Looking on the bright side, the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival rolled out as usual last year, ending February 27 — exactly two weeks before COVID-19 shut down Broadway and the nation entered an ongoing quarantine.
“We feel very fortunate that we were able to get the last festival in under the wire, then take a breath, sit back, look at the landscape and see how film festivals were going to transform,” executive director Kenny Blank says.
In the early months of the pandemic, some festivals around the globe canceled entirely (SXSW, Cannes), while those scheduled later in the year, like Out on Film and the Atlanta Film Festival, pivoted to a mix of online and drive-in screening options.
“If we had a crystal ball that worked, the whole planning process might have looked very different,” Blank says of AJFF’s response. “We were all holding out hope that this crisis would come to a close sooner, but over the summer it became apparent that we couldn’t count on that. But our whole professional team, our board and the community really rallied.” So, like many other festivals – whose organizers Blank and his team consulted in figuring out the best strategy — AJFF 2021 is a hybrid event.
Beginning Wednesday and running through February 28, the 21-year-old AJFF showcases more than 30 narrative and documentary features available for home viewing. There also will be three drive-in screenings at the Home Depot Backyard green space at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (The venue accommodates 220 vehicles, with a single ticket price for each car, no matter how many occupants.) By comparison, in-person AJFF events in recent years screened upward of 70 films.
You might imagine the shift to online viewing would make it easier to get tickets in a festival that often sells out, but be forewarned: There is a limited number of views available to purchase for each film. “Film distributors had to rethink the way they would work with film festivals to get product out there,” Blank says.
In other words, to allow their films to be seen on streaming platforms, they insisted on limiting the number and the geographical range allowed. For AJFF films, for instance, only viewers in Georgia can access the programming. “There has to be some cap on the number of views for film,” Blank says. “Otherwise, one single festival could cannibalize the entire market.” (Tickets HERE.)
Streaming films will have a three-day window for viewing according to the AJFF schedule. Once started, each film is available to watch as often as desired for 48 hours.
One of the AJFF’s core strengths has been its role as a community organizer — not just for Jewish folks, but for Georgia film lovers of every kind. The festival has been driven by the shared experience of filmgoing and lively lobby conversations after screenings. That will all be different this year, but Blank doesn’t think the festival will suffer in the long run.
And on the plus side, the move to largely digital presentation has allowed for deeper and longer pre-recorded Zoom Q&As with filmmakers from around the world, who normally wouldn’t have the ability or means to travel to the festival in person.
As in previous years, the festival includes films from a broad range of countries and cultures. The programming includes comedies, musicals, documentaries, LGBTQ comedy-dramas, biographies and even a horror film. The drive-in selections are the contemporary comedy Shiva Baby, presented as Young Professionals Night, and the retro films Little Shop of Horrors and Spaceballs.
While this year’s roster is surprisingly strong, given the turmoil of the past 12 months, there’s no telling what the cinematic landscape will look like as we move forward. “We’ll see what the coming year brings, with film production having largely been shut down,” Blank says. “That will be the next challenge.”
Here are some thoughts on 10 films I prescreened, about one-third of what’s being offered.
200 METERS (96 minutes; in Arabic, English and Hebrew with subtitles). Mustafa (Ali Suliman) is a Palestinian laborer who spends hours every day going through lines and checkpoints to work in Israel, where his wife and children live in a separate home, visible from his own (it’s complicated). The difficulty of traveling, literally, to get from point A to point B, becomes especially urgent when Mustafa learns his son has been rushed to the hospital – on the other side of that 200-meter-wide border. The centerpiece of the film is the worried dad’s long, perilous ride in a van full of strangers, all trying to smuggle themselves past checkpoints. In addition to some plot twists, there are a couple of surprising identity revelations en route. Like many AJFF films over the years, this is a fascinating and measured look at the ongoing problems of life in a land shared by Jews and Palestinians.
ASIA (85 minutes; in Hebrew and Russian with subtitles). You might think they’re sisters at first. The resemblance is strong between Russian-born Asia (Alena Yiv) and Vika (Shira Haas), and their prickly interaction in the apartment they share has a sibling vibe. But we learn that Asia is the teenage girl’s mom, whom she gave birth to when very young herself and is now raising alone in Israel, where she’s a nurse. That profession comes in handy, but only up to a point, when we understand that Vika, in other ways a typical, sullen teen, is suffering from a progressive degenerative disease. The symptoms are mild at first, but as they advance, the relationship between the two women also changes into something very different and deeper. Drawn from writer-director Ruthy Pribar’s memories of her own sister’s illness, and their mother’s care of her, the drama is shrewdly calibrated to deliver a cumulative, devastating final act. It’s a beautiful feature debut, with tremendous performances by its two stars.
A CRIME ON THE BAYOU (91 minutes; in English). This documentary reminds us that even at a time when race relations are fraught things used to be a lot worse. The focus is on a 1966 Louisiana case, when 19-year-old Black man Gary Duncan touched the arm of a White kid who was harassing his nephew — and was arrested for assault. Richard Sobol is the northern Jewish attorney who comes to his aid in a process that sees Duncan repeatedly, ridiculously getting arrested, freed and rearrested for no good cause. Meanwhile, Sobol — like many Whites then who dared treat people of color with respect — becoming a target himself. The documentary is more worthy than especially exciting, but it reminds us of a recent history we should never forget.
