Nov’05 Spotlight

In September 2004, Joseph Cedar’s film Campfire received five Ophir Awards from the Israeli Academy for Film including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. But when it made its American debut one month later at last year’s Chicago International Film Festival, Campfire received mixed reviews from the local press. Attendance was disappointing, and none of the major distributors would commit to a theatrical release.

What went wrong? American audiences not immersed in Israeli culture seem to have missed the underlying dynamics of this intimate story, reducing the main character, a widow named Rachel, to someone looking for a new husband. But during a long conversation with Cedar here in Chicago, he said that understanding his film begins with understanding its title: “In Hebrew, the title Medurat Hashevet has a dual meaning. Literally ‘medurat hashevet’ means tribal campfire, but it’s also an expression defining who’s an insider and who’s an outsider.”

The plot of Campfire, which is set in the early ‘80s, revolves around Rachel’s desire to be accepted into a newly forming settlement on the West Bank. According to Cedar, though, “Campfire is not about religious settlers or right-wing settlers; it’s about elitism. And the theme is how far someone will go to be accepted or ‘hugged’ by his community.”

In Campfire, Motkeh, the leader of the settlement, is not bad in the sense of evil. But all the things that the other characters in the movie do result from the pressure that Motkeh puts on them. “Motkeh is a force in his society; it’s subtle because, at least on the face of things, he’s always trying to help people, to do things for the good of others. But he’s intimidating and patronizing, so he’s a negative force. The heroes that I find myself attracted to are people [like Rachel] who are strong enough to break away from the social glue that numbs the conscience.”

Local audiences can see Campfire on Monday, Nov. 7 at the Skokie Public Library. For more information, check their website:

To read more about Campfire in the context of Cedar’s first film, A Time of Favor, visit:



“…the history of civilization is in large part the story of populations wandering and settling, then wandering again–sometimes voluntarily, often in exile…”

The theme of this year’s Chicago Humanities Festival’s program, “Home and Away,” is a particularly potent one for Jewish audiences. The schedule includes many well-known speakers, including Christopher Horak (“German-Jewish Filmmakers in Hollywood Exile”), Vikram Seth (“Two Lives”), Howard Reich (“Prisoner of her Past”), and Raul Hilberg (“Auschwitz as an Evolving Camp”).

One “must-see” is Frédéric Brenner (“The Jewish Diaspora”). Brenner is a French photographer who has spent the past 25 years traveling around the world to chronicle contemporary Jewish life. He has roamed far beyond America, Israel and Western Europe, finding Jews in Argentina and Ethiopia, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, following his contacts until he had visited 40 countries on five different continents.

Appearing with Brenner will be Sidra Dekoven Ezrahi, author of Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Modern Jewish Imagination. Based at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Ezrahi is currently a visiting professor at Duke. She also wrote some of the commentary for Brenner’s most recent book, Diaspora: Homelands in Exile.

Brenner and Ezrahi will be speaking on Sunday, Nov. 13, from 11:30-1:30 at the Merle Reskin Theater at 60 E. Balbo (part of DePaul University’s downtown campus).

The Chicago Humanities Festival runs from Oct. 29-Nov. 13, and complete schedule information is available at:

Chicago Nextbook kicks off its new “History, Culture and Ideas” series on Monday, Nov. 14, with a visit from three Israeli women writers: Maya Arad, Alona Kimhi, and Nava Semel. Kimhi and Semel both have novels which are already available in English. Arad, who is best-known in America for her work as a linguist, has published a novel in Hebrew verse that has yet to be translated.

Nava Semel’s two novels, Becoming Gershona and Flying Lessons, are poetic little books written for young adult readers. Both are set in the 1950s, when the State of Israel was just taking shape. Her teenage heroines, Gershona and Hadara, come of age in a world in which Holocaust survivors, haunted by their memories, struggle to adapt to a new and strange land, while their children tiptoe around sorrows too huge for words. The writing is lyrical with evocative descriptions of landscape, trees and flowers.

Weeping Susannah, by contrast, is the psychological dissection of a woman living so symbiotically with her mother that she is unable to create her own identity. Susannah’s mother, Ada, is also a Holocaust survivor, and when her father dies, Susannah becomes the total focus of Ada’s life. The constant attention stunts her growth; frightened of everything, Susannah withdraws from the world and refuses to blossom into womanhood. But she’s surprisingly clear-eyed about her situation. She tells her story without an ounce of self-pity, making it easy to become invested in Susannah’s eventual escape from her mother’s apartment.

Meet Arad, Kimhi, and Semel on Monday, Nov. 14 at 6:30 p.m. at the Alliance Française de Chicago, 54 W. Chicago Ave. (corner of Chicago Avenue and Dearborn Street). For reservations, consult the Nextbook website:



King of the Corner, directed by and starring Peter Riegert, will be available on DVD in late October. This beautiful film, based on a collection of short stories by Gerald Shapiro, played for several weeks last summer at the Landmark’s Renaissance Place Cinema in Highland Park but never made it into the city. Riegert plays Leo Spivak, a middle-aged businessman facing a full set of issues, at home and at work, all of which are ordinary enough, but new and worrisome to him. When his father Sol dies, a visiting Rabbi is brought in to lead the service. But Rabbi Fink’s incredibly ineptness forces Leo to his feet, to speak from the heart about his father. What makes a “good Jew” and what makes a “bad Jew”? It’s suddenly up to Leo to give meaning to Sol’s life, as well as his own.

© Jan Lisa Huttner (11/1/05)

Tziviah bat Yisroel v’Hudah (Jan Lisa Huttner) is managing editor of Films for Two: The Online Guide for Busy Couples ( Send comments and/or suggestions for future columns to:

Previous Post Next Post

Leave a Reply