ISRAEL IN CHICAGO: A documentary about Natan Sharansky is but one of the offerings at the upcoming Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema. Sharansky himself will be there to see it.

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

Cindy Stern always picks winners when she journeys to Israel every year to scout potential screenings for her annual Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema.

But this year, Stern has outdone herself.  She not only got the documentary “From Slavery to Freedom,” about refusenik Natan Sharansky, but Stern has landed Sharansky himself for the Saturday, Nov. 16 screening at the Spertus Institute of Jewish Learning and Leadership , 610 S. Michigan Ave. in Chicago.

The documentary looks at how Sharansky, a Jewish activist, was arrested in 1977 and imprisoned in the Soviet gulag until 1986 on false charges of high treason as a U.S. agent.  And how in 1986 there was a free Sharansky visiting Ronald Reagan in the White House and receiving the Congressional Gold Medal.  A decade later, Sharansky was a top Israeli government official, having played a key role in opening the floodgates to a million Russian Jewish immigrants who like him have enriched Israeli society.

A wide array and variety of feature films, documentaries, shorts and TV shows will be shown at Spertus, the ArcLight Cinemas in Glenview and the Music Box Theater in Chicago during the festival, which takes place from Nov. 7 to 17. 

The 84-minute Sharansky production was directed by Arkady Kogan.  He got permission from the Russian government to film in sensitive locations. And so we see Sharansky visiting his old jail cell and, while wearing a traditional Russian fur hat, lighting Chanukah candles and reciting the blessings.  “From Slavery to Freedom” is presented in Russian and Hebrew with English subtitles.

Stern was able to arrange for Sharansky to appear at the festival through a combination of relationships and timing.

“The Unorthodox” looks at the unlikely founding of Israel’s Sephardic political party, Shas.

“I talked to (the documentary’s) distributor, and he said Sharansky was going to be in Toronto at the same time as the festival,” said Stern. “We then reached out to his people.  It worked out beautifully because he was going to be in the neighborhood. He is a really fascinating person. It is a dream to have him here.”

The program at Spertus will begin at 7 p.m. with a VIP reception and dinner featuring the chance to talk one-on-one with Sharansky. The screening is scheduled for 8 p.m. with a Q and A with Sharansky to follow. An after party with what Stern describes as “noshes, music and drinks” concludes the evening.

A VIP ticket for the entire program costs $180. A $36 ticket gains entrance to the screening and the Q and A.  A $25 ticket admits to the after party. Tickets can be ordered by visiting IsraeliFilmChi.org.

“I was part of so many ‘Save Soviet Jewry’ protests, and I want people who also protested to come to the event,” said Stern.

“I’m going to thank Natan for all he’s done for world Jewry and Israel, what he’s gone through in life. I’ve always been fascinated by how he survived and then thrived in life. He was in solitary confinement and survived by playing chess in his head. I find that kind of fortitude extraordinary.”

Stern has built the Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema into a major showcase in the decade she has run it. Fewer than 10 such film festivals take place across the United States annually, and she has worked hard to make hers stand out.

Cindy Stern

Stern is responsible for day-to-day and long-term strategic artistic vision and operations of the festival, which includes, among other things, programming (film selection, scheduling, fee negotiation and promotion); securing venues and special guests; public relations and marketing; the cultivation of donors, sponsors, and screening hosts; audience outreach to the Jewish and greater Chicagoland community through consulates, governmental organizations, religious and secular organizations; and introducing all films and special guests at screenings.

And, on top of all of that, travel. Not waiting for the films to come to her, Stern goes to the source to recruit both screenings and their producers and stars to appear.

“I go to other film festivals,” she said. “I like to see things on the big screen as an audience sees them. The trick is to get the best coming out of Israel before people see it.  Some films I scout in pre-production. I scour the internet. When I’m over there, I ask Israelis themselves. I’ll ask the desk clerk at the hotel. It’s constant.”

To be chosen for the festival, Stern has three criteria.

“First, I look at all Israeli films which in the last 12 months have won international awards,” she said. “That’s key in whether the audience will like the films. The second is if they have won Ophir Awards (the top Israeli film honor).  Third is presenting content that is relevant to Israel society.

Polar bears swimming in the wild feature prominently in “Picture of His Life,” the festival’s opening night film.

“These films bring Israel and Chicago closer together. They should be about sub-cultures and topics you might not hear about in the news or see on a bus tour over there. But if you’re an insider in Israel, you know about it. We try to make the film fan an insider with these productions.”

As a fledgling country in the 1950s, Israel did not have its own film industry.  But Israel served as the location backdrop for American productions such as “The Juggler” with Kirk Douglas in 1953 and Otto Preminger’s blockbuster “Exodus” with Paul Newman and Eva Marie Saint in 1960.

A small-scale film industry began to evolve as the 20th century came to an end. Stern said the production pace really stepped up in 2000, when the Israeli government recognized films were on a par in cultural value with music and other live performances. Now Israel produces 20 feature films annually, with one of the highest per-capita number of film schools in the world.

“Most get government funding,” Stern said of Israeli films. “Many are now co-productions with European countries.”  

But as fans screen the movies in her festival, they’ll see a different production technique than big-budget American films.

“Script is really important, character development is important,” Stern said. “They can’t afford pyrotechnics. Most of the movies are very character-driven.”

Teen suicide is the subject of “The Day After I’m Gone.” The screening will be followed by an interactive discussion with professionals from JCFS’ Response for Teens Center.

