CFIC ’15: Tzivi’s Guide

Tzivi's Guide to the 10th Annual Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema


Patrons of this year’s Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema (CFIC) will have a rare opportunity to see one of the most significant accomplishments in the history of Israeli Cinema: all three parts of “The Amsalem Trilogy”—To Take a Wife, Shiva, and Gett—will be shown on Tuesday Nov. 3 in the order in which these three films first appeared on Israeli movie screens.

Audiences were introduced to “Viviane Amsalem” (Ronit Elkabetz) and her husband “Eliahou” (Simon Abkarian) in 2004 in To Take a Wife (Ve’Lakhta Lehe Isha). To Take a Wife was so low-budget that I don’t even think it was ever available in American theatres. I only saw it myself when it was released on DVD. That was at the end of 2009, after the success of Shiva in 2008. But by the time Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem was released last year, Ronit Elkabetz—who not only stars but also co-wrote and co-directed all three parts in collaboration with her brother Shlomi Elkabetz—had become an international “shero” to women all around the world.

In 2014, the Israel Film Academy named Gett “Best Israeli Film of the Year.” It went on to receive a prestigious Golden Globe nomination in the Best Foreign Language Film category. Then the National Board of Review (USA) named it one of the Top Five Foreign Language Films of 2014.

So I strongly urge you to see all three parts with us at the AMC Northbrook Court on Nov. 3—yes, I will be there in person too—but if you simply cannot make it, then consult the summary I have posted on my blog so you can participate in the conversations that are sure to follow each time a set of credits roll.

“The Amsalem Trilogy” screenings occur midway through an excellent line-up that runs from Wednesday Oct. 28 through Sunday Nov. 8. This year, the CFIC team has also added a bonus day on Sunday Nov. 15 at the Marcus Chicago Heights Cinema (a new venue for khaverim in the South Suburbs).

New Filmmakers

This year’s new filmmaker to watch is Lee Gilat, the writer/director of Encirclements. Encirclements is a magical film about a boy selected to carry a Torah around his neighborhood on the Simchat Torah holiday. In a spare 90 minutes, Gilat creates a rich, dense, and thoroughly believable community. This is a masterful debut from someone with theatrical and television credits, who has now turned to feature films. Brava!

New Stars

Naruna Kaplan De Macedo stars as “Myla” in Is That You? She looks a bit like Zooey Deschanel, thus priming the audience to expect another “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” character. But to their credit, screenwriters Dani Menkin and Eshkol Nevo have given “Myla” her own poignant and complex arc, and Naruna Kaplan De Macedo totally holds her own in scenes with Alon Aboutboul (who I named Best Actor last year for his starring role in A Place in Heaven).

Kudos also to the four young actors in Encirclements, Agam Ozalvo as “Aharon Ninio” (the boy who carries the Torah) as well as Noa Astanjelove, Shay Elkayam, and Omer Hazan who play his neighbors in the Vaknin family (“Aliza, “Tami,” and “Meir”). Shout-Out to Gilat’s Casting Director: These kids are terrifically talented, and I expect to see more of all four of them in future.

Best Feature Film

The Best Feature Film of 2015 is The Farewell Party, a Black Comedy about a group of friends facing their last years together in a Jerusalem retirement community. Filmmakers Tal Granit and Sharon Maymon—who co-wrote and co-directed together—dazzled me with their ability to walk the razor's edge between comedy and tragedy. The humor is so totally Jewish through and through that I’ll bet Sholem Aleichem was “up there” somewhere laughing through his tears too.

This year—for the first time—I am also adding a Best Screenplay category in honor of Is That You? Ostensibly this is a road movie with many genre tropes, but the dialogue is so beautifully written that sometimes I found myself gasping as I watched. Although his name is not in my press materials and it is not on IMDb, I detected the name of award-winning Israeli novelist Eshkol Nevo as the credits rolled, and then it all made sense.

Kudos to director Dani Menkin for finding collaborators who could help him write the perfect words for his perfect cast. Then add a shout-out to composer Issar Shulman for his lovely musical score (which is augmented by songs chosen personally by Menkin and melded together by Philip Gozlan’s sound design).

Best Documentary

Silicon Wadi is a superlative doc about four Israeli Start-Ups. Two teams will succeed and two teams will fail, but as the film moves into its third act, I challenge you to guess the winners. This is one of the most riveting 82 minutes ever captured on film, and I was frankly stunned by the outcome. I commend all four teams for their courage in allowing filmmakers Daniel Sivan and Yossi Bloch to keep their cameras rolling through all the ups and downs. And I compliment the filmmakers on their inventive camera moves and musical choices. At one point, contracts fly around a conference room table while Edvard Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” (the music associated with the English words “On October 31 when the sun goes to rest…”) build from a whisper to a roar on the soundtrack. Everyone in the room is too busy signing to speak, so it is the music that carries the message. Yowza!

