The Atlanta Jewish Film Festival knows how to draw a crowd. As a film critic, I’ve introduced a few of its screenings over the years and have always been struck by the devotion of its audience. Whether on a sunny afternoon or an icy night early in the week, I’ve seen the festival pack one of the big houses at the United Artists Tara Cinema or Lefont Sandy Springs — even while showing obscure, subtitled films.
This story originally appeared in the January 2016 issue of Living Intown magazine.
A Beloved Atlanta Event
Although it now feels like a fixture on Atlanta’s cultural calendar, the festival has expanded quickly in a relatively short time. Founded by the Atlanta chapter of the American Jewish Committee, the festival saw a total of 1,900 spectators when it began in 2000.
Executive director Kenny Blank volunteered for the festival even before it screened its first film. “I was on the selection committee of the first year and fell in love with the festival as a diamond in the rough,” Blank recalls.
From early on, Blank was interested in diversifying the festival’s programming and building on the audience’s perception of it. “The Jewish or Israeli aspect does not have to be front and center in the films,” he says. “People might assume it’s all Holocaust films and films about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it’s all genres — we have horror films, musicals, comedies. We’re presenting as an international festival.”
Biggest Jewish Festival in the World
Its 16th annual event, held Jan. 26 through Feb. 17 at venues across the city, finds the AJFF coming off several milestones. For years it had been the second biggest Jewish film festival in the world, behind the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. “With the 2015 festival, with 38,600 attendees, we finally overtook San Francisco,” Blank says. “There was no conscious effort to compete with another festival, but it’s nice to be able to claim that bragging right.”
In 2016, the AJFF arguably comes of age, standing on its own after officially separating from its founder. While the American Jewish Committee remains a partner, the AJFF is now an independent, nonprofit organization. “We are no longer just about the 23-day festival,” says Blank, who has ambitions to launch new programs year round. “We’re an organization, not an event.”
In the past year, the festival has increased its staff, put together its first strategic plan, moved into new offices at the Macquarium Building in South Buckhead, and started asking different questions. “Part of that is, what role do we play in the larger community?” Blank says. “How can we play a role in cultivating film production in Georgia? We bring filmmakers in and let them know that Atlanta is becoming the Hollywood of the South. We want to support that ecosystem and support the industry that we’re benefiting from.”
He cites such notable guests as actors Judd Hirsch, Josh Lucas and Theodore Bikel, as well as the filmmakers Paul Mazursky and Jennifer Westfeldt.
Post-screening talkbacks, panels and lectures foster a more active viewing experience for the audiences. “In the early years, the credits would start rolling and people would start heading to the exits,” Blank says. “The concept of talking to the artists afterward was totally alien.”
He attributes the festival’s popularity partly to reaching out to mainstream moviegoers, as opposed to the usual art-house crowd, and he finds that the AJFF audiences have become more adventurous and willing to try fare that goes beyond Hollywood product. “Now, I’ll get responses like ‘I’m still glad I had the chance to see the film, and it stayed with me.’ Or ‘Even if I didn’t personally love the film, I came away with something.’”
This Year’s Festival
Blank hopes that the AJFF’s collaboration with the Savannah College of Art and Design will bring new energy to the event. “We’re adding some really creative bells and whistles,” he says. “A SCAD class will produce a visual motif for this year’s festival, which will be part of not just the animated introduction to the screenings, but the cover of the program guide, our poster and other collateral material.”
This year’s festival will open with “Remember” at the Cobb Energy Centre on Jan. 16 and closes with “In Search of Israeli Cuisine,” and the award ceremony, at Atlanta Symphony Hall on Feb. 17.
While the festival shows plenty of passion for the films it selects, it also embraces a certain level of ballyhoo in the screening process. Night screenings frequently feature “sky-tracker”-type searchlights in front, as if heralding an all-star movie premiere. “It creates a sense of occasion,” Blank says. “There’s a million and one details that create the film festival experience. Part of the love of movies is rooted in something that’s very old school. We do everything we can in terms of stagecraft so you can feel a little bit of the romance.”
Atlanta Jewish Film Festival. Jan. 26- Feb. 17. Lefont Sandy Springs, Atlantic Station Stadium 16 and other venues. 866-214-2072. www.ajff.org
Films to See
Executive director Kenny Blank says he finds it difficult to single out highlights of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival’s program. “It’s like picking your favorite kids,” he says. Nevertheless, in reviewing the selections of the 2016 lineup (at press time), he suggested the following five.
“Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong.” An American expatriate (Bryan Greenberg) and a Chinese-American toy designer (Jamie Chung) spend a night-long conversation against the glamorous backdrop of Hong Kong in stylish character study.
“Jeruzalem.” Award-winning filmmakers Doran and Yoav Paz add a new entry to Israel’s genre filmmaking with an apocalyptic, found-footage zombie thriller set in “the Holy City” of Jerusalem.
“Marathon Man.” A 40th-anniversary screening of the iconic thriller starring Roy Scheider as an agent tracking down a former Nazi (Laurence Olivier), with Dustin Hoffman as the innocent brother who gets caught up in international intrigue. Warning: If you’re scared of the dentist, you might want to sit this one out.
“Remember.” Oscar winners Christopher Plummer and Martin Landau play elderly concentration camp survivors who decide to leave their assisted-living facility on an errand of revenge. Oscar-nominated Canadian director Atom Egoyan helms this twisty thriller that’s been compared to “Memento.”
“The Three Hikers.” This American documentary explores the international incident set off in 2009 when three American mountaineers were taken captive by Iran. Actress-turned-documentarian Natalie Navital emphasizes the personal over the geopolitical.
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