The Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, which starts Wednesday, February 8, and will last for three weeks in its longest incarnation yet, has become an annual must-see event in the metro area, regardless of your religious affiliation or lack thereof. You just have to love good movies you might otherwise miss.
“I really value the opportunity to see films we’re not likely to see in Atlanta, or at least not for a very long time,” says Matthew Bernstein, who is serving as co-chairman of the festival for his second time. “A number of films that have shown at the festival in the past may come many months or a year later and play at Tara or Midtown. But it’s not a high percentage.”
Founded in 2000 and growing steadily ever since, AJFF has become the city’s biggest film festival. There’s good reason why the staff of Creative Loafing, in their yearly “Best of Atlanta” roundup, named it the city’s top film festival in 2011.
“The high production standards that [Executive Director] Kenny Blank and his team have maintained mean it’s a very well-run festival,” Bernstein says. “That’s one reason I think it’s the biggest in the city.” Film lovers will recognize Bernstein’s name: as professor and chairman of Emory University’s department of film and media studies, he’s been enriching the city’s movie scene since 1989 and is the author or editor of notable film books, most recently “Screening a Lynching: The Leo Frank Case on Film and TV.”
Almost every year, without any design, a theme or two emerges among the dozens of titles screened at AJFF. “One of the overwhelming, surprising themes that emerged this year,” Bernstein says, “that we haven’t seen to quite this extent before, is the notion of what is called ‘righteous persons’ ” — non-Jews who made it a point to intervene for or aid Jews in times of trouble. Among some half-dozen films with that theme are the narrative features “Free Men” and “Wunderkinder” and the documentary “Nicky’s Family.”
But that theme is a minor thread among the 50-plus films being screened this year. “There’s always an incredible diversity in the programming,” notes Bernstein. The Jewish connection can be front and center or almost intangible in a list of works that includes documentaries about opera, sign language, autism and oil tycoons, and narratives that range from WWII-era comedy-thrillers (opening-night title “My Best Enemy”) to Parisian romcom (“The Day I Saw Your Heart”) to, well, an anniversary screening of “Dirty Dancing.” Actress Jane Brucker, who played Baby’s older sister in the movie, will be on hand for that screening.
As always, one special component of the festival is the roster of speakers and special guests it assembles for its screenings: actors, directors, film experts and the actual subjects of the films (for example, two of the “girls” who were saved from Nazi-seized Poland as seen in “Nicky’s Family”).
Below are quick appreciations of some of the movies I was able to preview. For full information on the lineup, ticket availability, venues and speakers, go to the AJFF main site.
“The Apple Pushers.” Like most cities, New York suffers from “food deserts” in neighborhoods that lack any greengrocers but are chock-full of fast-food joints that exacerbate the nation’s obesity epidemic. “Pushers”
documents a program that gets independent vendors wheeling carts through these streets, selling fresh fruits and vegetables. Focusing on five vendors relatively new to the country (one a first-generation son of Russian Jews), this pleasant doc balances personal stories with a celebration of the country’s debt to the immigrant experience. (One caveat: the nasal drone of narrator Edward Norton, a well-meaning actor and activist whose involvement with some projects makes them the equivalent of, ahem, eating your vegetables.)
“David.” Maybe my least favorite of the dramas I saw. But because it’s perfectly charming in its way, that speaks volumes about the overall quality of this year’s offerings. The son of a strict Brooklyn imam, young Daud (Muatasem Mishal) gets mistaken for a Yeshiva student, says his name is David and finds himself becoming pals with Jewish kids his age. Sweet but a little far-fetched at times, the movie plays like an “Afterschul Special” — but hey, there are worse things, right?
“Free Men.” In this interesting drama, Tahir Ramen (“A Prophet”) plays an Algerian immigrant in German-occupied Paris. His me-first life of selling black-market goods changes when he’s forced by the Gestapo to spy on his local mosque. There, through friendship with an incognito Jewish singer, he slowly becomes a Resistance fighter. Based only loosely on fact, the movie’s Muslim-aids-Jew scenario can feel a little like wishful thinking, since the reverse was also true during the years when anti-Semitism leapt like a brushfire across many borders. But whether or not you buy the premise, the movie is well made. Too bad it’s weakened by its lead. Ramen has movie-star looks, but he reacts to every onscreen incident (a freedom fighter’s execution, a surprise Nazi raid) with the same baffled expression.
