Not to be confused with the Chicago Israeli Film Festival, the Chicago Jewish Film Festival runs Saturday through Monday at Century 12/CineArts 6 in Evanston—with a handful of shows at Victory Gardens Theater and the Illinois Holocaust Museum—then moves to Landmark’s Century Centre in Chicago for three more days of programming Friday, June 26, through Sunday, June 28. According to artistic director David Chack, the festival “aims to serve the broadest swath of Chicago” and to “affirm Jewish culture, continuity and identity.” That covers a lot of ground, and so does the schedule, which includes Friends From France (Sat 6/20, 7 PM, Century; Sun 6/28, 8 PM, Landmark), a French drama about Jewish “refuseniks” in the Soviet Union; The Dove Flyer (Sun 6/21, 3 PM, Century; Sat 6/27, 6 PM, Landmark), set amid the Jewish community in Baghdad during the 1950s; Mr. Kaplan (Thu 6/25, 1:30 PM, IHM; Sat 6/27, 3:15 PM, Landmark), a Uruguayan comedy about a retiree who decides that a local restaurant owner is really a former Nazi; and Night Will Fall (Thu 6/25, 7:30 PM, IHM), a U.S. documentary about the team of British filmmakers who recorded the liberations of Dachau, Auschwitz, and Bergen-Belsen.
I got a chance to preview two documentaries screening this year, both of which highlight Jewish-American cultural institutions. Directed by Julie Cohen, The Sturgeon Queens looks at Russ and Daughters, an “appetizing store” on the Lower East Side of Manhattan that recently celebrated its hundredth anniversary. Devoted patrons Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Morley Safer, and Calvin Trillin sing the store’s praises—captions identify not only them but their favorite sandwiches—and the two surviving daughters, Anne and Hattie, dish on the old days. “Papa was a tyrant,” remembers Hattie. “He used to throw people out if they said anything he didn’t like.” Tyrant or not, Russ was prescient enough to welcome his three daughters into the business as partners and even add them to the signage. (“Even before I heard the word feminist, it made me happy,” recalls Ginsberg.) Now two of Russ’s great-grandchildren have taken over the business, and you can gauge how completely Jewish culture has been assimilated into the American mainstream from the fact that they facetiously named one of their sandwiches “the Super Heeb.” (It was a giant hit.) The Sturgeon Queens is pleasant, nostalgic, and slight; with its final scene of the aging sisters warbling “Sunrise, Sunset,” it belongs on a flat-screen TV at the store itself, not in a film festival.
More worthwhile is The Outrageous Sophie Tucker, William Gazecki’s profile of the irrepressible entertainer who conquered Broadway, radio, movies, and finally television before her death in 1966. Known as “the last of the red-hot mamas,” Tucker predated Bing Crosby as the first important white jazz vocalist, and her boldly sexual numbers—unheard of for a female entertainer, not to mention a fat one—set the stage for everyone from Mae West to Bette Midler to Madonna. Tucker’s personal life was a mess: her three husbands were all losers, and her only child, Bert, proved to be a millstone around her neck till the say she died. But the public loved her, and she was still a big enough star in the 60s that Paul McCartney name-checked her as the Beatles’ “favorite American group.” Like so many great Jewish entertainers of the radio era—Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Jack Benny, Fanny Brice—Tucker has been almost completely forgotten, which makes this competent overview of her career a welcome development.
Also screening at the fest, and reviewed earlier in the Reader: Nora’s Will (Sat 6/40, 4 PM, Century; Sun 6/28, 3 PM, Landmark), Mariana Chenillo’s Mexican drama about an atheist who discovers that his ex-wife has killed herself and left behind instructions for him to host a Passover feast; Little White Lie (Sat 6/20, 9 PM, Century; Sun 6/28, 1 PM, Landmark) Lacey Schwartz’s essay film about her discovery that her mother conceived her while having an extramarital affair with a black man; and Compass Cabaret 55 (Sun 6/21, 8 PM, Century; Tue 6/23, 7 PM, Victory Gardens), Mark Siska’s documentary about the Chicago theater company that helped pave the way for Second City.