Opening Tuesday and continuing for 23 days, the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival is the largest festival of its kind in the world — and one of our city’s greatest events for moviegoers of any religious or ethnic background. All you need is an appetite for discovery, and the AJFF is certain to reward you.
The narrative features, documentaries and shorts include 75 films from 24 countries, many never seen in the U.S. before, with 202 screenings at venues around the metro area. The full lineup and schedule are listed on the festival’s website.
“One of the things I’m pleased with this year is the emergence of a lot of female filmmakers and a lot of new, young and upcoming filmmakers,” says executive director Kenny Blank, who has shepherded the AJFF through its 17-year history. “Some of these films played at Cannes last year, got accolades at the Toronto Film Festival, or have been nominated for a lot of the Israeli Academy Awards.”
As in prior years, filmmakers, film professionals, actors and others will attend screenings to lead talkbacks with the audience and give their perspectives on the film everyone just saw. (Example: director-actor Richard Benjamin and actor Mark Linn-Baker will attend the January 28 screening of 1982’s My Favorite Year, one of three of the festival’s anniversary screenings, which include Woody Allen’s 1982 Radio Days and Ernst Lubitsch’s 1942 To Be or Not to Be.)
Just as important as the guest speakers are the patrons who have made the festival as much a place to talk about movies as to watch them.
“Some of the best conversations in the community are happening in the lobby before and after the films,” says Blank. “It’s also just a chance for people to talk about the films themselves but just to reconnect.”
And, sometimes, to grouse about a movie they really, really didn’t like. That happens. One of the yearly thrills of the AJFF is that you often don’t know a thing about the movie you’re about to see. It could be something as breathtaking as 2013’s Oscar-winning Polish drama Ida, or may turn out to be more like that lame comedy about feuding brothers in a failing deli, the title of which you forgot the second you left the theater.
“I applaud our audiences for daring themselves, for taking the challenge of sometimes stepping outside their comfort zones,” Blank says.
Below are mini-reviews for 10 of the films I saw. Full disclosure: I was invited to be one of the contributing writers for this year’s AJFF program. Some of these minis appear in that publication.
Abulele. When does one filmmaker’s tribute to another cross over the line into plagiarism? When you watch this ripoff (oops, homage) to Steven Spielberg’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, you’ll likely be too charmed to care too much. Instead of a critter from outer space, the abulele of the title is a creature from the darkness far below, who emerges sometimes to befriend a child in need. As with E.T., the boy here has to use ingenuity to evade security forces that want to capture his sometimes invisible friend. Nothing new here, but a decent family-friendly movie.
Across the Waters. Largely hand-held, the camera thrusts us into the struggle of a jazz musician (David Dencik), his wife (Danica Curcic) and their young son to find safe passage out of Nazi-seized Denmark. The result is an engrossing dramatic intimacy. Not quite as immersive as the brilliant but suffocating Son of Saul, the feature creates a you-are-there impression, gathering us into the heart of this young family — and also into the lives of a handful of brave Danish non-Jews who risk their lives to do the right thing. And also, one or two others who prove that goodness is not at the core of every human being.
A.K.A. Nadia. A dance choreographer in West Jerusalem, Maya (Netta Shpigelman) can’t stage-manage her own life, torn between two competing identities — one as a Palestinian, the other as an Israeli wife and mother. Shy on dialogue, the movie unfolds at times with the clarity of a silent film, or a passion play about an existential dilemma. There’s an elegant simplicity to the cinematography and pacing. Writer-director Tova Ascher trusts in silence and stillness. It’s all grounded by Shpigelman’s watchful, haunted performance as a woman trying to reconcile her current life with one that was derailed by youthful split-decisions and subsequent political realities.
