Directors and Dictators: Jewish Films at the Chicago International Film Festival

By | Oct 18, 2019
Arts & Culture, Chai Brow, Film, Latest
A still at an airport from the movie "The Kingmaker"

Welcome to Chai Brow, Moment’s weekly arts column exploring contemporary film, TV and podcasts from a Jewish lens.

I’ve been fortunate enough to attend film festivals all over the world, but I’ll always have a soft spot for the Chicago International Film Festival because I worked there for two editions. Now running through October 27 in the River East district downtown, the festival always has a great, expansive selection, running the gamut from Oscar hopefuls to international features you’ll never see in America again.

Since the Chicagoland area has its fair share of Jews, it’s inevitable that Jewish directors and themes will be a strong presence at the festival every year. I’ve been able to preview some of those films for this year’s edition. If you’re around Chicago and want to check out the festival, keep your eye out for these.

The Kingmaker

As a photographer and documentarian, Lauren Greenfield (The Queen of Versailles) has long been fascinated by ostentatious displays of wealth and power. Her new film is a lively, disturbing profile of former Philippines First Lady Imelda Marcos, who spent billions of dollars in ill-gotten wealth while her husband imposed martial law on their citizens during the family’s two-decade grip on power.

Greenfield also profiles how Marcos bought a bunch of wild animals from Africa and dumped them on an island, pushing out the villagers already living there and creating a damaging, unsustainable habitat in the process. And most terrifyingly, through the Marcos-funded presidency of the Trump-like demagogue Rodrigo Duterte, the family is well on track to rehabilitating their reputation and regaining power in the country. Turns out The Kingmaker is a how-to guide for evading punishment as a despot.

The Kingmaker opens in New York and Los Angeles on November 8 and in Chicago the following week. It will air on Showtime following its theatrical run.


This hot-button Israeli drama is the third in a loose thematic trilogy from director Yaron Shani, who also co-directed the Oscar-nominated Ajami. Here, a macho cop tries to submit everyone around him, including his wife and rebellious teenage stepdaughter, to his iron will, but all this angry posturing eventually gets him in trouble with higher intelligence officers. Shot with a cast of non-professionals, the film eviscerates a specific kind of toxic masculinity emboldened by state power.

Forman vs. Forman

Renowned Czech director Miloš Forman, who died last year, helped launch a filmmaking revolution in his home country before coming to Hollywood to make some of the most memorable studio films of the century. This documentary portrait illustrates how Forman, a child of Communism, came to view his own films—including One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus, both of which he won Oscars for—as a personal quest for freedom.

Both of Forman’s parents died in Nazi concentration camps; later in life, he discovered his biological father was the Jewish architect Otto Kohn, who had survived the Holocaust, but the two never forged a relationship. The film doesn’t dig into Forman’s Jewish roots, as co-directors Helena Trestíková and Jakub Hejna opt instead to emphasize the director’s connection to his Czech national identity. 

These selections barely scratch the surface of some of the Jewish-interest films available in Chicago. But the others stand a better chance of soon reaching a theater near you, including Motherless Brooklyn, an adaptation of the Jonathan Lethem novel starring and directed by Edward Norton; the documentary The Human Factor, about the failed 2000 Camp David accords between Israel and Palestine; the brutal Czech Holocaust drama The Painted Bird; Honey Boy, a dramatization of Jewish actor Shia LaBeouf’s childhood from Israeli-American director Alma Har’el; and Mr. Jones, a drama about a journalist uncovering the 1930s Ukrainian genocide, directed by Agnieszka Holland, who grew up in a Jewish-Catholic household in Poland.

I’ll be attending the festival this weekend, and will be back in this space in future weeks with other reviews and interviews spotlighting some of these gems.

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Top photo: Lauren Greenfield

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