The 2019 Atlanta Jewish Film Festival begins February 6 and runs through February 26 at venues in Atlanta, Alpharetta, Sandy Springs and Marietta. The festival has been a city arts staple for nearly two decades, but there’s always something fresh and progressive for attendees every year, says executive director, Kenny Blank.
“We’ve done this for 19 years,” he says, “but there’s always a curve ball or some exciting new development.”
This year’s big development is the addition of a major new screening venue, the Sandy Springs Performing Arts Center at City Springs.
“With a film festival like this, we’re always trying to keep up with audience demand,” Blank says. “So, after years of trying to cobble together a collection of venues that would meet our capacity needs, we finally have a place that we can call an anchor location for the festival, a campus with all the amenities you could want for a film festival, in terms of ample parking and dining options onsite and a beautifully appointed state-of-the-art theater.”
Another significant attribute of the space: it seats more than 1,000 people.
Says Blank, “We’ve been accustomed to running in 250- or 300-seat theaters and having a lot of sell outs, which is exciting, but we do want to have greater access to the festival for the whole community.”
Longtime AJFF veterans learned early that once the festival’s tickets go on sale, they get snatched up pretty fast. Newer audiences, particularly those outside the Jewish community that the AJFF is continuing to cultivate, have also discovered that the festival is a great place to see international film, “but,” Blank says, “by the time they’re paying attention and trying to buy tickets like a typical person would, like the day of or the night before, a lot of the tickets are already sold out.”
But thanks in part to the much larger Sandy Springs venue, says Blank, “I think that will be a thing of the past. Now people will be able to see what they want to see when and where they want to see it.”
Other returning venues include the Cobb Energy Centre, Regal Atlantic Station, Regal Perimeter Pointe, UA Tara Cinemas and the Woodruff Arts Center.
Eight hundred films were considered by the screening committee for this year’s festival, the largest number ever curated. And many of those films seem to share a thematic link.
“The films sort of take on the flavor of the times,” Blank says. “And the way you view those films is totally reshaped by current events.”
At least a handful of this year’s features and documentaries focus on strong female characters struggling against patriarchy, and seem perfectly in sync with our #MeToo times. Blank points to The Tale, the HBO drama about a woman reinvestigating her memories of sexual abuse as a child, and Working Woman, “a kind of Israeli take on the #MeToo movement.”
Among films I’ve seen, I’d also point to the features Leona, The Other Story, The Golem and the documentary 93Queen.
“I think journalism and mass media is also definitely a theme for the festival that couldn’t be more timely, with First Amendment rights and freedom of the press under constant assault in this particular administration,” Blank says. “The Pulitzer documentary reminds us why freedom of the press is so important. There’s a great documentary on Benjamin Netanyahu, King Bibi, which is not a traditional biography of him but is told through news clips, showing how he was a master manipulator of mass media and perfected his communications to hone his image.”
As for centerpiece films, Blank cites two period epics, A Fortunate Man from director Bille August (Pelle the Conqueror) and Promise at Dawn, a biography of the Polish-French novelist Romain Gary. The festival also features some of the darlings of the international film circuit, films that, without the AJFF as a vehicle, would not have received Atlanta screenings. And, as always, the festival will be studded with special appearances by filmmakers, actors and other talent throughout.
If you’re ready to explore what’s on offer, tickets are now on sale at www.ajff.org.
Here are some quick takes on the baker’s dozen of films I previewed this year.
93Queen. Set in Borough Park, Brooklyn, the nation’s largest ultra-orthodox Jewish community, where physical interaction among the sexes is strictly limited, a group of wives and mothers decides to create its own EMT service for fellow women. And they meet extreme resistance from the men around them.
“The worst thing to tell me is that I cannot do something because I’m a woman, and a religious one,” says the group’s spitfire leader and attorney, Faigy Freier.
The uphill battle these tough women face, while simply trying to do the right thing, is startling in its misogyny. But sit tight with your frustration; the story ends well.