“The Last Flight of Petr Ginz.”A lovely documentary that celebrates the brief, creatively rich life of a Prague boy, killed in Auschwitz at age 16 with several novels already written and scores of notebooks filled with
fanciful artwork. Subtly animating these works, the movie rejoices in his youthful exuberance while mourning the mature artist he never got to become. A small drawback: in its last act, “Flight” dwells a little long and darkly on its concentration-camp passages. The gray, bleak animation here seems to contradict the central message that Ginz’s life-affirming art and writings defied the Third Reich’s soul-crushing intentions until the very end. Still, this is moving and uplifting stuff; how could it not be?
“The Day I Saw Your Heart.” Maybe not as light as a soufflé, but tasty enough. Mélanie Laurent (“Inglourious Basterds”) plays a Parisian X-ray technician with daddy issues. And for good reason: Dad is played by French film legend Michel Blanc as a blunt-talking fellow who simply can’t filter his strong opinions. This has its negative effects on Laurent’s dating life, especially when she meets a hunky shoe salesman-cum-amateur boxer. It’s all very quirky, very French. And it’s a lovely little palate cleanser among AJFF’s weighter fare, good for some romance, some laughs and maybe a tear or two.
“My Best Enemy.” Moritz Bleibtreu (“Run Lola Run”) plays Victor, scion of a wealthy Viennese gallery owner who comes into the possession of a Michelangelo sketch of Moses. Unfortunately, the art-plundering Italian and German Fascists want it for themselves. Complicating matters is Victor’s boyhood friend Rudi (Georg Friedrich), who grew up with him as the housekeeper’s son. To say that Rudi has gone through some changes while away in Germany would be to give away some of the film’s pleasurable twists and turns. It’s convoluted enough to feel like a true story (it isn’t). Switching from comedy to drama, the movie doesn’t always keep a firm hold of its moods, and a few twists are implausibly convenient to serve the plot. (After several years in a camp, for example, one stocky character doesn’t lose an ounce of his pre-internment weight.) But it’s an engaging film nonetheless. (“Enemy,” the opening-night selection, will be screened only once.)
“Nicky’s Family.” Call it “Nicky’s List.” While many people emerged from World War II with dubious, unprovable tales of valor in the mouth of danger, British stockbroker Nicholas Winton never mentioned his considerable heroism for 50 years, until his wife found out by accident. Visiting a friend in Prague in 1938, seeing the many ways the Third Reich was persecuting Jewish families, Winton stiffened his upper lip and decided, by gum, to do something about it. By the time the war officially started, he had organized the safe passage of 669 Polish children, largely Jewish, to foster homes in Britain. The children lived; their families perished. Filled with dramatic re-creations, testimony from the now old children and typically modest interviews with Winton himself (he’ll turn 103 in May), the movie is a deeply moving tribute to the innate goodness of mankind in the face of its worst instincts.
“Rabies.” Israel’s first slasher flick. But that’s not the most interesting part. What’s interesting is how sly, twisted and gleefully existential this gorefest is. In an isolated forest, a psycho traps an adult brother and sister,
with homicidal plans for both. That is, if he isn’t interrupted by a quartet of young tennis players bickering over romantic entanglements, a park ranger and his noble dog, or a couple of cops with considerable personal and psychological problems. Laced with dry absurdist humor and unexpected timing, the movie’s biggest joke is in sidelining the psycho killer while these upstanding citizens — as if in a Shakespearean comedy-turned-splatter-flick — paint the forest red.
“This Is Sodom.” Monty Python meets the Borscht Belt in this irredeemably/irresistibly funny retelling of the tale of Sodom, the good man Lot, and the reasons why his wife deserved to be turned into a pillar of salt. You may hate yourself afterward for laughing, but worry about that later.