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A documentary on Theodore Bikel closes this year's festival.

A documentary on ever-so-charming Theodore Bikel closes this year’s festival.

Opening Wednesday and unfolding over 23 days in eight venues, the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival has become one of the region’s premiere movie events in only 15 years.

As usual, many of this year’s films sold out within minutes of availability. And as usual, many filmmakers from either side of the camera will attend the festival for screenings and Q&As with the audience. But one new aspect of the festival is definitely not as usual.

“The biggest change from an organizational standpoint is that the festival has transitioned from being a project of the American Jewish Committee [AJC] to an independent 501(c)(3),” executive director Kenny Blank says. The change to nonprofit arts organization was approved unanimously last summer by the AJC board. The transition is a natural result of the AJFF’s considerable success and growth. 

Kenny Blank

Kenny Blank

The change won’t mean immediate alterations to the festival. It just portends more flexibility. “Long-term, there is an opportunity to take the festival and expand the programming we do throughout the year, and move into other areas,” Blank says. “It’s a prelude of exciting things that might come down the road.” So stay tuned for future developments.

The change reflects the AJFF’s transition from niche event to Atlanta’s largest film festival, and the second-largest Jewish film festival in the world. Its greatest appeal, though, is nondenominational. 

“The festival has drifted year after year firmly into the larger film and arts community,” Blank says. “It’s not just for the Jewish community, but for film lovers of all faiths and ethnicities.”    

By chance or by what we call zeitgeist, certain themes tend to emerge among selected films every year. Sometimes, multiple themes. Last year, for instance, there was an emphasis on Poland’s crimes during World War II (Aftermath and the Oscar nominee Ida) and also on the dance of bonding and betrayal between Israeli intelligence agents and reluctant Palestinian informants (Omar and Bethlehem).

“A couple of our films are very timely right now because of the situation in France with terrorism,” Blank says. 24 Days explores the kidnapping of a Jewish man by Muslims, who believe (because of ethnic stereotypes) he must be rich. Horses of God examines the poverty, ignorance and limited opportunities that can convince young men to strap on suicide vests. Both films are fictionalized takes on events that really happened. 

Many AJFF films are as lighthearted as others are somber. And the festival continues to bring fascinating documentaries to town, which otherwise might not be seen locally. 

“In Atlanta, unfortunately, our arts and cultural sector is underappreciated and underconsumed,” Blank says. “People are starved for really strong arts and cultural programming. In the film arts, a number of art cinemas have closed over the years. We have the Atlanta Film Festival and Out On Film, but the opportunity to see some of these films in Atlanta has become very limited. We fill a real void.”

At its best, the AJFF gets people talking. Blank says, “That, for me, is the most rewarding part of doing this — to be in the lobby to watch people come out of the theater and they have been moved in some ways, to tears or laughter. That’s the power of film.”

Below are short reviews of a dozen of the AJFF’s 60-plus films I was able to see in advance. Many of these I selected blindly. 

Above and Beyond. The AJFF’s opening-night film, this documentary celebrates the haphazard, early history of the Israeli Air Force. In the days just prior to the founding of Israel in 1948, volunteer airmen from diverse national backgrounds began to fly into the newly formed state to fight back the Arab nations organizing for invasion. The planes they piloted weren’t in peak condition. “We were flying a Molotov cocktail,” recalls one, who flew in all the way from Italy. At times, their missions were an elaborate, risky exercise in smoke and mirrors. (For instance, the Egyptian army fell back, convinced by just a couple of planes that Israel had an enormous air fleet massing for attack.) The movie underlines the irony of pilots, in those early years, having to assemble and fly German-made Messerschmitts (cheap and available). The documentary isn’t structurally innovative or exciting; it’s meat and potatoes. But it’s a valuable bit of history, buttressed by the memories of men and women still alive to tell the unlikely tale. 

