Tzivi’s Take on the 2014 Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema
The range of options included in CFIC ‘14 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 happen to 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 twelve 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.
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 my tears.
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 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 forty years and carried me with him every step of the way.
Best Actress: Anat Waxman
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 in the cake.
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 over 60 Minutes: 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 today.
Best Documentary Film under 60 Minutes: The Women Pioneers
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.
Avi Nesher Retrospective
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. Reviews of all three films, as well as additional reviews and CFIC ’14 related features will be found on my blog: www.SecondCityTzivi.com.
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?
TZIVI’S RANKING OF CFIC ’14 FILMS
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED FEATURES
A Place in Heaven
The Dove Flier
Above and Beyond: The Birth of the Israeli Air Force
The Women Pioneers
Beneath the Helmut: From High School to the Home Front
Shadow in Baghdad
Photos from Top: Dana Ivgy in Zero Motivation, Keren Berger in A Place in Heaven, Alon Abuttul in A Place in Heaven, Anat Cohen in Cupcakes, Patrick Stewart in Hunting Elephants, Rtem Zussman-Cohen in A Place in Heaven, photo from Above & Beyond, and photo from The Women Pioneers.
All photos courtesy of CFIC
Published in the October 2014 issue of Chicago’s JUF News.
Posted 10/2/14 on JUF Online.