HERE WE ARE (92 minutes; in Hebrew with subtitles). In this comedy-drama, Shai Avivi plays Aharon, a man trying to raise his autistic young adult son, Uri (Noam Imber), on his own. But when Aharon’s ex-wife, and the authorities, insist that their son needs to be relocated to a facility for differently abled people, Aharon reacts by going on the lam with Uri. This sweet-natured road movie has moments that verge on cringeworthy, something that happens when the non-autistic actor Imber performs his character’s condition. But by the end, it can get you in that I’m-not-crying-you’re-crying way.
KISS ME KOSHER (105 minutes; in Arabic, English, German and Hebrew with subtitles). Serial womanizer Shira (Moran Rosenblatt) finally finds the girl of her dreams in Maria (Luise Wolfram), who agrees, through a misunderstanding, to marry her. Shira’s crusty grandmother Berta (Rivka Michaeli) is skeptical that this relationship will last any longer than any of Shira’s others. What’s worse, though, is that Maria is new to Israel — and she’s a German blonde who claims that her family was nothing but innocent farmers during the Holocaust years. You can imagine the tensions that result when Maria’s parents come to meet their potential in-laws. The culture-clash comedy gets an added layer of complication with Grandma’s semi-secret relationship with a Palestinian doctor. But have no fear, writer-director Shirel Peleg’s spritely romantic roundelay (including some surreal musical interludes) will have a happy ending — just maybe not the one you were expecting.
LOVE, IT WAS NOT (82 minutes; in German and Hebrew with subtitles). An absolutely fascinating documentary about someone placed in a position impossible to imagine. “How can a woman be smiling in a concentration camp uniform?” a man asks, looking at a photo of the young Helena Citron as a prisoner at Auschwitz. The young Citron, as she explains in later interviews, didn’t have much choice. A cantor’s daughter, she was one of 1,000 Slovakian Jewish girls transported to the camp, where many died immediately. Instead, Citron became the unlikely object of adoration for Franz Wunsch, a young but high-ranking SS officer. He favored her (discreetly, because fraternizing with Jews was a crime) with gifts and preferential treatment, though he was infamous for his cruelty to male prisoners. The alliance also benefited other women in Citron’s circle and saved the lives of many — including, eventually, her sister, whom Wunsch rescued from the mouth of a crematorium, but at a terrible cost. After the war, Citron and Wunsch’s lives continued apart, until history caught up with them. The former commandant found himself in a Tel Aviv court in 1972, charged with war crimes. Citron was asked to testify on his behalf. As the question goes, repeated over and over here, “What would you do?”
MINYAN (119 minutes; in English, Hebrew, Russian and Yiddish with subtitles). In the Russian Jewish community of Brighton Beach in 1986, David (Samuel H. Levine) is a teen who does what other teens do: He smokes with his pals and raids his parent’s liquor cabinet. But he also, secretly, starts hanging out at the local gay bar, trying to figure out this culture to which he realizes he belong. His life also takes a turn when he agrees to move with his widowed grandfather (Ron Rifkin) into a desired apartment building, where residency hinges on being available at all times to be one of the 10 Jewish men needed to form a minyan for prayers. David’s coming of age includes a hot but perilous affair with a bartender, but his ignorance about the AIDS crisis happening at the time comes off as unrealistic. His bigger growth comes from recognizing that two old roommates at the apartment building, widowed men like his gramps are secretly partners themselves, a realization that forces David to look beyond his own immediate needs and desires.
SHIVA BABY (77 minutes; in English). This edgy comedy of discomfort would feel like a familiar, warm bath to Larry — Curb Your Enthusiasm — David. In writer-director Emma Seligman’s film, also screened at last year’s Out on Film fest, Rachel Sennott plays Danielle, an unmoored New Yorker summoned by her parents (Polly Walker and Fred Melamed, on point) to the funeral reception of someone she hardly knows. “What’s my sound bite again?” she asks them before entering the house, because they — and she — don’t have a reasonable explanation for the way she’s drifting through life. To some, she claims she’s in law school, to others that she’s between majors. In fact, she’s making change via quick paid sex with sugar daddies, including Max (Danny Deferrari), who shows up at the reception with, um, other family members. Also a surprise attendee: Danielle’s old high school squeeze, now estranged. Seligman works the claustrophobic setting with verve in one of the too-rare films that actually deserved to be expanded from its original short-film version.
SUBLET (87 minutes; in English and Hebrew with subtitles). A journalist and married gay New Yorker trying to mend from a recent tragedy, Michael (John Benjamin Hickey) flies to Tel Aviv to write a travel story about the city, where he sublets a scruffy apartment from a young, aspiring filmmaker named Tomer (Niv Nissim). Tomer also happens to be gay, but that’s about the only thing they initially share across the geographic and generational gap. That changes when Michael hires Tomer as his tour guide, and they spend the days together. This tender, melancholy but sweet character study from director Eytan Fox (Yossi & Jagger) turns into an engaging story about two men finding communion and helping each other heal wounds they don’t even know they have.
WINTER JOURNEY (90 minutes; in English and German with subtitles). An interesting film hybrid, and the last performance by the great German actor Bruno Ganz (who, ironically in this context, is perhaps best remembered for his galvanizing work as Hitler in Downfall). Based on Martin Goldsmith’s memoir, it’s the story of a man interviewing his father, Georg, asking him almost relentlessly about his experiences as a professional musician in a Jewish symphony in wartime Berlin. Like Love, It Was Not, this is the true tale of a victim forced to make terrible bargains to survive. Ganz’s grumpy, withholding performance is lovely, but the directors make some questionable choices. In almost hyperactive ways, the film relentlessly switches from historic footage to dramatic re-creations (with a younger actor playing Georg) to dingy-looking home-video stock. And Harvey Friedman, voicing the off-screen Martin’s questioner, has an unsettling and obtrusive voice that seems to belong in another movie entirely.