Atlanta Jewish Film Festival pivots to virtual screenings, drive-in movies

"Howie Mandel: Enough About Me," a tribute to the comedian's life and career, is the closing night film of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival.
Courtesy of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival
"Howie Mandel: Enough About Me," a tribute to the comedian's life and career, is the closing night film of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival. Courtesy of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival

Among the many annual events canceled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival stands apart as one in which 2020 was business as usual. Held in February, the festival wrapped up two weeks before everything shut down in mid-March.

This year, though, the festival is mostly virtual. The exception is three drive-in screenings at The Home Depot Backyard at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Another sign of the times: Programming is condensed to 38 feature films compared to 48 last year. But Kenny Blank, the festival’s executive director, promises that in every other way the event retains all the hallmarks that have made it the largest Jewish film festival in the country ― a diverse lineup of films from around the globe, Q&As with filmmakers and star power.

“While it may look and feel different, that powerful experience of movie watching and the conversations that happen around the films, we’re able to retain that important piece,” said Blank.

In the process of pivoting from an in-person event to a virtual one, festival organizers discovered some positive outcomes that could impact future festivals.

"The Crossing" is a family-friendly feature about two Norwegian kids helping two Jewish child refugees escape the Nazis.
Courtesy of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival
"The Crossing" is a family-friendly feature about two Norwegian kids helping two Jewish child refugees escape the Nazis. Courtesy of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival

“With challenge comes opportunity to re-examine how you present your art and how to connect with audiences,” said Blank. “We tried to look for those silver linings. Not just the film festival, but arts groups, in general, are going to find that there are aspects of what they’re doing differently now that will become a permanent part of their works going forward, even after the pandemic is behind us.”

For the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, that was addressing the juggernaut of video streaming.

“The movie-going industry was already undergoing a bit of a revolution before the pandemic, in that audiences were moving increasingly to streaming and virtual platforms to consume movies,” he said. “The pandemic forced us to address that issue head-on in a way that didn’t have the urgency before. I think the move to streaming was something we were going to have to reckon with in some way anyway.”

One of the bonuses of a virtual festival is the ability to bring in more filmmakers and personalities from around the world to introduce movies and engage in Q&As. Participants this year include comedian and TV host Howie Mandel, actors Ron Rifkin, Tovah Feldshuh and Robby Benson, and TCM host and film critic Ben Mankiewicz.

"Kiss Me Kosher," a German-Israeli romantic comedy, is the opening night film of the  Atlanta Jewish Film Festival.
Courtesy of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival
"Kiss Me Kosher," a German-Israeli romantic comedy, is the opening night film of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival. Courtesy of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival

“The participation that we’re getting this year from film artists is record-setting,” said Blank. “We’ll have more Q&As than ever before. We will have personal introductions to every screening from the filmmakers themselves ― this is a first for the festival. And this year we’re launching Virtual Lobby, an informal way for audience members to engage in conversation about the films.”

When it came to programming the drive-in movies, the festival partnered with TCM to bring two classic ’80s comedies to the big screen at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“The drive-in is a theatrical space where comedies play really well, and for that classic experience you get from a drive-in, it just makes sense to program films like ‘Spaceballs’ and ‘Little Shop of Horrors,’” said board member Genevieve McGillicuddy, vice president of enterprises and strategic partnerships for TCM.

For $40 a vehicle, the whole family can attend. And although COVID-19 restrictions require that everyone stay in their cars during the screening, there will be food trucks and restrooms available on site.

Because the pandemic halted film production last year, festival organizers worried there would be fewer new films to select from when it came to programming the 2021 event. But Blank said the films this year “represent the same mix of genres, diversity of subjects and great international representation” festivalgoers have come to expect. He added, “There are also a remarkable number of world premieres, North American premieres and U.S. premieres in a year that has been most unusual.”

Shira Haas (left) and Alena Yiv in "Asia."
Courtesy of Atlanta Jewish Film Festival
Shira Haas (left) and Alena Yiv in "Asia." Courtesy of Atlanta Jewish Film Festival

Festival highlights

Dates and times indicate when films become available for virtual viewing. Unless otherwise noted, ticket holders have a 72-hour window to view a film.

‘Asia.’ A Russian single mom and overworked nurse who’s emigrated to Jerusalem lets her rebellious teenage daughter run wild until her health takes a serious turn. Astonishing for its lack of sentimentality, the meditative drama is Israel’s Oscar submission for best international film. Noon, Feb. 23

‘Atlanta: The City Too Busy to Wait.’ Three directors ― Adam Hirsch, Jacob Ross and Gabby Spatt ― examine how the Jewish community in Atlanta has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. They tell multiple stories of how leaders, institutions and citizens have adapted and reacted to everything from quarantine to civil unrest. Noon, Feb. 28

‘The Crossing.’ Ten-year-old Gerda and her little brother are abandoned when their parents are arrested for being part of the Norwegian resistance movement during World War II. When they discover two Jewish children refugees hiding in a cupboard, Gerda escorts them across the snowy wilds of Norway to safety in Sweden in this family-friendly drama. Noon, Feb. 21.

‘Howie Mandel: But Enough About Me.’ This tribute to the comedian’s life and career is the festival’s closing night film. Said Blank, “While it is laugh-out-loud funny, it also reveals a very intimate personal side of Howie Mandel, particularly around his mental health struggles with OCD, which in the year of the pandemic has been an acute issue for him.” 7 p.m. Feb. 28. No 72-hour viewing window.

‘Kiss Me Kosher.’ The opening night movie is the North American premiere of this German-Israeli romantic comedy about two generations of Israeli women. One falls for a German woman, and the other falls for a Palestinian man. “The film is consistent with our mission of building bridges between diverse ethnic, religious and cultural groups,” said Blank. 7 p.m., Feb. 17. No 72-hour viewing window.

‘Shiva Baby.’ Perennial college student Danielle (Rachel Sennott) is guilted by her parents (Polly Draper and Fred Melamed) into attending a distant relative’s shiva. There she encounters her Sugar Daddy (Danny Deferrari), her ex-girlfriend (Molly Gordon), a screaming baby and a myriad of colorful relatives in this quirky comedy built around awkward moments. Noon, Feb. 19. Also 7:30 p.m. Feb. 18 at The Home Depot Backyard at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Fred Melamed (left), Rachel Sennott and Polly Draper in "Shiva Baby."
Courtesy of Atlanta Jewish Film Festival
Fred Melamed (left), Rachel Sennott and Polly Draper in "Shiva Baby." Courtesy of Atlanta Jewish Film Festival

FESTIVAL PREVIEW

Atlanta Jewish Film Festival. Feb. 17-28. $16 general admission, per household; $36 opening night and closing night, per household; $40 drive-in, per vehicle. The Home Depot Backyard at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, 1 Backyard Way, Atlanta. 678-701-6104, ajff.org.

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