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Sneak a preview of the 12th Annual Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema

Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema’s Cindy Stern gives readers a glimpse into what festival goers can expect.

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The first lady of Israeli stage and screen, Gila Almagor, along with Ishai Golan (Hatufim), Michael Aloni (Out of the Dark, Shtisel) and Mickey Leon (Waltz with Bashir, Hostages), stars in Arik Rothstein’s Antenna, the Festival’s Closing Night film

JUF News: Tell us about the Festival's Opening Night Film-Ori Sivan's Harmonia?

Cindy Stern: It's the modern-day telling of the Biblical story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar and their sons. Abraham, played by leading Israeli actor Alon Aboutboul-you'd recognize him from a bunch of Hollywood movies, too, and most recently from John Singleton's FX Original Series Snowfall -is the conductor of the Jerusalem Philharmonic Orchestra. Sarah, his wife, played by Tali Sharon, who was not only one of the 30-somethings from Srugim , but most recently in Joseph Cedar's Norman starring Richard Gere, is the Orchestra's harpist. Hagar, played by Yanna Yossef, is the Orchestra's new French horn player who befriends the childless couple. We're actually bringing in the film's composers, OJ Ofer Shabi and Yaniv Friedel, on Opening Night, to talk about the important role music plays in the film. 

Does Harmonia set the tone for the entire Festival?

Music is certainly one of the major themes. For fans of classical and choral music, respectively, there's also Eitan Anner'sA Quiet Heart- starring Ania Bukstein from Game of Thrones, as well as Avi Nesher's latest film Past Life , starring Nelly Tagar from Zero Motivation , up-and-comer Joy Rieger, and the always magnificent Evgenia Dodina. For Mizrahi-, pop- and club music, there's Maysaloun Hamoud's In Between , Roee Florentin's Mr. Predictable , Arik Rothstein's Antenna , Emil Ben-Shimon's The Women's Balcony , and Michal Aviad's Dimona Twist . Yonatan Nir's My Hero Brother and Jonathan Geva's  Abulele have memorable soundtracks by well-known Israeli composers as well. 

What are some of the other types of films we can expect?

There are some amazing, quintessentially only-in-Israel films about individuals and families figuring themselves out. In My Hero Brother , siblings of young adults with Down syndrome trek through the Himalayas together-some bonding for the first time, and others seeing each other in a new light, without parental interference. In Erez Tadmor's Home Port , a dad works to repair his relationship with his daughter after he's been away at sea for 30 years. In Abulele , a 10-year-old deals with the loss of his brother with the help of a loving creature who lives in the shadows. In Rama Burshtein's The Weddin g Plan , against all odds, a jilted Orthodox bride keeps the date set for her marriage and relies on her faith to find a groom in time. In In Between , two secular young Arab-Israeli friends, one Muslim, one Christian, living the party life in Tel Aviv, reexamine their identities when a hijab-wearing IT student moves in with them. In Past Life , based on a true story, two sisters, very different from one another, work together to peel back the layers of secrets surrounding their father's Holocaust experiences. 

As there are so many survivors living in Israel, we would imagine the Holocaust informs many films produced in the country.

Yes, the Holocaust has touched so many lives-now in the Third and Fourth Generations, as well as the Second. Arik Rothstein was born in Tel Aviv in 1967. In his first feature, Antenna , the Festival's Closing Night film, three adult sons and their mother are at wit's end when the dad, an 80-year-old survivor, attributes all of his ailments to a cellular tower installed on the roof of their apartment building by a neighbor. Avi Nesher, who made Past Life , is the son of survivors. Avichai Greenberg, who wrote and directed The Testament -also a compelling feature about secrets of the Holocaust-worked at Yad Vashem and for the Spielberg Archive. Yonatan Nir's, his family's, and kibbutz's personal stories are intertwined with The Essential Link: The Story of Wilfrid Israel.

 What other history lessons does the Festival teach us this year?

 In Yariv Mozer'sBen-Gurion, Epilogue, the iconic first Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, reflects back on his life, in 1968, when he is out of the limelight and retired to Sde Boker in the Negev, shortly after the Six-Day War. He spoke in beautiful English, and allowed himself to be filmed and interviewed for several hours, saying some amazingly prescient things still relevant today. It's a very important film. The story of its making-the audio that was missing for almost 40 years had to be found, and the interview was edited down to 70 minutes by the daughter of the original filmmaker, David Perlov, Yael Perlov-is almost as intriguing as the film itself. Yael Perlov will be at the Festival screening at Spertus on Oct. 30 to talk about Ben-Gurion's legacy, along with Professor Elie Rekhess of the Crown Center for Jewish and Israel Studies at Northwestern University and other experts.