Chewdaism: A Taste of Jewish Montreal. Jamie Elman and Eli Batalion, makers of Yidlife Crisis, keep their focus on their beloved Montreal — both its noshes and its culture. In between stomach-stretching visits to the city’s delis, our hosts deliver a surprising amount of local history, exploring the stories of the local Sephardic and Ashkenazi communities. Like a good shmear, the short documentary is satisfying — but won’t necessarily stick with you after a couple of hours.
The Golem. In 17th-century Lithuania, members of a shtetl keep to themselves and steer clear of the Christian villagers nearby. But when that neighboring settlement has a breakout of bubonic plague, the Gentiles accuse the Jews of witchcraft and launch attacks. Given this conflict, Hanna (Hani Furstenberg), who has been studying the kabbalah in secret, uses her knowledge to create a golem to protect her clan. The movie’s interesting twist: instead of the usual, hulking clay monster of folklore, this golem takes the shape of the young son Hanna and her husband lost seven years ago. This brings an emotional heft to the moody tale, which also indulges in a lot of very bloody, CG-generated carnage. The Golem is well-made, but director brothers Doran and Yoav Paz seem unaware — or indifferent — to the implication of their story. It suggests that a woman who gains too much knowledge will become a bloody puppeteer of deadly mayhem.
Holy Lands. The idea of James Caan playing the Jewish owner of a pig farm in Israel may be novel enough to get your attention. The novel part is the problem. Amanda Sthers adapts and directs Holy Lands for the screen from her own book, which maybe explains the patches of overwritten voiceovers, as characters recite letters they send to each other. Estranged from his gay playwright son David (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, pretty and blank as usual) and student daughter Annabelle (Efrat Dor), Caan’s Harry also hasn’t kept in touch with his ex-wife (Rosanna Arquette), who lives in Manhattan and faces a big health crisis. Though the healing of family dynamics promises to be the core of the movie, more time is spent on the improbable relationship between Harry and an Isareli rabbi (Tom Hollander, good as always), who go from enemies to best pals without much narrative believability. The movie moves its characters through big changes without ever completely dramatizing their transitions, and tonally, it’s all over the place. Sthers maybe should have let a stronger director and dramatist transfer her book to the screen.
Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of the People. One of America’s great rags-to-riches story, the PBS-backed documentary tells of the penniless Hungarian Jew who made his way to the United States and completely revolutionized the newspaper business — and became fabulously wealthy in the process, though he remained a critic of capitalism. The film’s most searing, upsetting sequence comes near the end of Pulitzer’s life, when he enters into rivalry with fellow news mogul William Randolph Hearst and succumbs to the temptation to make up stories about the Spanish-American War. So yes, to sell more papers he engaged in yellow journalism, an early example of legitimate “fake news.” He regretted it to his dying day, and his story is a timely reminder of the paradoxical power and fragility of the news media.
Leona. In Mexico City, a young mural painter named Ariela (co-writer Naian González Norvind, charming) finds herself falling for a young man named Ivan (Christian Vazquez, also charming). The problem? She’s Jewish in a community that has a strict, self-protective code of conduct, based on their migration there from Syria only a century earlier. While Ariela is able to enjoy a sweet romance with Ivan for a while, the walls — pushed largely by her own mother and grandmother — start to close in. Like the documentary 93Queen, the feature creates a smothering sense of the ways traditional communities can close ranks against some of their own. But it’s also an engaging, sensitive portrait of a young, talented woman struggling to find some compromise between the needs of her heart and the demands of her family.
Love, Gilda. A bittersweet reminder that not all fairy tales end happily. If Chevy Chase and John Belushi were viewed as the first breakout stars of Saturday Night Live, Gilda Radner was right behind them — and she was loved in ways those men never could be. Director Lisa D’Apolito, who shot fundraising footage for Gilda’s Club, a community organization supporting people with cancer, sensitively directs the documentary. It celebrates the innocent, zany energy of Radner’s work on SNL, then turns an unblinking eye on her happy marriage to Gene Wilder, which was cut short by disease. A useful introduction for anyone too young to remember her, or to have experienced the grace under pressure she exhibited at the end of her life.
