother of four, and former CNN producer. Her work has been featured on various sites including Kveller, Brain, Child Magazine, and in the anthology, "So Glad They Told Me." Connect with her at

JCC is a partner with the Jewish United Fund in serving our community.


SIDEBAR: Behind the scenes with an inspiring Oscar contender


JCC Film Fest Sidebar Resized

When Owen Suskind was three years old, he stopped talking and changed completely, no longer the little boy known to his parents and brother, Walter. After a slew of testing, doctors diagnosed Owen with autism. He received the best therapies and treatments available at the time, but it was his repeated viewings of Disney animated films that eventually reawakened his ability to speak and interact with his family and the world around him.

Owen is now a young man living independently, working multiple jobs, and honing his artistic talents with the goal of a career in animation. His story is documented in the Academy Award nominated film, Life, Animated , which kicks off this year's JCC Chicago Jewish Film Festival on March 9.

At the start of the movie, there's a clip of Owen sword fighting with his dad, Ron Suskind, whose bestselling book inspired the film. In that scene, Owen calls himself Peter Pan and tells his dad that he's Captain Hook. Cornelia Kennedy Suskind, Owen's mother, watched that video clip for the first time when she saw Life, Animated premiere at Sundance Film Festival last year. She spoke with JUF News by phone about what it was like to make this film and watch her son's life unfold on the big screen.

 "I had never seen that footage of Owen sword fighting with Ron," said Suskind. "We took it days before we moved [from Boston to Washington, D.C], and he stopped talking and connecting a month after we moved.  I couldn't bear to look at it. It was from the before time, and it was too painful... I almost can't talk about that clip without getting emotional even now."

JUF NEWS: What inspired you to tell Owen's story?

Cornelia Kennedy Suskind: The first part of this journey of telling the story began with our decision to write the book. That was a huge decision. People for years, because Ron's a writer, told him he should write about autism and Owen, and our response was two-fold. I'm so in the trenches, there's no possible way we could even think about it. But then the bigger part of it was the issue of Owen's privacy. We weren't going to be telling the world his story when he wasn't in a position to make a decision about this.

When he was 19, he said people know you for who you are and Walter for who he is. But they don't know me for who I am. He said, "I'm an unpolished gem, a diamond in the rough," which is one of his lines from Aladdin . And we said, 'OK, maybe the time has come.'

What he goes through during the course of the film is so universal to so many people his age: graduating, moving out, finding a love, losing a love. I think that's why it has so much meaning with so many people who see it even if they have no experience with autism at all.

What kind of feedback have you received from other parents of children with autism?

Meeting these families and adults and siblings all over the country, it's just been amazing…. The most meaningful have been people who are affected themselves. [They say], 'Owen is telling my story. Thank you Owen.' They want pictures with him, they cry, they want to hug him. And of course the families as well. The sibling issue has been enormous. There's been enormous response to that.

What was it like finding out that Life, Animated had been nominated for an Academy Award?

We were in Boston and they called us immediately and we just started screaming on the other end of the line, jumping up and down. Walter (Owen's brother) called us. I called Owen and woke him up. It's exciting to him, but Owen is the guy who reminds us of priorities all the time. He has no interest in celebrities at all. He's only interested in the no-name guys, [like] the animators.

Are you planning on going to the Oscars?

Yes. Owen will be front and center sitting with Walter on the floor in a tuxedo Tommy Hilfiger is making. He wanted to dress the boys. He has three children with special needs and he's a friend of ours, and he's a wonderful guy and great supporter of a lot of good causes. [Owen's] an old hand at the red carpet. He's so poised on stages, it's just phenomenal…. He loves connecting with people, another great myth buster of autism.

Mimi Sager Yoskowitz is a Chicago-area freelance writer, mother of four, and former CNN producer. Her work has been featured on various sites including Kveller, Brain, Child Magazine, and in the anthology, "So Glad They Told Me." Connect with her at

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