When the American Jewish Committee launched the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival in 2000, even those who supported the idea questioned whether it had a future.
“There were a lot of skeptics about the need for a Jewish film festival,” says Kenny Blank. “Was it sustainable? Was there going to be an audience for it? Matthew Bernstein of the film studies department at Emory was one of the first people the committee reached out to.
“I remember Matthew kind of saying, in Year One, ‘I just don’t see it.’” But that’s history. Adds Blank: “He would be the first to say now that he was proved happily wrong.”
In fact, Bernstein is an Atlanta Jewish Film Festival board member, a longtime linchpin and festival champion. And Blank, who joined the event as a volunteer in its youngest years, has for most of its history been the executive director of the yearly tradition that ranks as the city’s largest film festival and one of the largest Jewish film festivals in the world. This year it turns 20.
Whether you’re Jewish, Christian, Muslim or anything else, the AJFF has for two decades delivered diverse, strong, compelling movies that Atlanta film lovers would probably otherwise never get to see. This year’s lineup comprises 48 feature films and 16 shorts from 17 countries.
The festival begins tonight (February 10) with a premiere screening of the documentary Shared Legacies: The African-American Jewish Civil Rights Alliance.
This year’s 18-day event opens at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, then expands to multiple metro venues — four returning (UA Tara Cinemas, Regal Cinemas Perimeter Pointe, the Woodruff Arts Center and the Sandy Springs Performing Arts Center) — and two new intown locations (Midtown Art Cinema and Poncey-Highland’s Plaza Theatre).
The 1,000-seat Sandy Springs site allows the festival to address capacity challenges. (Still, tickets for screenings do sell out, so plan accordingly.) “Our core audience comes from the suburban and Sandy Springs areas,” Blank says, “but we hope to build new audiences.”
As usual, part of the excitement includes the chance to meet filmmakers and actors, who show up for Q&A sessions attached to their films. So have good questions ready.
Blank has a few favorites among this year’s films, including Incitement, a drama about Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin; The Painted Bird, an epic black-and-white version of the Jerzy Kosinski novel about a Jewish boy surviving World War II in the Polish countryside; the Swiss romantic comedy Wolkenbruch’s Wondrous Journey Into the Arms of a Shiksa; and Those Who Remained, a drama about a middle-aged man and a teenage girl who forge a connection when their families are killed in the Holocaust.
With year-round programming now, the AJFF is here to stay and will change with the times. “We’re right now in the midst of our first five-year strategic planning process for 2025,” Blank says. “We’re asking questions about what’s next, and having those conversations.”
For all the information you need about the 20th Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, go HERE.
Here are quick reviews, in alphabetical order, of 15 films we screened in advance:
Abe (Brazil + USA, 85 minutes). One of several films addressing the ceaseless tensions between Jews and Muslims. The art form in this sweet family drama is the culinary kind. Noah Schnapp (the bedeviled kid brother in Netflix’s Stranger Things) plays Abe, a 12-year-old New Yorker whose studio is the kitchen and whose new fascination is gastric fusion. So he secretly starts to work for a Brazilian chef (Seu Jorge, whose gruffness largely keeps him from being standard-issue Magical Negro). Abe’s main goal is to cook a Thanksgiving dinner that pleases, and unites, his mixed family: half Jewish, half Muslim. Sweet but not surprising, the movie is more of a snack than a meal, but it goes down nicely. In English. February 15, 14, 17 and 21.
Africa (Israel, 22 minutes). In an interesting version of auto-fiction, director Oren Gerner directs his own parents, Meir and Maya, a long-married Israeli couple adjusting to their later years. She’s a therapist still seeing patients in a home office. He futzes around in the workshop and takes nightly security patrols with a neighbor. But his former status in the community is starting to diminish. Not much happens: a crisis with the family dog, a run-in with local teens that gets Meir briefly ostracized by his neighbors. The movie is slight, but it’s a well-observed study of a sometimes-tested marriage and a man who faces the challenges of drifting from middle age to a less-empowered period of life. In Hebrew with subtitles. February 20 and 22.
