JCC Chicago Jewish Film Festival reaching a wider audience through streaming

Online options open film festival to greater viewing

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The documentary American Birthright wrestles with interfaith marriage and identity. Image still courtesy of Nathan Ben David.

The ninth annual JCC Chicago Jewish Film Festival has expanded to a year-round program, kicking off in the fall with three weekends from Nov. 5-21. 

Ilene Uhlmann and Hillary Wenk--who created and curate the film festival--see a positive in this year's fall festival being a streaming event due to continuing concerns about COVID.  

"It has allowed us to bring the film festival to Jewish communities across Illinois and northwest Indiana where there are no JCCs and certainly no film festivals," said Wenk, JCC Chicago's Manager of Operations, Community Engagement. "While we hope to be hosting a hybrid festival in the spring, there is a good-sized Jewish community downstate that was never going to drive three hours to see a movie."

The film festival was created to spark and inspire conversation about topics central to the Jewish experience, noted Uhlmann, JCC Chicago's Director of Community Engagement. It has expanded since its inception from focusing on Holocaust-themed films to ones that explore wide-ranging themes from women's and LGBTQ rights to social justice. "We look to bring in films that communicate challenges so that we are better equipped as a collective Jewish community to make a difference," Uhlmann said.

Coming close on the heels of the six-part mini-series Labyrinth of Peace running Oct. 1-17, the Fall Festival's offerings include several Chicago or Midwest premieres and film festival award-winners. The films will only be available to stream during that film's designated weekend from 9 a.m. on Friday to 11:45 p.m. on Sunday.

Opening the festival on the weekend of ov. 5-7 will be Vadim Perelman's Persian Lessons, about a young Jewish Belgian man who is able to avoid execution in a concentration camp by passing himself off as Persian and inventing a language to teach to the camp commandant. 

Also streaming that opening weekend is the Midwest premiere of the documentary Irmi, based on the memoirs of Irmi Selver, a Jewish refugee who escaped from her hometown of Chemnitz,  Germany to America during World War II.

The festival will also stream award-winning documentary American Birthright opening weekend. The film explores director Becky Tahel's search for self and faith after her younger sister announces she is marrying a non-Jewish man.

The Fall Festival's second weekend, Nov. 12-14, will feature the Chicago premiere of Bernadette Wegenstein's documentary The Conductor , which profiles Marin Alsop, who fulfilled a childhood dream instilled in her by watching Leonard Bernstein to become a conductor herself. She is currently the Chief Conductor at the Ravinia Festival. 

Levi Zini's documentary Yerusalem, The Incredible Story of Ethiopian Jewry chronicles the deeply committed Ethiopian Jewish community who for 2,500 years believed they were the last Jews on Earth. 

The closing weekend of the festival, Nov. 19-21, will feature Eirik Svensson's Betrayed , based on the true World War II-era story of the close-knit Norwegian Braude family ripped apart after German troops invade Norway. 

Ameen Nayfeh's film festival award-winning 200 Meters stars popular Israeli actor Ali Suliman as a Palestinian man who resorts to desperate measures to smuggle himself across the Israeli border to be with his hospitalized young son. 

The festival's final weekend will also include Haute Couture , the heartwarming story of a retiring Dior head seamstress, who resolves to pass on her skills to a 20-year-old street thief.

Wenk and Uhlmann watch hundreds of potential entries to the film festival for inclusion in one of their four tentpole festivals this year including the January Social Justice Series and Spring Hybrid Festival. Over the past near decade, they've learned one thing about Jewish films. "We think we've seen it all," Uhlmann said, "but every single year, we learn something new."

Streaming tickets are $15 each or discount passes are available for a limited time. For more information on the film festival and for the most up-to-date schedule, or to join the film selection committee, visit  jccfilmfest.org or call 847-763-3507.

Donald Liebenson is a Chicago writer who writes for  VanityFair.com,  LA Times ,  Chicago Tribune , and other outlets.  

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