The Chicago Palestine Film Festival "is dedicated to exhibiting film and video work that is open, critical, and reflective of the culture, experience, and vision of the artists," writes Barbara Scharres, director of programming for the Gene Siskel Film Center, in her introduction to the festival's 14th edition. No other national film festival requires such a clarification, but that's the world we're living in. Fortunately, you don't need a state to be a nation; all you need is people. Following are reviews of selected features from this year's festival, which also includes numerous discussions with filmmakers; for more details see siskelfilmcenter.org. —J.R. Jones
Eyes of a Thief This 2014 second feature by Najwa Najjar (Pomegranates and Myrrh) was completed with help from the Sundance Scriptwriting Lab and subsequently chosen to represent Palestine in the Academy Awards. Neither of these facts will surprise you if you've seen the movie, which is rooted in the grim realities of the Israeli occupation but plays like something that's been workshopped with Hollywood industry types. A Palestinian sniper who killed 11 Israeli soldiers in 2002 surfaces again ten years later, learns that his wife has since died, and tracks down his young daughter, whom he befriends even as he conceals his true identity. They bond over billiards, and the newcomer strikes romantic sparks with the girl's beautiful adoptive mother, but can tragedy be far behind? In Arabic with subtitles. —J.R. Jones 98 min. Najjar takes part in an audience discussion via Skype. Sat 4/18, 8 PM.
- It's Better to Jump screens Thu 4/23, 8:15 PM.
It's Better to Jump In Acre, an ancient and historically peaceful city on Israel's northern coast, children plunge from high cliffs into the Mediterranean as a rite of passage, which the makers of this 2013 documentary turn into a blunt symbol of the city's troubles (among them accelerated urban development and growing discord among the Arab populace). A parade of talking heads offers a social history of the region, including a textbook-bland account of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and frivolous debates about hummus. There are some beautiful shots of the city, but this is little more than an expertly produced home movie. Patrick Stewart, Gina Angelone, and Mouna Stewart directed. In English and subtitled Hebrew and Arabic. —Drew Hunt 73 min. Thu 4/23, 8:15 PM.
- May in the Summer screens Sun 4/19, 5:15 PM, and Thu 4/30, 7:45 PM.
May in the Summer Cherien Dabis (Amreeka) wrote, directed, and stars in this middling 2013 drama, playing a successful Palestinian writer in New York who harbors doubts about her impending marriage. She travels to Jordan to visit her mother, a Palestinian Christian, and is joined by her two younger sisters, who've been living in America as well. After a few weeks' worth of blandly written, indifferently staged girl talk, all four characters solve their personal problems and renew their familial bonds. Dabis's character comes off as a self-serving fantasy: her neuroses are made to seem charming while the sisters are plainly immature fuck-ups, and everywhere she goes people tell her what a great writer she is. Rounding out the cast are Alia Shawkat, Hiam Abbas, and Bill Pullman as the sisters' estranged father, a callow American ambassador. In English and subtitled Arabic. —Ben Sachs R, 99 min. Sun 4/19, 5:15 PM, and Thu 4/30, 7:45 PM.
- Villa Touma screens Fri 4/24, 8:15 PM, and Sat 4/25, 8:30 PM.
Villa Touma An Arab teenager who's grown up in an orphanage comes to live with her three unmarried aunts in Ramallah, and as they groom her for marriage their own romantic frustrations combine with their gender-rigid Christianity to create a toxic brew. Suha Arraf, best known as screenwriter of The Lemon Tree (2008) and The Syrian Bride (2004), graduates to writer-director with this excellent Israeli drama (2014). The film's assured narrative development is buttressed by a control of tone that's impressive for a neophyte: this is one of those movies whose measured speech and decorous staging can't conceal the white-hot fury that drives it. An Israeli citizen, Arraf caused an uproar when she entered Villa Touma in the Venice film festival as a Palestinian film and the Israeli government demanded that she return the grant that funded it. "Nobody can tell me who I am," Arraf replied to one reporter, expressing a sentiment consistent with the movie itself. In Arabic with subtitles. —J.R. Jones 85 min. Fri 4/24, 8:15 PM, and Sat 4/25, 8:30 PM.
- The Wanted 18 screens Tue 4/28, 7:45 PM.
The Wanted 18 The title of this 2014 documentary refers to a herd of dairy cows purchased from an Israeli farm by a small Palestinian village in the days leading up to the first intifada. When Israeli forces began seizing Palestinians' property as a form of taxation, the villagers hid the cows, leading the Israelis, who labeled the cows a threat to national security, to launch a ridiculously elaborate search. Directors Paul Cowan and Amer Shomali have good fun with the story, interspersing spirited firsthand accounts with clay-animation sequences that present the events from the cows' point of view. This has its mournful passages, but for the most part the tone is sweetly ironic. In English and subtitled Arabic and Hebrew. —Ben Sachs 75 min. Tue 4/28, 7:45 PM. v