Films have a long lifecycle. Before a new film can make its
way onto our schedule of the Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema (CFIC)—sponsored
by the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago—people in
Israel must write a script, find financing, and get their finished product
distributed. Then people in Chicago must watch a mountain of screeners and
select which ones to show here. All of this takes years, sometimes as many as
five (or more!), and certainly never less than two. So I’m always amazed by how
relevant our annual CFIC schedule feels.
Countries beyond the borders are almost never mentioned in
this year’s films. Israeli filmmakers seem
to be laying low while the Arab Spring—which began in Tunis in December 2010—plays itself out.
Israel has turned
inward, focused on its own problems at home. This year’s festival
committee has chosen films that reflect growing concerns about relationships
between ordinary Israelis living in closely-packed proximity. These films explore internal dynamics which
threated to divide Israel as a nation, and ask if the Zionist Dream is in
danger of fragmenting.
Should stores stocked
with sex toys be allowed in residential neighborhoods? Should Ultra-Orthodox Haredi men control the clothing choices
of women outside their own community? How should young people raised in Capitalist
Israel care for the builders of Socialist Israel, now old and infirm? What
should the consequences be if members of an elite military unit behave
inappropriately while serving on the West Bank?
Some of the questions asked in this year’s films are almost
humorous, but each one is profound in its own way.
Best Actress: Asia Naifeld in 'Room 514.'
The depth of talent in Little
Israel never ceases to amaze me. This year my top picks for both Best Actor
(Roy Assaf of God’s Neighbors) and
Best Actress (Asia Naifeld of Room 514)
are starring in lead roles for the very first time. Meanwhile my Best Supporting
Actress for 2012 (Rotem Zussman) costars in God’s
Neighbors and has a terrific supporting role in my Best Feature Film pick (The World is Funny). So more about all
of them later; right now I want to shine a light on young Noa Rotstein.
Rotstein, making her feature film debut, stars as “Ellie” in
Foreign Letters. Ellie is an Israeli girl
who moves to Connecticut at age 12. Unlike so many films which appear to put
kids in the front but are clearly more interested in their parents, Foreign Letters really is about Ellie.
We almost never see her parents, and beyond making the initial decision to move
to the USA, they have no essential role in the drama. After a period of
loneliness and disorientation, Ellie eventually makes a new friend named “Thuy”
(Delena Le) who is a refugee from Vietnam. Brava to filmmaker Ela Their for
crafting such a delicately modulated story, and for casting it so beautifully.
The title comes from a Chava Alberstein album (also called Foreign Letters) which features songs in
multiple languages (Hebrew, Yiddish, and English). Several songs from this
album (which I also own) are included on the soundtrack. It’s a perfect choice!
Like Ela Their, Meni Yaesh (the writer/director of God’s Neighbors) and Sharon Bar-Ziv (the
writer/director of Room 514) are both
making their feature film debuts. Yowza: what a year!
Best Supporting Actor: Yehezkel Lazarov (left)
in 'The World is Funny.'
TOP PICKS: Features
top pick in the feature category for 2013 is The World is Funny, an imaginative piece of ensemble filmmaking
written and directed by Shemi Zarhin. This is the third feature I have seen by Zarhin,
and it is by far the best. The others are Bonjour
Monsieur Shlomi (which I liked a lot), and Aviva Mon Amour (which I wanted to like more than I did).
The World is Funny creates a universe
that is simultaneously dense and specific, but also light and universal. How
did Zarhin do it? It’s a miracle. Multiple plot lines spin around each other, making it
very difficult to pick just one, so here are two.
(Eli Finish) is a DJ on the most popular radio show in Tiberias. He becomes
obsessed with a popular performer named Shaike Levi (a real person who was once
part of a comedy group called HaGashash HaHiver). Golan wants Shaike to come to
Tiberias. Shaike, based in Tel Aviv, says no way. Who will win this battle of
(Yehezkel Lazarov) teaches a writing class for adults at the community center.
Ever-patient, Roni coaches his students, teasing stories from them about the
people of Tiberias, which he believes is the “Real Israel,” the Israel that has
endured for millennia well beyond the hype of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
this frame, using a cast of almost 50 characters, Zarhin weaves every strand of story,
artfully combining the warp of comedy with the woof of tragedy, until, by the
end, Tiberias, has become a thoroughly magical “everytown.”
