Atlanta Jewish Film Festival includes WWII tale of Japanese hero

Chiune Sugihara was a diplomat who is sometimes called the “Schindler of Japan.”

Like Oskar Schindler in Germany, Sugihara saved the lives of many Jews during World War II. Stationed in Lithuania in 1940, he issued visas to perhaps 6,000 refugees fleeing the Nazis — against the orders of his foreign ministry — allowing them to escape to Japan and then to other countries.

Though he was a national hero in Lithuania, his story was rarely heard in Japan or elsewhere, until the premiere of “Persona Non Grata,” which, when it bowed Dec. 5 in Japan, earned second place among movies opening that day.

“Persona Non Grata” will enjoy its U.S. premiere Jan. 31, when it is screened at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, which begins Jan. 26. You can see a trailer for the film on the festival’s website (ajff.org).

The festival will offer 77 movies to an estimated 40,000 guests at theaters scattered around the metro area. The movies come from countries including the U.S., Israel, Germany and Poland and are in every genre, from horror to documentary, united by a shared interest in some aspect of Jewish life.

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It’s Atlanta’s biggest film festival, but it offers more than movies. The closing night film, “In Search of Israeli Cuisine,” about Israeli-American chef Michael Solomonov, will be accompanied by a post-film tasting of Israeli dishes. The festival also will present more than a dozen filmmakers, actors, writers and others to speak before and after screenings.

Among those visiting Atlanta will be filmmaker Cellin Gluck, who directed “Persona Non Grata,” and has a background as diverse as the festival itself. His Jewish-American father served in the Navy during World War II, while his Japanese-American mother was held in an internment camp in Arkansas.

Meeting in New York, they married and moved to Japan, where Gluck grew up speaking Japanese at school and English at home. He was movie crazy even then, watching a half dozen cheap films every weekend. He says he learned to read Japanese looking at the subtitles on the imports.

Though Japan was the only home he’d ever known, he was still called “gaijin,” or foreigner. “I didn’t know I was considered Asian until I came to America,” he said in a recent telephone conversation from his Los Angeles home.

It created some hard feelings. “There was a sentiment that was shared by a lot of kids like me: When we left home at 18, we all knew we were going to college in the U.S. and we weren’t going back.”

Of course, Gluck did go back, and kicked off his movie career working for Japanese director Shūji Terayama; now he spends half each year there. He has worked as an assistant director on “Transformers,” “Remember the Titans” (which was shot in Atlanta), the Jodie Foster film “Contact” and was production manager on “Memoirs of a Geisha” and “Godzilla” (from 2014).

Gluck, who, like Sugihara, speaks five languages, filmed the $6 million “Persona Non Grata” in Poland, with an international cast and Polish buildings and streets doubling for scenes in Berlin, Japan, Russia and Lithuania.

Though 60 percent of the movie is in English, Gluck knows that American audiences are skittish about subtitles, and that foreign movies are harder to market here, outside of those that get a boost at the Golden Globes or the Oscars. He still has no distributor.

That’s why festivals like the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival are so important for “little” movies and foreign films. “It’s thanks to these festivals that a lot of smaller films get noticed,” he said. “I’m very honored that the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival decided to take up my film.”

The essential message of the movie is how an ordinary man faced with extraordinary circumstances can rise to the occasion.

A scene shot in an ornate sanctuary in Poland hints at the fact that Sugihara converted to the Eastern Orthodox Church. He was known for making the statement, “If I hadn’t defied the government, I would have been defying God.”

Yet Gluck doesn’t think it was Sugihara’s religion but simply his humanity that opened his heart to the plight of the Lithuanian Jews. He paid for his altruism. When he returned to Japan, he was relieved of his duties and took up menial work, at one point selling light bulbs door to door.

Gluck’s own religion? “It was a mish-mash. We had a Hanukkah tree growing up. My mother was raised supposedly Buddhist. … My father was brought up Jewish more or less. I say I’m Jewish by osmosis. … I like the Jewish holidays: The food is good, and any time anyone finds you have a morsel of (Judaism) in your background, you’re welcome in their home.”

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