After Class (USA, 94 minutes). The title is bland and generic. It was originally — and more accurately — known as Safe Spaces. But this comedy about creative writing professor Josh (Justin Long) slamming face-first into his easily triggered students’ sense of boundaries and political correctness is painfully timely. And funny — even though a major subplot includes the terminal illness of his grandmother (Lynn Cohen). There’s a spark to every scene, and a great deal of love shown to all the members of Josh’s dysfunctional, smart, impossible family — starting with the self-sabotaging professor at its center, whom writer-director Daniel Schechter wisely never tries to make us love. The supporting cast includes Fran Drescher in a lively turn as Josh’s mom. In English. February 15, 16 and 27.
Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn (USA, 94 minutes). Atlanta premiere. Roy Cohn was one of the many loathsome enablers on Donald Trump’s path, connecting the young real estate striver with top organized crime figures. But he was best known for two other rotten things. He personally lobbied to get Julius and Ethel Rosenberg strapped into the electric chair as Soviet spies, and he was Sen. Joe McCarthy’s yes man. In popular culture, playwright Tony Kushner turned him into the dazzling fallen Lucifer of Angels in America. Among the film’s talking heads is Alan Dershowitz, who opines, “Every era has a Roy Cohn, an opportunist, someone who will stretch the law and ethics to make the ends justify the means.” He ought to know. By the end of the documentary, I’m not sure I saw Cohn as a victim. Bully and coward, yes. Ultimately, it’s sad that a man of his intellect never employed it in the service of good. In English. February 25. Two locations.
Crescendo (Germany, 112 minutes). Music is the art form wielded against Israeli-Palestinian hostilities here. Götz Otto plays a famous German conductor — considered the “Porsche” of his cohort — hired by a philanthropic foundation to oversee three weeks of rehearsals culminating in a “peace concert” by musicians chosen equally from Tel Aviv and the West Bank. Unfolding largely in a gorgeous area of the Italian Alps, the movie spends equal time in rehearsals and edgy group encounters led by the conductor with his volatile musicians struggling to overcome deep-rooted prejudices. When the movie narrows its focus on the romance of a Palestinian boy and a Jewish girl, a pair of star-crossed lovers, you start to fear that, like the Shakespeare tragedy that seems to inspire their story, things won’t turn out well. In English and German with subtitles. February 15, 17, 22 and 23.
Flawless (Israel, 97 minutes). What starts off feeling like an Israeli version of Mean Girls detonates some big surprises halfway through, leading to some very positive messages about body image (for girls and everyone else). Tall, blond Eden (Stav Shtrasko) is a transfer student to an Israeli high school, where girls her age are obsessed with getting nose and boob jobs. Eden would like breast enhancements herself, having literally none. She’s transgender, something viewers learn long before her two new BFFs do, which nicely complicates the story. The three classmates get involved with a dangerous scheme to earn the money needed for their surgeries. The less you know about that, the better. But it involves a woman named Keren, played with sinister sparkle by actress Assi Levy. In Hebrew with subtitles. February 15, 16 and 17.
The Glass Room (Czech Republic + Slovakia, 104 minutes). North American premiere. An unexpected, campy treat — though everyone involved seems to have taken the film very seriously. The drama, based on the Simon Mawer novel inspired by a glass-walled, modernist 1920s home in the Czech Republic, was shot in the actual home. Hanna Alström and Carice van Houten (Game of Thrones) play lifelong friends married to Jewish men but secretly pining for each other. The years speed by, from the 1920s to postwar Soviet oppression. The friends lose their husbands, their fortunes and for many years each other, but throughout it they suffer gorgeously, surrounded by gorgeous landscape or inside that elegant house. It’s all very soapy and shallow, but something of a guilty pleasure. In English. February 21, 22, 23 and 27.
Incitement (Israel, 123 minutes). Israel’s Oscar submission for best international feature is a fictionalized first-person study of Yigal Amir (intensely portrayed by Yehuda Nahari), the Jew who assassinated Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. Yaron Zilberman’s drama immerses us in the young man’s furious mindset, driven by his conviction that Rabin should die for making concessions to Palestinians through the Oslo Accords. (The movie, and Amir’s biography, suggest that the rejection of his would-be fiancée and her family helped fuel his murderous mission.) Very well made, and all the more unnerving because of it, the film shows us that Amir was surrounded by many people who did not share his viewpoint and dismissed him as a crank. If nothing else, it shows how religious and cultural convictions taken to any extreme can be deadly. In Hebrew with subtitles. February 19, 24, 25 and 27.