My top pick in the documentary category for 2013 is Let’s Dance: The Story of Israeli Modern
Dance, a fascinating look at the role dance plays in Israeli culture (high
and low). Dumb me! When I bought my Hadassah tickets for Batsheva Dance Company
performances in Chicago, I never knew that the company was founded by Baroness
Batsheva de Rothschild way back in 1964 because her BFF was Martha Graham!
Best Actor: Roy Assaf (right) in 'God's
My Best Actor pick for 2013 is Roy Assaf who stars as “Avi”
in God’s Neighbors. I saw him once
before in Keren Yedaya’s film Jaffa (shown
at CFIC 2010) but to be honest, I didn’t remember him. This time though he
commands the screen as a young man drawn into an increasingly ultra-Orthodox
lifestyle. His father is concerned; this isn’t the way Avi was raised, but
since his mother’s death, religion has become his consolation. And yet the men
he studies with during the week seem to be turning into neighborhood thugs
every weekend as the self-appointed “guardians” of Shabbat. Where will it end?
My Best Actress pick for 2013 is Asia Naifeld, making her
feature film debut as “Anna” in Room 514.
Weeks short of her military discharge, Anna hears rumors of a troubling
incident on the West Bank. Despite warnings from her superiors, Anna continues
her probe until she finally gets answers that no one wants to hear. Sharon
Ben-Ziv, making his debut film as writer/director, uses every single penny in
his tiny purse to make a tense film with great nuance anchored by Naifeld’s
superb performance. When Room 514 was
over, I realized was literally shaking.
My Best Supporting Actor pick for 2013 is Yehezkel Lazarov
who plays “Roni” (the teacher) in The
World is Funny. Lazarov was my Best Actor pick last year (in The Fifth Heaven), but he’s almost unrecognizable
here. Only at the end, when there’s a sudden tragic revelation, did I fully
believe it was the same guy. Amazingly, Lazarov also turns up in Let’s Dance. Who knew Lazarov was not
just a great actor, but also one of Israel’s best-known choreographers?
Best Supporting Actress:
Naama Shitrit in 'The World is Funny.'
My Best Supporting Actress pick for 2013 is Naama Shitrit
who plays “Tzefi” in The World is Funny.
Tzefi is a diminutive for “Tzfat,” the city Wikipedia calls “Safed.” Tiberias,
on the Sea of Galilee, is often hot and muggy; Tzfat, the highest spot in Northern Israel, is relatively cool and dry.
Thus the joke (repeated several times in The
World is Funny): “Ah Tiberias! Why aren’t you Tzfat?!?” To show she is in
on the joke, Shitrit, sweet-faced and adorable, sometimes calls herself “Shula
from Afula.” OK, you’ll just have to trust me on this: In context, it’s
This year’s CFIC calendar runs from Thursday, Oct 3 through
Sunday, Oct 13. With the exception of “Saturday Night in the City” on Oct 5, all
films on this year’s festival schedule will screen at the AMC Northbrook Court.
For complete details, visit the CFIC’s new blog.
For full reviews of several CFIC ’13 films, plus special
features on Chava Alberstein’s Foreign
Letters album, the HaGashash HaHiver comedy trio and more, visit my blog.
TZIVI’S 2013 “BEST OF FEST” LIST
Best Feature Film:
The World is Funny
Best Actress in a
Asia Naifeld in Room 514
Best Actor in a
Roy Assaf in God’s Neighbors
in The World is Funny
Yehezkel Lazarov in
The World is Funny
And here is my personal
ranking of films on this year’s schedule:
Narrative Features—Highly Recommended:
The World is Funny
Ballad of the Weeping Spring
Documentary Features (over 60 Minutes)—Highly
Garden of Eden
Documentary Shorts (under 60 Minutes)—Recommended:
Jan Lisa Huttner
(Tzivi) served as the JUF’s arts and
culture critic for seven years, and she continues to contribute regular monthly
blog posts and occasional print features from her new home in Brooklyn. Visit
Jan’s personal blog, www.SecondCityTzivi.com, for a complete online archive of
all JUF News columns and posts plus
additional interviews and reviews.