In 14 years, the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival has become the city’s must-see happening for movie lovers in the metro area and beyond. Religious or cultural affiliation have nothing to do with it.
“The quality of films is astonishing,” says Matthew Bernstein, the festival’s programming cochair. “How to account for it? Our scope is worldwide, so when you’re open to new films from all over the world, both fiction and documentary, great things are going to come up — even with this filter of having some Jewish content or connection.”
Opening Wednesday and running through February 20, with more repeat screenings than ever before (to accommodate frequent sell-out shows), the AJFF includes a few obvious genres. The dysfunctional Jewish family dramedy, for instance, exemplified by Blumenthal. The Arab-Palestinian conflict is portrayed in many forms, notably in the outstanding dramas Bethlehem and Omar. And Poland is represented in a big way, via a sweep of films exploring the nation’s complicity with Germany during World War II.
“The majority of these films are not going to get theatrical distribution or show up on DVD or video-on-demand,” says Bernstein, chair of Emory University’s film and media studies department, about the AJFF’s schedule. At a time when small-screen entertainments distract ever-increasing numbers away from theaters, “it’s amazing that people take advantage of the opportunity to see these films. The support of the audience, the turnout, is really gratifying.”
It helps, he adds, that AJFF executive director Kenny Blank and his team run a very shipshape festival, not an easy thing to do with something that includes so many moving parts. (Screenings take place at eight different venues around Atlanta, so make sure you’re headed to the right one.)
In addition to movie premieres, this year’s festival includes three anniversary screenings: The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, which gave Richard Dreyfuss his first lead role; Atlanta-shot, multiple Oscar–winner Driving Miss Daisy; and Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker, starring Rod Steiger as a haunted survivor of the camps. As always, the festival also includes a wealth of guest speakers, including Oscar-winning directors and local pundits.
It’s rare to see movies that don’t come to Atlanta already encased in buzz from previous festival screenings and reviews. Many of the AJFF’s films are like newborn babes — you won’t find a lot about them already written on the Internet or IMDB. Enjoy the sense of discovery.
If you do want a little direction, here are capsule reviews and recommendations for some of the films I was able to see in advance, listed alphabetically.
Aftermath — Long-simmering resentment is the least of the problems two brothers face when one of them returns to the small-town Polish farm he left for America 20 years earlier. The younger, who stayed behind, has estranged his wife and kids because of his obsession with the gravestones of Jews that were used, after the war, as paving material for a local road. By literally digging up these relics, he arouses the guilt and violence of a community that would rather let the past be the past. Even if it’s all a comfortable lie. The story is told in blunt, loud strokes, and the characters take a few psychological/motivational turns I had trouble buying. But it’s very much worth a look.
Before the Revolution — The AJFF is always stocked with fascinating documentaries, and you can rarely go wrong with choosing anything on the schedule. This year, I only managed to see this one doc. Short and engaging, it recalls the brief idyll for Jewish businesspeople and their families in Iran in the 1960s and ’70s, prior to the Islamic revolution. It’s a time capsule about a place on the cusp of explosion.
Bethlehem — A knockout. Tense and engrossing, it’s the story of a young Israeli secret service agent — a handsome, affable family man — who has nurtured a young teenage Palestinian boy as an informant about terrorists working out of Bethlehem. The boy, Sanfur, is a real get: his older brother is a leader of the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, whose suicide bombings are a constant menace in Jerusalem. The father-son relationship between the agent and the teen gives the movie its queasy, ambivalent emotional core. This is one of two gripping dramas about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at this year’s AJFF. It would make a fantastic double-bill with Omar (below). Though each is slightly slanted toward opposing sides, both are convincing, emotional dramatizations of the daily madness people face — on both sides of walls and checkpoints — as they try to go about their lives as people, rather than as representatives (or pawns) of a specific nationality or religion.
Big Bad Wolves — I liked the two directors’ twisty, mean thriller Rabies so much in 2012’s AJFF, this is the first title I watched for this year’s festival. Consider it a sophomore slump. Very well made, but delivering diminishing returns, this is the tale of an Israeli cop and an aggrieved father who kidnap and, um, interrogate a man they suspect is the serial rapist and murderer of young girls. Problem is, we’re ahead of the movie for the first hour, and underwhelmed in the second — especially by lame “black comedy” moments that include phone calls interrupting torture sessions and tired Jewish-mother jokes. Note to the filmmakers: these days, if Quentin Tarantino endorses your movie, it’s time to sit down and rethink your material.