The Other Story. Another sub-theme in this year’s AJFF is estranged fathers and their children. Here, psychologist Yonatan (Yuval Segal) is called home to Jerusalem by his father Shlomo (Sasson Gabai, of The Band’s Visit), also a shrink. Though raised in liberal fashion by Yonatan and his ex, their daughter Anat is hellbent on marrying Shachar, a former bad-boy musician who has made a sharp U-turn into orthodoxy. Anat’s parents and granddad are appalled and determined to break up the engagement. Meanwhile, the two therapists are dealing with a young mother, Sari, who is desperate to leave her husband and take custody of their young son. In contrast to Anat’s trajectory, Sari was raised in a very conservative household and saw her own marriage as a springboard into a more secular world. The plot and character’s of The Other Story are complex, but what gives Avi Nesher’s drama such power is that very texture — and also the tremendous humanity he brings to fleshing out characters, all of them flawed but all of them trying to do the right thing. Nesher also speckles his movie with moments of fantasy that keep you off-guard in a very enjoyable way.
Shoelaces. Yes, another estranged father-son duo is the core of this comedy-drama. Doval’e Glickman plays Reuven, an aging garage mechanic forced to take in the son he abandoned 30 years ago, Gadi (Nevo Kimchi), an amiable child/man with special needs. As they reacquaint themselves, Shoelaces takes us places we’ve been to before in other movies, though it has an ending that’s unexpected. Your response to the film’s well-intended mix of comedy, drama and tearjerk will depend on your comfort with watching a fully able actor play (and overplay) a childlike man with learning challenges. I squirmed, a lot.
The Tale. A stunning, unnerving drama from HBO, written and directed by Jennifer Fox and based on her own story. Laura Dern plays Jennifer, a documentary filmmaker whose mother (Ellen Burstyn) is disturbed to read a story her daughter wrote at age 13, casually detailing the sexual relationship she had one summer with a 40-year-old man Bill (Jason Ritter), abetted by his partner and horseback riding teacher “Mrs. G” (Elizabeth Debicki). Only by revisiting her memories — which the movie does in a way that continues to reveal more and more disturbing surprises — does the adult Jennifer come to understand that Bill was not her first real love. He was a predatory pedophile who groomed then raped her, all while convincing the girl the situation was in her own control. The very strong cast also includes John Heard and Frances Conroy as the older Bill and older “Mrs. G.”
To Dust. Like Tikkun a few years ago, this is an AJFF movie that will have people talking — and possibly, walking out on it. Shmuel (Géza Röhrig, star of Son of Saul) is a Hasidic cantor in upstate New York who’s obsessed with his wife’s recent death. In particular, he’s obsessed with the state of her postmortem process, and he seeks out a biology professor, Albert (Matthew Broderick) to tutor him in the science of decay (that involves the use of dead pigs). Like Holy Lands and Shoelaces, Shawn Snyder’s film is an oddball kind of buddy movie, smeared with black comedy and sacrilege as it investigates decomposition and grace in equal, offbeat measure. I still don’t know what I think about it. But I still think about it.
Who Will Write Our History. After they were sealed inside the Warsaw Ghetto, a secret group of journalists, scholars and community leaders joined up under the name Oyneg Shabes. Their mission was to write in as much detail as possible about their daily lives and then, later, when the extreme measures of the Nazis started to become clearer, they wrote in preparation for their deaths. These writings, sealed and hidden at the last possible moment, would become testament to the war’s atrocities. The documentary is a beautiful mix of talking heads, dramatic recreations and recitations of some of the deeply beautiful, mournful writings of the ghetto residents. Very powerful.
Working Woman. What’s agonizing, as we watch this accomplished Israeli drama, is seeing its lead character, Orna (Liron Ben-Shlush) try to keep things professional and do the best job she can while getting thwarted repeatedly by toxic masculinity at home and in the workplace. When her husband’s restaurant is struggling, Orna lands a job at a Jerusalem real estate firm, where her business acumen is appreciated by her boss, Benny (Menashe Noy). Unfortunately, he also appreciates other things about her, and Working Woman becomes a kind of white-collar, #MeToo horror film.
Photos courtesy of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival.