The range of options included
in the Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema '14, running Oct. 29-Nov. 9, runs the
full gamut from A to Z, and the bookends-A Place in Heaven
and Zero Motivation-are both so good-and so different-that I honestly
can't choose between them. But first a few words about Cupcakes.
After a summer like the summer of 2014, a "guilty pleasure" like
Cupcakes is cause for celebration. The six main characters in
Cupcakes have only one thing in common: they all live in the same
upscale apartment building in Tel Aviv. In an ironic twist, this otherwise
diverse group-a baker, a bureaucrat, a lawyer, a musician, a school teacher,
and a writer-find themselves in Paris representing Israel in UniverSong (a
parody of the Eurovision contest). Cupcakes is light, bouncy, and
lots of fun, but watch it now-after the summer of 2014-and the song they
sing has real resonance: "You and me and us, We will be there, Supporting."
Amen to that!
One theme running
through many of this year's films is conflict between family members on
different sides of the religious divide. Often parents raised in "secular
Israel" don't know how to cope with children who have chosen more observant
life styles. Meals are fraught with tension when a son refuses to eat the
food laid out on his father's table, and the decision to say or not say
Kaddish at a funeral can have grave consequences.
Talya Lavie burst onto the scene last year with
Zero Motivation, her very first feature film. Lavie won two
prestigious awards in April at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival: Best Narrative
Feature and the Nora Ephron Prize. (Per TFF: "With our Nora Ephron Prize, we
hope to not only honor this amazing woman, but also to inspire a new
generation of female writers and directors.") As I write, Zero
Motivation has been nominated for 12 Ophir Awards ("the Israeli Oscar").
My bet is that by the time you read this, Zero Motivation will have
won the Ophir for Best Film, which will automatically make it Israel's
candidate for Best Foreign Language Film in the next international awards
cycle. And if that happens, then my bet is that we will see Talya Lavie at
the 2015 Oscar ceremony. Yasher Koach, Talya!
IMDb (the Internet Movie Database) tells me that Keren
Berger already has numerous screen credits, but since I have never seen any
of the things referenced there, Berger is a new and thrilling presence to me.
Berger appears in two strong supporting parts this year: she plays "Keren"-a
hip Blogger-in Cupcakes, and she also plays an Orthodox bride in
A Place in Heaven. Berger is terrific in both roles, and since
these two characters could not be more different, I expect great things from
this actress in future.
Best feature film = tie!
This year, for the first time, my pick for Best Feature Film is a tie. My
two picks are A Place in Heaven and Zero Motivation. A Place in
Heaven is a serious drama. Zero Motivation is a black comedy.
What a dilemma!
As discussed above, Zero Motivation is this
year's hot contender in the race for the 2014 Ophir awards. Dana Ivgy and
Nelly Tagar star as two young women assigned to the Human Resources
department at a remote military outpost. Yes, they are soldiers, but they
spend most of their time pushing paper and playing computer games. Mere words
cannot explain how exhilarating all this is. By the time Zohar and
Daffi-armed with staple guns-had their final shoot-out, I was laughing through
A Place in Heaven, by contrast, was in contention
last year. It received 10 Ophir nominations, but it didn't win anything. This
frankly baffles me because last year's big Ophir winner was
Bethlehem, which I thought was only OK. And so it goes. A Place
in Heaven was written and directed by Yossi Madmoni, who also wrote and
directed Restoration (my Top Pick for CFIC '11). So if you saw
Restoration, and you liked it even half as much as I did, then I
guarantee you will like A Place in Heaven even more.
Best actor: Alon Abuttul
The main character in A
Place in Heaven is a soldier who goes by the ironic nickname "Bambi." In
the 1950s, when we first meet him, Bambi is already a mighty warrior. A man
of ferocious will, Bambi serves heroically in both 1967 and 1973, and
eventually rises to the rank of general. Along the way, he falls in love with
a Yemenite woman assigned to his unit, and to win her over, he works as hard
as Jacob labored for Laban. But then he tells his new father-in-law that he
will not say Kaddish when the time comes, and the old man curses
him. Alon Abuttul is a well-known character actor who has had few leading
roles, but as Bambi, he aged 40 years and carried me with him every step of
Best actress: Anat Waxman
plays the baker in Cupcakes, and her job is to add a hint of
gravitas to an otherwise broad comedy. If you have seen Nina's Tragedies,
Noodle, and/or Tel Aviv Stories, then you will already know why
Waxman is one of my favorite Israeli actresses. Cupcakes is icing on
Best supporting actor: Patrick Stewart
Really? "Captain Jean Luc Picard" of Star Trek fame has had a
First Encounter in Israel? You betcha! In Hunting Elephants, Stewart
plays a titled but penniless English actor. His father was a General in
Mandate Palestine, and now, decades later, "Lord Michael Simson" has come to
Israel hoping to reclaim family property. This brings him face-to-face with
his despised brother-in-law Eliyahu (Sasson Gabai) once a member of the
Irgun. Like Zero Motivation, Hunting Elephants is black comedy with
a bite. Stewart is on screen to remind us that the British never gave
anything to the Zionists; whatever they got, they paid for in blood.
Best supporting actress: Rotem Zussman-Cohen
Rotem Zussman-Cohen was my Best Supporting Actress pick in 2012, and she
is my pick once again. But this year she competes against herself with
luminous roles in both A Place in Heaven (playing Bambi's Yemenite
wife) and in Hunting Elephants (playing Eliyahu's sexy nurse).
People who still think all Israelis come from European backgrounds will be
thunderstruck watching this versatile Mizrachi actress on the big screen.
Best documentary film: Above and Beyond
In her inspiring new documentary Above and Beyond: The Birth of the
Israeli Air Force, Roberta Grossman interviews American men who risked
their lives-and their American citizenship-to serve as pilots in 1948. As we
recently learned in news reports from Ferguson, Mo., the US military has a
lot of equipment to dispose of after a war. Right after WWII, committed
Jewish American businessmen were able to surreptitiously acquire used
airplanes, and then help Jewish American pilots who had fought in WWII get
these planes to Israel. How was it possible to get airplanes from the USA to
Czechoslovakia and then on to Israel undetected? And yet we know it happened
because without these planes, there might not be a state of Israel
Best short documentary film: The Women
This fascinating documentary by Michal Aviad is
based on the actual diaries of the women from the newly created Soviet Union
who helped to found Kibbutz Ein Harod (located in the Jezreel Valley in
northern Israel). Arriving in the early 1920s, most of them were
well-educated with high ideals to match their incredible physical stamina.
Spoiler alert: Life did not treat them kindly.
Acclaimed filmmaker Avi Nesher will attend CFIC
'14 for the Chicago premiere of his newest film The Wonders, and he
will also participate in screenings of two prior hits: The Secrets
and Turn Left at the End of the World.
In past years, I have made much of the fact that
characters in Israeli films often speak a wide variety of languages, but this
year that is not such a big issue. The characters in Magic
Men speak Greek because it is set in Greece, and the characters in
The Dove Flier and Shadow in Baghdad speak Arabic because
both films are set in Iraq. But with those two exceptions, the predominant
"foreign language" that is not Hebrew this year is-English! Perhaps the stress
of absorbing new immigrants has given way-at least for now-to the search for
common ground internally?
For more information, visit http://www.israelifilmchi.org/.
After 35 years in Chicago, Jan Lisa Huttner (Tzivi) now lives in Brooklyn. Click here to read a sample from her new eBook "Tevye's Daughters: No Laughing Matter."