CFIC 2013: Tzivi’s Guide

Click HERE to see my list of Top Picks for CFIC 2013 🙂

BeviePageTzivi’s Guide to the 2013 Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema

By JAN LISA HUTTNER

SPECIAL FOR THE JUF NEWS

Films have a long lifecycle. Before a new film can make its way onto our Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema (CFIC) schedule, 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.

NEW THEMES

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.

NEW STARS

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 Thier 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!

NEW FILMMAKERS

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!

TOP PICKS: Features

My 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.

“Golan” (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 wills?

“Roni” (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.

On 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.”

TOP PICKS: Documentaries

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!

TOP PERFORMANCES

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 Bar-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?

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 all—well—funny!

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: http://IsraeliFilmChi.net/

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: http://SecondCityTzivi.com/

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Posted on JUF Online on 10/2/13.

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