The first Chicago Jewish Film Festival expands the city’s spectrum of ethnic and other identity-centered cinema. Titled “Through a Jewish Lens,” the lineup starts with nine features at the Music Box Theatre. Later screenings are scheduled for Evanston and Skokie venues.
“When I came to Chicago around 10 years ago I was astounded that there had never been a Jewish film festival in Chicago,” says artistic director David Chack, who had started the Louisville Jewish Film Festival in 1999. “I would like the Chicago Jewish Film Festival to be like the Sundance of Jewish film.”
One inspiration: Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. “I was so influenced by them: their love of film and their love of discussion,” enthuses 58 year-old Chack. “That is a very talmudic aesthetic. And Siskel, perhaps from his Chicago-Jewish background, and Ebert from his Chicago-Catholic background, are the epitome of how different cultures can get along by arguing.”
Speakers are scheduled for every screening. Representatives of the Jewish LGBTQ group Gesher Chicago will react to an episode of “Transparent,” a series directed by Chicago-born Jill Soloway for Amazon. Director Shlomi Eldar will appear with his Israeli medical documentary “Precious Life.”
Several dramas, docs and shorts are Chicago premieres, says Chack. Two highly recommended films that recently played here are “La Rafle,” a Paris Holocaust drama, and “Hannah Arendt,” a biopic about a onetime University of Chicago professor.
“Let me tell you how Iran and Israel once were,” relates an Israeli security guard in the revelatory documentary “Before the Revolution.” Iranians cheered the Israelis when the Israeli embassy screened the anti-terrorist thriller “Operation Thunderbolt” on its walls. That was before Israelis fled and the Ayatollah Khomeini turned the building over to the Palestine Liberation Front. With conflicted nostalgia, director Dan Shadur edits 8mm home movies shot by his parents and other Israelis thriving in Tehran prior to the 1978 revolution.
Other documentaries include “Marvin Hamlisch: What He Did For Love,” an ebullient profile of that film score composer. Another New Yorker is the subject of the fictive “Blumenthal.” Actor Seth Fisher makes his directing debut while playing the neurotic nephew of a Jewish playwright (Brian Cox).
An adjunct professor of theater at DePaul University, Chack also set up two readings of “A Place in the Heart,” Michal Aharoni’s absurdist play set in an Israeli hospital.
The fest is presented by the Jewish Community Center of Chicago, with the Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema as a partner.