Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema lands in theaters Nov. 1

Pom-Pom’s picks

Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema lands in theaters Nov. 1 photo image
Three Israeli siblings—played by Roy Assaf, Rotem Zissman-Cohen and Assaf Ben-Shimon—comb the streets of Paris and Marseilles in search of their real father in Shemi Zarhin’s The Kind Words.

Recently, JUF News caught up with Pom-Pom, the Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema's mascot and cheerleader to get his take on the 2016 Festival, Nov. 1-13 at the Festival's new venue, the ArcLight Cinemas in The Glen in Glenview, and at the historic Music Box Theatre on Southport in the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago.

JUF News: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us, Pom-Pom. We can see by just looking at you that there's no one better to represent the colorful mosaic that is Israeli society today. 

Pom-Pom: Thank you for your kind words -- which is actually the title of one of our films -- The Kind Words by the amazing Shemi Zarhin -- but I'll get to that later. I love hanging with friends as we immerse ourselves in Israeli life and culture, and it's just my nature to plant those seeds of discovery, enthusiasm, excitement, fun -- the WOW of Israeli cinema -- with everyone I know here. 

There are so many new internationally award-winning films by great filmmakers with such a variety of rich subjects and languages and all kinds of people and crazy-good creativity and ingenuity, that it's a feast for your eyes, ears, and mind. In that sense, coming to the Festival is like going to Israel itself. If you go once, you're hooked. There's so much to see, and something for everyone. Sorry for gushing, but I just can't help it.

No, please, gush on. It's refreshing. Tell us about the films.

Well, there are 20 in all -- 12 documentaries and eight features. Our opening night film, Sand Storm, won the prestigious Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival. It's about the Bedouins in Israel, which some of our audience members may only be familiar with from camel rides or "tent dinners" in the Negev. 

While Bedouins serve in the IDF, mostly as expert trackers, they are also part of a subculture that's very patriarchal and traditional. It's difficult for the young people -- especially the young women -- to gain the freedom to study at university, or choose their love interest or, essentially live a life that's not predestined for them. The film was made by an Israeli woman, Elite Zexer. She spent 10 years observing and helping Bedouin women, and I think that's why the film feels so authentic. We will welcome all opening night guests to a pre-screening taste of Israel in -- what else? -- a Bedouin tent! Right in the lobby of the ArcLight Cinemas!

Is Sand Storm part of a larger theme that's emerged from this year's films?

Yes, one of them, which I will call family drama -- or in some cases, dramedy. Also included in this category are the abovementioned The Kind Words, about three siblings from Jerusalem finding out, when their mother dies, that the man who raised them (played to perfection by The Band's Visit's Sasson Gabai) isn't their real dad, and their search for their birth father in Paris and Marseilles. 

Among the features, there's also Yuval Delshed's Baba Joon, the first Israeli film in Farsi. It's about three generations of Persian-Israelis living on a turkey farm that the adolescent son has no intention of taking over, and how he is supported in his real passion -- cars -- by his father's brother visiting from America. Baba Joon stars Navid Negahban-Abu Nazir in Homeland -- who plays the father of the young boy. It won last year's Ophir Award (the Israeli equivalent of the Academy Award) for Best Picture. 

Wedding Doll is about Hagit, a fiercely independent, young woman with a disability, played by Moran Rosenblatt of Apples from the Desert, who turns in an Ophir Award-winning performance here. Hagit works in a toilet paper factory near the Ramon Crater and dreams of marrying the son of the factory owner, with whom she shares an innocent, yet secret relationship. Her mom tries to ground her in a reality that's sometimes painful. 

A Week and a Day illustrates, tragic-comically, how the parents of a 25-year-old cancer victim attempt to get back to their "normal" lives in very different ways after his shiva is over. You'll recognize the comic relief: Zooler, played by Tomer Kapon, from Wedding Doll…and Fauda, as the ill-fated Boaz.

There are even a couple of documentaries dealing with family issues: Aida's Secrets, part of our sixth annual "Evening of Films By and About Women," this year on Kristallnacht, is the first. We learn Aida was a young non-Jewish girl from Poland kidnapped to work in Germany at the start of World War II. So how did she end up post-war in Bergen-Belsen, and why did one of her sons grow up on a moshav in Israel, and the other -- a blind, Jewish Para-Olympic champion and attorney -- grow up in Canada not know of his older brother's existence and vice versa until their 60s? Ah! You'll have to see the film to find out. Let's just say the adage "truth is stranger than fiction" applies here.

The second -- The Wonderful Kingdom of Papa Alaev -- is an up-close-and-personal and very entertaining saga of a famous and hot-tempered Tajik-Israeli musical family, led by their "Papa." They perform together, live together, cook and eat together, and all goes well until the younger generations want bands of their own. 

Is there any even lighter fare?

My experience has been that, even when I see a great film that's on the serious side, I still leave the theater happy, because it was so original and well done, but that's just me. And, in true Israeli fashion, many of the "serious" films I've already mentioned have humorous moments in them.

Beyond that, yes, there are many films in this year's festival that will put a smile on your face. Let's theme them "Warm and Fuzzies."

The first is Ido Haar's Presenting Princess Shaw. It's the unlikely dream-come-true story of a young African-American health care worker in New Orleans named Samantha Montgomery. At night, under the name Princess Shaw, she records and uploads songs she's written and sung a capella to YouTube. Long story short, she is discovered by an Israeli video mash-up artist named Kutiman, who unbeknownst to Princess, samples other YouTube musicians and puts full orchestration to her songs, which then go viral with over a million online hits. 