Best Actor

This was the toughest category to call this year, but in the end, after seesawing back and forth, my choice is Ze’ev Revach for his portrayal of “Yehezkel” (yah-hezz-kul) in The Farewell Party. We first meet Yehezkel during a late night telephone call with his friend "Zelda" (Ruth Geller). Yehezkel--a fixer who is always tinkering with new contraptions—has created a voice box to amplify his sound because he wants Zelda--who is bedridden--to believe she is speaking directly to God. Since Zelda thinks God is now personally watching over her, she is finally able to go back to sleep. But Yehezkel stops laughing when "Yana" (Aliza Rosen) calls. Her husband Max is in terrible pain, so Yana throws herself on Yehezkel's mercy. Can he invent something that will release Max from his agony? And so it begins…

The runner-up in this category—of course—is Alon Aboutboul, who stars as “Roni” in Is That You?

Best Actress

My pick for 2015 is Assi Levy who stars as “Rosa Ninio,” the mother of the boy who carries the Torah on Simchat Torah in Encirclements. Assi Levy is one of Israel’s greatest actresses, best-known for the role of “Aviva” in Aviva My Love (for which she won an Ophir Award in the Best Actress category from the Israel Film Academy in 2006). Her grace, gravitas, and quiet strength as Rosa Ninio moved me beyond words, and now I will never forget the moral of the story of the princess and the golden feather.

Best Supporting Actress

Levana Finkelstein co-stars as Yehezkel's beloved wife "Levana" in The Farewell Party. Although Yehezkel always covers for her, Levana’s memory problems have reached a critical point. A proudly creative cook, Levana keeps urging her beloved granddaughter “Libby” (Mia Katan) to eat, but when Libby finally spits out a cookie in disgust, Levana suddenly realize she has used salt instead of sugar... It is a devastating moment for Levana, and for the audience as well.

Best Supporting Actor

One might assume that Lior Ashkenazi (a major Israeli star since his breakthrough role in Late Marriage in 2001) would be the male lead in Encirclements, but no. In this case it’s not that he has graciously stepped aside for young Agam Ozalvo who plays his son Aharon—the boy who carries the Torah—but more that his character, “Bezalel Ninio,” has willfully absented himself from daily life as lived by his son Aharon and his wife Rosa. And so—playing Bezalel—Ashkenazi is not quite a fully drawn character in Encirclements, but more like a dark shadow in the background.

And this brings us full circle, back to “The Amsalem Trilogy.” If you have only seen Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, you are unlikely to have much sympathy for Viviane’s husband “Eliahou” (Simon Abkarian). Why is he so stubborn? Why won’t he give her a divorce after so many years of first emotional, and then physical estrangement

Encirclements is a more gently-told film, without any of the rage at the status quo which propels Gett, and yet the two husbands have much in common as characters. If only the compassionate Rabbi played by Uri Gavriel in Encirclements had served on Viviane Amsalem’s Rabbinical Court, maybe things might have turned out differently for Eliahou too.

For a complete schedule (including information on ticket purchases), visit the CFIC website.


Documentaries: Highly Recommended

The Polgar Variant

Silicon Wadi

Documentaries: Recommended

East Jerusalem, West Jerusalem

Farewell Herr Schwartz

Guardians of Remembrance

Narrative Feature Films: Highly Recommended

The Amsalem Trilogy


The Farewell Party

Is That You?

Narrative Feature Films: Recommended


Apples from the Dessert


NOTE: Three short features and six TV episodes are also on the schedule, but I have not seen any of them yet.

For a complete schedule (including information on ticket purchases), visit the CFIC website.

This is the 10 th Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema, and Jan Lisa Huttner-who now lives in Brooklyn-has covered many of them for JUF News. Jan thanks the CFIC Committee for enabling her to perform this annual labor of love, and hopes to see old friends and new at the AMC Northbrook Court on Nov. 3.


JUF Post: 9/25/2015

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CFIC ’15: Top Picks

Here is my list of TOP PICKS for this year's 2015 Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema (CFIC)

Best New Filmmakers: Lee Gilat for Encirclements
Best New Star: Naruna Kaplan De Macedo of Is That You?
Best Feature Film: The Farewell Party
Best Screenplay: Is That You?
Best Documentary: Silicon Wadi
Best Actor: Ze’ev Revach of The Farewell Party
Best Actress: Assi Levy of Encirclements
Best Supporting Actress: Levana Finkelstein of The Farewell Party
Best Supporting Actor: Lior Ashkenazi of Encirclements

The 2015 Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema (CFIC) opens Wednesday Oct. 28 and runs through Sunday Nov. 8.

This year, the CFIC team has also added a bonus day on Sunday Nov. 15 at the Marcus Chicago Heights Cinema (a new venue for khaverim in the South Suburbs).

For a complete schedule (including information on ticket purchases), visit the CFIC website.

Click HERE to read my full post in the October issue of the JUF News.

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CFIC ’15: Top Docs

Highly Recommended Documentary Films in this year's 2015 Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema (CFIC)

1. The Polgar Variant
2. Silicon Wadi


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CFIC ’15: Top Features

Highly Recommended Narrative Feature Films in this year's 2015 Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema (CFIC)

1. The Amsalem Trilogy
* Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem
* Shiva
* To Take a Wife
2. Encirclements
3. The Farewell Party/
4. Is That You?