The film festival’s theme this year is identity – “what it means to be an Israeli today,” said Stern.

Perhaps no film better exemplifies the question of identity than “Back to the Fatherland.”

“Some 20,000 Israelis live in Berlin,” said Stern. “The film features conversations young Israelis have with their grandparents who left Germany. The identity issue is would you live in a place where your grandparents fled. And when you go back, what does that mean?”

Co-directors Gil Levanon and Kat Rohrer are a startling angle unto themselves. Levanon is a native Israeli. Rohrer, an Austrian, is the granddaughter of an SS officer.  “As an Austrian, I feel guilty,” Rohrer admitted. The pair met in graduate school at New York University. Their production is a “testament to their friendship,” said Stern, and endemic of the evolution of the generations from genocide to tikkun olam.

Levanon and Rohrer ask the grandparents about their Israeli grandchildren’s decisions:  Could returning to the site of their pain decades ago create reconciliation between generations? 

Silence or utter bewilderment is the answer of some of the senior-citizen former refugees. “Why Germany of all places?” asked one woman of her grandchild.  “Back to the Fatherland” is presented in English, Hebrew and German with English subtitles.

The festival’s opening night feature takes place at 7 p.m. on Nov. 7 at the Arc Light Cinemas in Glenview. “Picture of His Life” focuses on Amos Nachoum, an environmentalist, explorer, “soldier of Mother Nature” and one of the greatest underwater photographers of all time.

“Nachoum’s goal,” said Stern, “was to be the first to photograph a polar bear swimming in the wild.”

At age 65, to Nachoum getting that shot was the “picture of his life.” A previous attempt almost killed him.

Presented in Hebrew, English and Inuit with English and Hebrew subtitles, the film, say its producers, “shows how Nachoum’s unique work, featured in National Geographic and the New York Times, has put him face-to-face with some of the most fearsome predators on Earth — crocodiles, killer whales and  great white sharks.

“Accompanied by Emmy Award-winning cinematographer Adam Ravetch and directors Yonatan Nir and Dani Menkin, Amos headed to the Canadian Arctic. As the journey unfolded, so did an intimate and painful story of dedication, sacrifice, personal redemption and a quest for inner peace.”

Other films Stern cites as highlights of the festival include “Black Honey: The Life and Poetry of Avraham Sutzkever,”  “Cause of Death,” “The Unorthodox” and “Tel Aviv on Fire.”

 “Black Honey” tells the story of Russian-born poet Sutzkever who is considered by many to be the greatest Yiddish writer of modern times. According to the film’s producers, “he wrote with wit and passion through the darkness of the Holocaust by leading the Paper Brigade, an underground resistance group that hid a cache of Jewish cultural items to protect them from destruction by the Nazis.

“Sutzkever was saved by a special rescue plane sent for him by Josef Stalin, and later testified at the Nuremberg trials against the Nazi who murdered his mother and son. However, as long as he lived, he would not let a film about his life be made. “Black Honey” uncovers his extraordinary life through Sutzkever’s poetry and reveals how, in the darkest times, his poetry became a life-saving source of vitality and strength.”

“Cause of Death” strives to shed light on a decade-old mystery involving a member of one of Israel’s most fascinating subcultures, the Druze community.

According to its producers, “on the night of March 5, 2002, an armed terrorist opened fire in a Tel Aviv restaurant. Police officer Salim Barakat, a Druze, was one of the first to arrive on the scene. He died a hero that night, killed in a struggle with the terrorist — or so his family is told.

“For 10 years, Salim’s brother Jamal attended annual police commemorations for his murdered brother. However, continued reports that Salim may have actually been killed accidentally by someone else spurs Jamal on an investigative journey in search of the truth. The deeper Jamal digs, the more complicated the truth becomes.”

“The Unorthodox” tells the story of Israel’s Shas (“Torah Observant Sephardim”) political party, its founder and its unexpected rise to power. 

According to its producers, “when Yaakov Cohen’s daughter Shuli is expelled from an Ashkenazi school in 1983 due to her Sephardic heritage, he decides to fight back. Cohen, a widowed printer in Jerusalem, has no money, no connections and no political experience. Fueled only by willpower and a raging sense of inequity, Cohen and his friends unite to form Shas.

“A challenge to the ruling Ashkenazi establishment, their grassroots movement sets off one of the strangest, most surprising and moving elections Israel has ever seen. Based on actual events, the feature is animated with suspense and humor, relating a tale of underdog activism and shady politics which continues to reverberate today.”

Bringing laughs as a counterweight to drama and conflict, “Tel Aviv On Fire” starts with a Palestinian and an Israeli walking into a military checkpoint on the West Bank.

According to its producers, “Salam is a hapless 40-something Palestinian who has just landed a small job on a soap opera, thanks to the generosity — or pity — of the producer (who also happens to be his uncle). Gangly and unkempt, Salam drives blearily to the studio each morning through a military checkpoint between his home in Jerusalem and work in Ramallah.

“An encounter at the checkpoint with an Israeli captain, Assi, catapults Salam to a new job as a writer, with the secret condition that Assi will exert control over the script. But tensions flare when Assi and the show’s Arabic financial backers disagree on the show’s ending. Salam finds himself trapped in a political minefield.”

And there are many more films, documentaries, shorts and TV shows on the festival’s schedule. They have all survived the critic’s eye in Stern.

“We have an embarrassment of riches.”

For a schedule of what is being screened when and where, and for information about purchasing tickets, go to IsraeliFilmchi.org.

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