The Keeper (Germany + the U.K, 118 minutes). Atlanta premiere and another fact-based drama, on the cozier side of things. This one features David Kross (The Reader) as the real-life Bert Trautmann, whose improbable life path as a German soldier took him from the battlefields of World War II to a POW camp in England to stardom as the goalkeeper for Manchester’s soccer team. Along that trajectory, he meets the local grocer’s daughter Margaret (Freya Mavor), and their romance inspires predictable anti-German prejudices from the neighbors. The movie is well made and predictable in a pleasant, old-fashioned way. In English and German. February 23 and 24.
Last Week at Ed’s (USA, 39 minutes). East Coast premiere. The shortest film on this list, and a favorite. This documentary follows middle-aged Ada Blumstein in her final week as owner of West Hollywood’s beloved Ed’s Coffee Shop, opened by her father 60 years earlier but shuttering due to rising costs. Though her parents are deceased, the movie paints a warm, affecting portrait of them. The film is full of the great personalities of longtime diners. I had no idea who’d directed this bittersweet, moving gem until their names popped up at the end — AJFF 2016 Icon Award honoree Lawrence Kasdan and his wife, Meg. In English. February 23 only.
Oliver Sacks: His Own Life (USA, 114 minutes). This documentary by Ric Burns (Ken’s brother) plays like a supplement to the late neurologist’s final memoir, On the Move: A Life. Sacks is featured throughout, reading parts of his book aloud to a roomful of loving friends and assistants. Fans of the insightful, fascinating Sacks won’t find any big revelations here. Those less familiar will be hooked by his contradictions (a doctor who nearly killed himself as a drug addict) and his struggles as a gay man with his brilliant, disapproving family. Everyone will leave wishing their doctor was as uniquely empathetic as Sacks was. In English. February 18, 19 and 22.
Shared Legacies: The African-American Jewish Civil Rights Alliance (USA, 95 minutes). A world premiere and the fest’s opening-night film. This documentary is, sadly, all too timely in a country that seems to have lost its way in terms of race relations. Peppered with they-were-there talking heads (Jesse Jackson, John Lewis, Harry Belafonte), it’s a poignant history lesson retelling the story of the vital union of the African American and Jewish communities during the struggle in the 1950s and ’60s for civil rights. In English with subtitles. Monday, February 10 only, at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre.
Standing Up, Falling Down (USA, 91 minutes). Shaggily charming but not especially sharp, this buddy comedy is distinguished mainly by the against-the-grain performance of Billy Crystal as Marty, an alcoholic who, when sober, manages to hold down his job as a dermatologist. He becomes the unlikely pal and mentor of Scott (Ben Schwartz), a would-be standup comic who has moved back East, defeated by Los Angeles. The two get drunk together, get high, and Marty hands out advice that he himself would never take. There’s a big whiff of b.s. about much of the screenplay, but Crystal convinces you to cut the movie some slack. In English. February 14, 15 and 16.
Those Who Remained (Hungary, 87 minutes). Atlanta premiere. A sad-eyed Hungarian doctor in the immediate wake of World War II, Aldo lives alone and walks through life as if underwater. He’s lost his family. So has loud, assertive, but deeply fragile 16-year-old Klara, who enters his life and forges a father-daughter bond with the older man, whether he wants it or not. A sensitive and beautifully acted tale of the attempt to recover from unspeakable grief, the movie is wise enough to show us that not everyone can move on with equal ease. In Hungarian with subtitles. February 15, 18 and 19.
When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (Germany + Switzerland, 119 minutes). Atlanta premiere. Based on a memoir by Judith Kerr, this is a gentle picaresque story about young Anna, who has to relocate from Germany to Switzerland in 1933 once Hitler is elected chancellor — her journalist dad has been very critical of the would-be führer. Anna isn’t quite aware of the bigger changes happening in the world. We see things through her eyes as she goes to school, and the family has to move repeatedly as anti-Semitic sentiments increase. Not a lot of drama here, but a sweet movie. In German with subtitles. February 16, 17, 18 and 23.