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My "Best new Filmmaker" of CFIC '15 :-)

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My Top Feature Film of CFIC '15 :-)

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My "Best New Star" of CFIC '15 :-)

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My Top Doc of CFIC '15 :-)

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TopPhotoBTWAward-winning documentary filmmaker Aviva Kempner's triumphant new BioDoc Rosenwald introduces us to a Jewish-American philanthropist who used the fortune he amassed as the CEO of Sears, Roebuck and Company to make a permanent impact on African-American life for generations past and generations to come.

Although many residents of Metro Chicago know the name Julius Rosenwald, most people outside Chicago have never heard of him... and yet the names of so many of the artists and intellectuals he sponsored early in their careers have become beloved names in American culture. (JLH: 5/5)

Quote from Rosenwald "Talking Head" Julian Bond“You can look at the people who got grants from Julius Rosenwald, and say, these are the predecessor generation to the civil rights generation that I’m a part of. And I’m a predecessor generation to the Obama generation that resulted in the election of the first black president of the United States.” 

Rosenwald, filmmaker Aviva Kempner’s latest documentary, opens in Metro Chicago today. Kempner is already highly-respected for her award-winning films The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg and Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, but Rosenwald has special significance for members of Chicago’s Jewish community because Julius Rosenwald was one of our own.

Although he was born and raised in Springfield--very close, in fact, to the residence of then President Abraham Lincoln—Rosenwald lived most of his life near the University of Chicago Campus where there is now a building built in his honor called Rosenwald Hall.

All Gaul is divided into three parts,” said Julius Caesar, and so is Kempner’s film.

Part One provides an overview of how this child of German-Jewish immigrants became the logistical genius who turned Sears, Roebuck and Company into one of the most successful mercantile enterprises in the history of American Business. Far from dry, Part One is illuminated by ingenious graphics which show how the Sears catalog helped shape the American Dream.

Part Two explains how Rosenwald used his vast—and unexpected—resources to build Rosenwald Schools for African-American children all across the American South. At one point, there were approximately 5,000 Rosenwald Schools in the USA. A number of them have since been restored and are now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Part Three shows how Rosenwald went on to create the Rosenwald Fund which sponsored the early work of some of the USA’s greatest African-American artists including photographer Gordon Parks Jr., sculptor Augusta Savage, dancer Katherine Dunham, writer Ralph Ellison, and poet Langston Hughes.


This film, which was in the making for over a decade, arrives in theatres at the perfect moment. Just as the USA is finally facing the enormity of the #BlackLivesMatter campaign, America’s Jewish community is learning how many members of our own mishpokhe are biracial.

Given the enormous role Jewish-Americans played in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, this should not be a surprise, and yet it seems that it is. We know that many famously creative people such as Lani GuinierRashida Jones, James McBride, Rain Pryor, and Rebecca Walker are both Black and Jewish. These names are the tip of the iceberg. In fact, Julian Bond’s wife Pamela Sue Horowitz, a former staff attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center, is also a member of the Tribe.

Rosenwald helps us understand that the Jewish role in the history of the African-American experience did not begin or end with the murder of three Civil Rights workers—Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Mickey Schwerner—in 1964. The ties that bind the Jewish-American community and the African-American community were tied tight and tied forever by Chicago businessman, philanthropist, and mensch Julius Rosenwald.

Personal Note: I saw Rosenwald for the first time on July 9 at a private event for members of the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan. Filmmaker Aviva Kempner did a brief introduction before the screening and then participated in a panel discussion after the credits rolled with Julian Bond, NYU Professor Hasia Diner, former LBJ speechwriter Eli Evans, and Rabbi David Saperstein.

It was an unforgettable evening, made especially poignant in retrospect by the fact that it was one of Julian Bond’s final public appearances. He died in Florida on August 15, barely one month later, at age 75. But you would never have predicted that on July 9. He was elegant, eloquent, and in full command of his faculties. Those few moments at the end, when I spoke with him one-on-one at the reception, were joyous. He was there to celebrate the life of Julius Rosenwald, and he worked the crowd—me included—like a champ.


Rosenwald opens in Metro Chicago today (9/4/15) at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema in Lincoln Park and the Landmark Renaissance Place in Highland Park. Kempner has planned Q&A sessions in Lincoln Park tonight (9/4/15) and in Highland Park tomorrow (9/5/15).

For schedule information and tickets purchases, visit Kempner's Rosenwald website.

You can also purchase tickets directly from the Landmark Theatres website.

Follow this link to read a related article by JUF Executive Editor Cindy Sher.

© Jan Lisa Huttner FF2 Media (9/4/15)


Top Photo: Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington, Tuskegee Institute (1915) Courtesy of Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library

Bottom Photo: Director Aviva Kempner with Julian Bond at the 2015 Washington Jewish Film Festival. Photo credit: Aryeh Schwartz (WJFF)

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CFIC ’15 Sneak Peek

Posted 8/31/15 in JUF Online.

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