Alone in Berlin. For the AJFF’s opening-night film, you couldn’t ask for a better pedigree. French actor Vincent Perez directs the great Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson in a drama based on the acclaimed novel Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada. In this fictionalized version of a true story, Gleeson and Thompson play a working-class Berlin couple prodded into quiet resistance by the death of their soldier son during WWII. With the modest, painstaking dedication that characterizes the rest of their lives, they set about dropping note cards around the city, denouncing Hitler and the Nazi regime, knowing they risk their own lives. It’s a promising story, and a welcome reminder that political protest can take many forms. So I’m sorry to report that despite the talent involved, the film itself is bland, unsurprising and oddly dull.
Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened. One of Broadway’s great fabled misfires, Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince’s Merrily We Roll Along died a quick death in 1981. (Theaters have been trying to get the musical, with its great score, right ever since.) This affectionate documentary is directed by Lonny Price, one of the three lead actors — all little more than kids at the time — who were snatched up toward stardom and dropped without warning into the abyss of failure. They recovered in different ways, to different degrees, and the contrast between their youthful joy (captured in videos taped in 1981 for an ABC feature on Merrily that never aired) and their middle-aged reflections gives the movie a nicely melancholy texture. Featuring interviews with Sondheim, Price and fellow cast members Ann Morrison, Jim Walton, Tonya Pinkins and Jason Alexander.
Beyond the Mountains and Hills. At first promising to be a comedy of discomfort, by the end the film is verging on tragedy as a family falls apart then finds its way back together. . . whatever the cost. Everybody means well; things can just go horribly wrong, that’s all. After 27 years in the Israeli army, David (Alon Pdut) tries to find new footing as a salesman, his wife is getting hit on by one of her teenage students, and their progressive daughter’s Palestinian-friendly mindset leads her into literally dangerous territory. As the characters’ choices and mistakes link up with one another’s, a terrible suspense builds: as if in a horror movie, you may want to whisper at the screen, “No, don’t do that!”
The Jews. As much conversation starter as movie, writer-director-star Yvan Attal’s sketch comedy wields absurdism against absurdity — especially persistent Jewish stereotypes (the film’s chapters include “Jews Are Rich,” “The Jews Killed Jesus,” etc.). While some of the sequences are stronger/funnier than others, the one about a Mossad agent sent back via time machine to kill a particular Nazarene baby is a sort of comic Terminator: Bethlehem that could be spun into its own outrageous feature film. At its best, the movie is a recognizable cousin of some of Woody Allen’s early, off-the-cuff work.
Paradise. Framed in the restrictive, box-like Academy ratio established 1932 and shot in a cool black-and-white, this austere Holocaust drama charts the small and enormous ways the actions of three people affect each other in wartime: a proud German member of the SS, a French police collaborator and a Russian baroness working with the Resistance. In this, Russia’s official entry for the Academy Awards, we watch their life-or-death decisions enacted, but the movie shifts throughout to a postmodern device. The characters speak to us directly in an unexplained place of confession (we’re meant to wonder: a prison? the afterlife?) The movie brings a human scale to the enormity of this historic horror, and reminds us that everyone has their reasons.
The Tenth Man. In this return-to-the-fold comedy, our hero is a schlubby middle-aged New York transplant, Ariel (Alan Sabbagh), who returns to his native Bueno Aires. But the film’s real main character is the traditional Jewish neighborhood of Once. A seeming chaos of charity organizations, kosher butcher shops and synagogues, we soon see that it actually works like clockwork — a very busy, buzzy hive that initially befuddles, then bewitches Ariel. This amiable community portrait compensates for a sometimes shaggy plot.
The Women’s Balcony. When the balcony for women worshippers collapses in a Jerusalem synagogue, rescue seems to come in the form of a handsome, young, charismatic rabbi named David (Avraham Aviv Alush). But soon it becomes clear that David has an austerely Orthodox agenda for his adopted congregation, including the subjugation of women. Families and friends divide over the changes, and one middle-aged congregant, Ettie (Evelin Hagoel), leads her female friends in a show of resistance against David and other men who wish to repress them. Think of it as a religious, non-sexual Lysistrata, and you’ll be on the right track. The closing night film for the festival, this warm, wry, altogether lovely comedy-drama shows how a community can suffer enormous division and then find its way back to unity. In other words, a perfect film for our less-than-perfect times.