Chagall-Malevich. Genially loopy. This historic fantasy about Marc Chagall’s brief time as an art teacher in the Russian village of Vitebsk slathers the screen with magic realism. The simple special effects are designed to pay homage to the dreamy, folkloric imagery of Chagall’s work. Though he’s part of the title, the Suprematist painter Malevich doesn’t show up till almost halfway through the movie, criticizing Chagall’s work in favor of his own big, geometric, poster-like imagery. The tension between the painter’s aesthetic approaches never becomes exactly gripping, and the filmmakers don’t seem clear on the story they want to tell. The movie is generally just having too much of a good time to bother with stuff like that. 

Closer to the Moon. In 1959 Romania, Jews with influential jobs (in reward for having been part of the Communist-led resistance to the Nazis) find themselves being squeezed out of power by the Red Army. That’s the background for this comedy-drama, starring Vera Farmiga and Mark Strong as two members of an improbable gang, rounded up for robbing a bank car. They’re improbable because they come from respectable places in the government. Moon rewinds what led them and their friends to do what they did, using an interesting setup: the Romanian government forces them to play themselves in a propaganda movie about their crime. While Moon doesn’t make the most of its mirrors-on-mirrors framing device, the comedy-drama earns your affection. Also, bizarre as the story sounds, it’s based on a real-life situation. Sure enough, the final credits feature clips from the actual propaganda movie that was made at the time. 

Dough. Needs yeast. This AJFF world premiere recalls the indy Brit films of the 1990s, character-driven scrappy comedies like Brassed Off and Saving Grace. It’s a well-meaning riff on The Odd Couple. The differences between the two main characters are generational, racial and religious. Jonathan Pryce plays an old Jewish baker getting squeezed out by a greedy owner of a chain store. He hires as his assistant a young African Muslim emigrant (Jerome Holder), whose pot-dealing sideline accidentally, then intentionally, gets entangled with the bakery. (Cue the montage of old folks getting giddy on hash brownies.) Dough is harmless, though the comedy is very broad and the script sometimes staler than week-old challah. 

The Farewell Party. A comedy about euthanasia? As unlikely as it is sweet. The melancholy Israeli comedy centers on a bunch of old friends at an assisted living home. When one terminally ill man beseeches his wife for an early exit, she convinces an old inventor pal to rig up a sort of Rube Goldberg device that would allow her husband to peacefully trigger his own overdose. Problem is, news of this spreads around, and other suffering tenants suddenly want access to the Kevorkian contraption. The surprise of the film is how skillfully its two directors balance silly comedy with rueful emotion — and even throw in an unexpected musical interlude, recalling the singalong scene in Thomas Paul Anderson’s Magnolia from 1999. A real crowd-pleaser, this one. 

Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem. What happens in this courtroom — nearly the film’s sole setting — is something like theater of the absurd, a theater production that plays for years. Israeli wife and mother Viviane (the fine, grave actress Ronit Elkabetz) pleads before a bench of rabbinical judges to grant her divorce from her husband of 30 years. Problem is, her husband Elisha (the equally fine Simon Abkarian) simply won’t permit it. And a woman’s personal choice, in this world of men, means nothing. This austere, politely vicious battle of wills may well have you moaning, rolling your eyes in frustration and laughing darkly as the latest delay in proceedings is announced onscreen (“Two Weeks Later,” “Three Months Later”). The movie is sometimes, intentionally, a trial to watch. But the codirectors (the lead actress and her brother Shlomi Elkabetz) make the result incrementally gripping. 

Horses of God. Its subject is certainly timely. A fictionalized “what if” inspired by the 2003 Casablanca bombings, it dramatizes the lives of a handful of poor Muslim youths, the sort of kids most vulnerable to religious, social coercion. It’s the story of two brothers living in poverty, until the elder emerges from a two-year jail sentence, emanating the quiet certainty of fanaticism. He introduces his kid sibling to “the brotherhood,” who say things like, “Fly, horses of God, and the gates of paradise will open for you.” Director Nabil Ayouch has made an admirable sociopolitical study. But other recent films about Israeli-Arab tensions (Omar, Bethlehem, Paradise Now) have been emotionally as well as viscerally gripping. Horses did not hold me in the same way, but it sure made me angry — for the boys, for their victims and at the cowards handing out the suicide vests. Perhaps it’s to the movie’s credit that I couldn’t wait for it to end.