Princess Shaw has performed to a sold-out crowd in Israel at the Habima Theatre in Tel Aviv, and she will be joining us after the screening of the film at the Music Box on Nov. 3, to sing live. And, by the way, she's a Chicago native, so we must give her a super-warm welcome home.

Okay, hungry? Because we have hummus for you -- Oren Rosenfeld's Hummus! The Movie, in its Chicago premiere. The film is a virtual culinary tour of Israel, with Jews, Christians and Muslims all competing for the title of Best Hummus. Even the Guinness Book of World Records gets involved!  The first screening will be Nov. 10 at the Music Box, preceded by a hummus tasting by Chicago's premiere kosher restaurants. The other screening of this film will be at the ArcLight Cinemas in The Glen on the morning of Nov. 13. 

The next one is funnier and more uplifting than you might think: Belgian-Israeli Sylvain Biegeleisen's Twilight of a Life, which deservedly won the Best Israeli Film award at DocAviv in 2015. On her deathbed over a seven-month period, a 95-year-old mother and her son, the filmmaker, share music, jokes, laughter and an emotional intimacy all of us would be honored to experience.

Iris Zaki's Women in Sink, screening as a doc double feature with Twilight of a Life on Nov. 3 at ArcLight Theatre in The Glen, is another type of candid conversation, this time  between the filmmaker and Jewish, Muslim and Christian clients of a small salon in Haifa. As she washes their hair, the women talk into the camera Ms. Zaki has mounted above them. News flash: everyone gets along surprisingly well.

Lastly, the highly anticipated Mr. Gaga, screening only once, on closing night, is director Tomer Heymann's homage to the Batsheva Dance Company's long-time artistic director and choreographer Ohad Naharin -- also a favorite of Chicago's own Hubbard Street Dance Company. The film, eight years is the making, is truly poetry in motion. It even makes me want to dance! Imagine that!

Is there a third theme for this year's Festival?

Yes. It's "Nostalgia." We're doing this not only for audience members who remember these events firsthand, but for others who can still feel inspired by them today.

We anticipate a huge response to the Chicago premiere of Dani Menkin's latest film On the Map, about the surprise 1977 victory of the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team over the Russian national team in the European championships. That was quite an athletic feat, as UCLA and NBA legend Bill Walton, former NBA Commissioner David Stern and many others in the film attest. Dani and captain of the 1977 team, the one and only Tal Brody, will be at the Nov. 5 screening in person. Tamir Goodman, dubbed "the Israeli Michael Jordan," and a great motivational speaker, will headline our "teen night" screening of the film on Nov. 2. It's pretty exciting.

We're also taking a trip down memory lane to remember The Voice of Peace, Israeli Abie Nathan's pirate radio ship that broadcast cool rock music "from somewhere in the Mediterranean" from 1973-1993 in the epom-

That's eponymous.

Thanks. Okay, the eponymous film by Frederick Cristea. It was so interesting to learn how many people listened to it -- from all over the Middle East.

And true film buffs, especially of the Israeli variety, should not miss this Celebration -- Hagiga: The Story of Israeli Cinema, Parts I and II, screening on Sunday, Nov. 6 -- not only because they'll get to relive iconic scenes from Ephraim Kishon's Sallah Shabati, Assi Dayan's Life According to Agfa, Joseph Cedar's Footnote and so much more, but because they'll hear from their favorite directors and actors -- including the queen of Israeli stage and screen Gila Almagor (!), who will be with us in person not only for the second half of Hagiga, but also for both screenings of her latest film, a black comedy called Fire Birds.

What makes Fire Birds a black comedy?

It's about an 80-year old man posing as a Holocaust survivor to woo wealthy survivor widows, and when they find him out, they really stick it to him.

Oh, my!

It's really well done, and the acting by the all-star cast -- Gila Almagor, of course; Oded Teomi, Miryam Zohar, Dvora Kedar -- is superb. There are some hilarious scenes.

Are there any other films we haven't covered? 

Yes, three more. The first is a tribute to the late, great Ronit Elkabetz, whom we lost this year at age 51. It's Nir Bergman's 2010 A Stranger inParis. Since we screened Elkabetz' entire Gett trilogy last year on Women's Night, and were all so wowed by her performances, writing and directing, we decided to show this doc this year. 

Next there's an intelligent, comprehensive history of the West Bank-Shimon Dotan's The Settlers, after which there will be a lively Q and A with Northwestern University Professor Elie Rekhess of the Crown Center for Jewish and Israel Studies. Lastly, there's the latest short from Dina Zvi-Riklis (Three Mothers, The Fifth Heaven) called The Ambassador's Wife, about the spouse of an Eritrean diplomat to France who finds herself a refugee in Israel. It stars Israeli actress and jazz sensation Ester Rada! And Dina and her husband Eran (The Syrian Bride, The Lemon Tree, Zaytoun…) will be here in person, and will be interviewed by University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana Assistant Professor Rachel Harris. And I just can't wait!! And I'm gushing again, huh?

It's okay. You're entitled.  

For more information about the Chicago Festival for Israeli Film, visit

"Coming to the Festival is like going to Israel itself. If you go once, you're hooked. There's so much to see, and something for everyone."

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