In Michal Aviad's Dimona Twist, seven Jewish women who were born in North Africa and Poland-who came to Israel in the 1950s and 60s, and were settled in the new (at the time) desert town of Dimona - talk about the pain of leaving their homes and native-very Westernized-cultures behind, about the difficulties of adjusting in their new homeland, and about their determination to make meaningful lives for themselves. The film also contains some amazing archival footage and early rock music. After we previewed this film on International Women's Day in March, a middle-aged man with tears in his eyes came up to me and said, "I grew up in Israel and never knew this story."

What are the must-sees? 

The best way for your readers to decide what's most interesting to them is to go to and watch the trailers, read about each film, and check out the Festival schedule.

The Festival's special events include Opening Night at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie; Rock the Box 4 at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago; Ben-Gurion, Epilogue at Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership; and all screenings at the ArcLight Cinemas in The Glen, including Teen and Family Night; The 6th annual Evening of Films By & About Women and "Double Sundays," including Closing Night.

Explain how Israel's mult-culturalism is expressed in this year's films.

Yes, well, where else on the planet are there people from 120 countries speaking 70 languages in a place the size of New Jersey?! The Festival has shown Israeli films in English, Spanish, German, Polish, Amharic, Russian, French, Farsi, Arabic, and even the Iraqi-Jewish dialect of Arabic-in addition to Hebrew-all with English subtitles, of course. Having said that, there's more of an international flavor to the selections this year than ever before. A Quiet Heart opens us up to the feelings of an Italian monk living in Jerusalem. Past Life takes place, in part, in Poland and Germany. The women interviewed in Dimona Twist came to Israel from Morocco, Tunisia, and Eastern Europe. The Testament looks into a Holocaust-related legal case in Austria. The Essential Link: The Story of Wilfrid Israel is about the scion of Berlin's largest department store in the 1930's. And Anat Zalmanson-Kuznetsov's Operation Wedding documents the hijacking plot, capture, and release of her parents, world-renowned former Soviet Union refusniks Silva Zalmanson and Eduard Kuznetsov. 

Despite their continuing to win awards at all the major international festivals-Cannes, the Berlinale, Venice, Toronto, Sundance, TriBeCa-Israeli films have a reputation for being very intense. What would you say to people who have shied away from the Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema-or at least certain films-for that reason?

I've listened to our audience. Many tell me they don't like the "heavy stuff" that often runs through Israeli films, because the filmmakers make you think and feel so deeply. So while they love discovering new things about Israeli culture, and connecting with Israelis of all stripes on the big screen, and even immersing themselves in the amazing quality and artistry of Israeli filmmakers recognized on the world's stage, in the end, they just want to be entertained. 

That's fair, and each year we really do look for as many comedies and dramedies to screen as we can. But in comparing Israeli films to those made in Hollywood, you see Israeli films have fewer of what I call "pyrotechnic distractions"-special effects, car chases, computer graphics, elaborate costumes, and makeup. Israeli filmmakers as a rule simply cannot afford them, so, instead, they do a deeper dive into ideas, and get into the nitty-gritty of dialog and relationships, which is not quite as escapist, but still very engaging.

There are other reasons for the intensity, too. With so many sub-cultures living side by side in a small area, plus being surrounded by hostile neighbors who make you hyper-vigilant all the time, life in Israel is lived so much more on the edge than ours. There is a greater sense of urgency on every front, and less of the luxury of holding back. But in my view, that only makes the content of Israeli films more interesting-juicier. So when something's funny, it's really funny, and when something's sad, there are genuine water works. The emotions and circumstances really ring true. 

In terms of empathy for others, can you elaborate a little about the relationship between the majority of American Jews and Israelis? 

I can try-through a cultural lens. Even though, on a very basic level, many of us share the same DNA and sensibility abouttikkun olam (repairing the world) and the Commandments, most American Jews do not personally know many Israelis and vice versa. The truth is, our language is different. We each have distinct ways of communicating, interacting, and dealing with the challenges that face us. But, if you move beyond that, and the headlines, to explore those cultural differences in depth, like we do at the Festival, it's easier to begin an honest dialogue, to find more common ground, and to bond more closely with what is essentially another part of the Jewish people. 

The Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema runs Oct. 25 to Nov. 5 in Chicago, Glenview, and Skokie. For more information, visit


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