Little White Lie. Talk about hiding in plain sight. The moment Lacey Schwartz was born, any stranger could take a look and think, that kid’s black. But how was that possible? Her parents Peggy and Robert were nice, light-skinned northeastern Jews. So everybody — extended family, Lacey’s schoolmates — played along with the narrative that their eyes denied. Not until she was a teenager did Lacey herself, who directed this fascinating documentary, begin to question her true identity — genetically and culturally. She captures moments of quiet tragedy, especially her dad Robert’s reluctance to discuss the glaring issue; you want to give him a hug. And you can’t hate his ex-wife Peggy, instigator of the big lie at the story’s heart. Everybody here is flawed, is human. Everybody’s family. The movie is a valuable addition to the (sadly) ongoing discussions our nation is having about race and racism. 

Night Will Fall. Alfred Hitchcock had left England, with his first American film, Rebecca, winning the top Oscar in 1941. Nevertheless, when Brit producer Sidney Bernstein asked, Hitchcock said yes to supervising a documentary containing the horrific footage of the concentration camps, then being filmed at the end of the war in 1945 by Allied forces in Europe. The planned documentary was never completed, a victim of realpolitick at the end of the war, when Britain and the United States began to sense they would need Germany’s backing against the rising Soviet power. Night Will Fall delivers a partial restoration of the documentary that never was. It also includes devastating film of what the Allied soldiers found in the camps: the tens of thousands of mounded corpses look like mutilated dolls or mannequins. The still-living prisoners are even more frightening to behold. Images like this can never be forgotten, or fully absorbed. Thank God. 

Raise the Roof. Laura and Rick Brown met as art students at the University of Georgia years ago. Now they work at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design and run Handshouse Studio, replicating historic objects and structures from the past. And boy, do they sign on to a doozy of a project. Roof documents the multiyear process of re-creating by hand — from very old, black-and-white photographs — the vibrantly painted and complexly built roof and ceiling of an 18th-century wooden Polish synagogue. These kinds of buildings were all destroyed by Nazis in the 1940s. Commissioned by the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, the labor- and time-intensive project gives you a great appreciation of how much work and love went into the structures to begin with. You appreciate the anxious second-guessing among the Browns and their tireless students, as they try to decipher water-damaged texts from the original photos — and puzzle over what colors and palette to use in painting the ceiling’s fantastic mythical animals. The uplifting documentary is an artistic, nondenominational embrace across the centuries. 

Secrets of War. Two schoolboys in the Netherlands during World War II spend just about every waking second they can with each other. Lambert is the son of the village’s biggest German collaborator, who wants his son to join Hitler Youth. Tuur, meanwhile, learns that his own parents are part of the resistance that Lambert’s dad is trying to stamp out. Awkward . . . When a new girl joins their school, things get even trickier. You can guess the girl’s secret quickly. You can also guess just about every plot turn well in advance in a movie that’s lovely and earnest but doesn’t tell or show us anything we haven’t seen before.  

Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholom Aleichem. Look, I surrender: Theodore Bikel knows charm. If you don’t want to be charmed, watch something else. Now 90, and seeming about half that age, Bikel is both a focus and a tour guide of this double-portrait documentary. The longtime actor-singer gives praise where it’s due, noting the singular importance of writer Sholom Aleichem’s work on his own long career. Born Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich, Aleichem, under this pen name, is now best known as the creator of the stories about Tevye the milkman, the source for Fiddler on the Roof. Addressing the camera directly at times, Bikel and multiple talking heads, including Aleichem’s granddaughter and Dr. Ruth, celebrate the power of the Yiddish language, of storytelling, of the art of the kvetch. The AJFF’s closing-night film, it’s a worthy celebration of performance, storytelling, culture and endurance. And did I mention Bikel is a charmer? 

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