Jewish Film Festival brings drama, laughs, horror, history to Atlanta

One of world’s largest, film fest survives COVID, returns in February

Sixty movies, four theaters, 16 countries and 38,000 movie lovers.

Those are a few of the numbers associated with the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, which returns next month, running Feb. 8-21 at four different locations.

In addition to imports from countries around the world, the festival brings short subjects, animated films and documentaries, and strives to offer something different.

“A general theme in all of our programming is that these are things you’re not going to see or hear anywhere else,” said artistic director Kenny Blank. The festival programmers must counteract “a powerful magnet pulling people to their sofas,” said Blank. “We have to give them a compelling experience.”

That means presenting movies that are not streaming on Netflix and movies that are not Hollywood products. The festival, one of the biggest Jewish film fests in the world, also throws in a variety of extras — receptions, musical performances — and, at many screenings, a chance to interact directly with the artists.

“These are among the reasons I hope audiences see this as more than another night at the movies,” he said.

Credit: Jeff Hutchens

Credit: Jeff Hutchens

The last fully in-person festival took place in February 2020. As the festival came to a close that year, stories about a new coronavirus began to make the news. Then in March the city shut down.

In 2021 the festival shifted to a virtual experience, and participants watched films online, with a few drive-in offerings. Last year organizers attempted a hybrid festival, but the omicron variant materialized and most movies were streamed.

This year the festival returns to live events with films screened at four theaters. What makes the festival a unique experience, said Blank, is not only the quality of the films, but the presentations at many of the screenings by filmmakers, actors and writers, the question-and-answer sessions and discussions that draw viewers into the issues that surface in the stories being told.

Blank said the festival will continue to offer online access to about half of the films from the series to accommodate audience members who, for any number of reasons, might not be able to attend in person.

But the emphasis, he said, will be watching movies together. “We are eager to get back watching on the big screen and engaging in dialogue best done in the theater.”

Will the audience show up? “Like many others in the live event space, we are trying to figure out how audience behavior has changed in response to the pandemic,” he said. “What it will take to have audiences back in theaters?”

The organizers tried out a modest experiment last November, by scheduling a live, one-off viewing of a holdover from the 2022 fest, the Leonard Bernstein documentary “Bernstein’s Wall” at the Sandy Springs Performing Arts Center.

“We had close to 800 movie-goers in attendance for one night only, which was a good sign that audiences want to be back,” said Blank.

Among the offerings this year:

The festival will feature two movies that deal with the current rise in anti-Semitism. One is an unusual approach to the centuries-old libel that targets Jews, an animated film called “The Conspiracy” that tracks the perpetrators through time, like a crime-show detective. The other, “David Baddiel: Jews Don’t Count,” is a darkly comic take on the concept that Jews are often left out of discussions about racism and representation because of their purported privilege.

Credit: Atlanta Jewish Film Festival

Credit: Atlanta Jewish Film Festival

Viewers will be treated to a rare screening of “Broken Barriers,” a 1919 silent film based on the same Sholem Aleichem stories that generated “Fiddler on the Roof.” The film was thought to be lost, but a print was discovered by a family member of one of the actors and donated to The National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University. It was restored in 2020. On Feb. 19 the movie will be screened at the Plaza Theatre, with live musical accompaniment on the Plaza’s own theater organ.

Credit: Atlanta Jewish Film Festival

Credit: Atlanta Jewish Film Festival

· Among the festival’s lighter fare is the 50th anniversary re-release of the comedy “The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob,” a slapstick tour-de-force with sight gags raised to the level of surrealist art.

Demonstrating that a Jewish film festival can cross into almost every genre, the series will also present “The Attachment,” a cross-cultural LGBT supernatural thriller, complete with dybbuk.

Atlanta will host the Southeastern premiere of “Remember This,” a one-man theatrical presentation, now a movie, on the life of Polish diplomat Jan Karski, a Catholic who survived prison and torture to tell the West about the horrendous slaughter being committed at that moment by the Nazis.

The Festival will close with a screening of “Killing Me Softly with His Songs,” the story of songwriter Charles Fox, composer of familiar television themes from such shows as “Happy Days,” “Laverne and Shirley” and hit songs for Barry Manilow, Jim Croce and Roberta Flack.

The “mission” of the film festival is to address Jewish life, in all its complexities, to promote understanding and to build bridges between cultures.

Credit: Atlanta Jewish Film Festival

Credit: Atlanta Jewish Film Festival

One of the unique qualities of the Atlanta festival is the number of hands involved in staging the event. Hundreds of volunteers contribute their talent, auditioning entries, engaging local speakers, helping with marketing and fund-raising.

About 200 members of the evaluation committee screen the 700 submissions in three waves, beginning in April. They evaluate each film and then get together in groups of 20 or so to debate their merits.

Jason Evans, chair of that committee who covered film at the Wall Street Journal for many years, said the the debates are his favorite part.

Perhaps 10% of the submissions are chosen for the festival. Then a smaller subset of these films are nominated for special jury prizes. Gabriel Wardell, former executive director of the Atlanta Film Festival and a writer at Coca-Cola Creative Studios, oversees the 18-or-so volunteers who pick the winners from finalists in six categories.

“I’ve been involved in festivals for more than 30 years, and I’ve never seen a selection process this involved,” said Wardell.

“It is hard enough to get people to leave their house and come to the movies anyway,” said Wardell, “but I would argue that if people love film, they should attend this festival.”


FESTIVAL PREVIEW

Atlanta Jewish Film Festival. Feb. 8-21. $18. Ticket sales begin Jan. 27. Landmark Midtown Art Cinema, 931 Monroe Drive NE, Atlanta; Georgia Theatre Company Merchants Walk, 1301 Johnson Ferry Road, Marietta; Sandy Springs Performing Arts Center, 1 Galambos Way, Sandy Springs; Historic Plaza Theatre, 1049 Ponce De Leon Ave. N.E., Atlanta. AJFF.org

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