The German Doctor — Scenic and sinister. Shot in a beautiful lakeside area of Patagonia, this is the tale of an Argentinian family who befriend a nice, dashing, German expatriate, a veterinarian. He calls himself Helmut Gregor. His real name is Josef Mengele. A fictional look at a short period in the concentration camp butcher’s decades of hiding in South America, it’s seen through the eyes of the family’s 12-year-old daughter, Lilith. She draws the attention of “Helmut” because she’s too short for her age. He has some interesting ideas about growth hormone and eugenics. And about the nature/nurture prospects of the twins gestating in Lilith’s mother’s belly. The film generates a quiet, Hitchcockian vibe as one character secretly tries to verify Mengele’s true identity in a German enclave where he’s viewed as an incognito hero. The movie is like a bedtime story told by someone who doesn’t want to deliver a tidy moral — he wants to creep you out and make you stay up all night.
Ida — This gorgeous, minimalist, black-and-white Polish film follows the bumpy reunion of Ida, a young nun, with her world-weary Aunt Wanda, who is Jewish. So is Ida, though, raised as an orphan in the Catholic church, this is news to her. The unlikely duo — an embittered former prosecutor and a wide-eyed novice in every way — travel together toward the dark secret of Ida’s parents’ death in the countryside. While Wanda seems fatally tired of life, Ida has her first chance to see what the world outside the convent is like. Shades of Robert Bresson mingle with a deadpan humor that recalls Jim Jarmusch or Aki Kaurismaki. A lustrously austere film, if that makes sense.
In Hiding — A stylish, unhinged guilty pleasure. A young Polish woman reluctantly agrees to her father’s decision to shelter another young woman, a Jew, in their apartment’s crawlspace. When the father leaves the scene . . . well, things get twisted in a psychosexual way. Bernstein likens this one to a What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? for younger people. One of the movie’s crueler plot twists owes a debt as well to Emir Kusturica’s grand, sweaty epic Underground. Psychologically, the movie lacks the big payoff it seems to be heading toward, but it’s still worth a look if you’re interested in seeing how, sometimes, people can make a bad global situation even worse through their own damaged psyches.
In the Shadow — The title is sometimes all too accurate in this accomplished but often murky (visually and plot-wise) Polish drama. It’s the tale of a Czechoslovakian policeman whose investigation of a series of robberies clashes with the Soviet State Security Bureau, which wants to pin the crimes on Jewish immigrants as easy scapegoats. The movie sometimes seems to be too much in love with its rainy, film noir stylings. It pays off, though, in an emotional sacrifice that seeks to expose the hypocrisy of the Jewish show trials staged by Moscow in Eastern Europe of the 1950s.
Kidon — Completely preposterous, but delightful. This super-twisty comedy takes as its starting point the real-life assassination of a Hamas leader. (Don’t worry, you don’t need to take notes, but you do need to pay close attention to the crazy plot.) Since everyone assumes Mossad is behind the killing, its agents find themselves playing catch-up, trying to find out who actually is responsible. Investigations lead them to a shaggy French national and art thief, a girl-crazy computer hacker barely out of his teens, a statuesque blonde and the sleazy owner of a bordello. But are the Mossad investigators really on the right track, or are they pawns in a whole ’nother game? The French and Russian embassies get embroiled, bags of diamonds get passed around, and a gangly man exits a party looking very far from feminine in a wig and dress. The movie’s big reveal is ridiculously farfetched, but you’ll have had too much fun to feel stung.
Omar — By the maker of the edge-of-your-seat 2005 thriller Paradise Now, about two potential suicide bombers in Tel Aviv, Hany Abu-Assad’s latest focuses on the title character. A young, Palestinian West Bank baker, Omar scales the separation wall erected by Israel to visit his teenage sweetheart, Nadia, secretly hoping to marry her. A slightly huge problem surfaces when he’s arrested and forced to be an informant for an Israeli intelligence agent. (It’s a flipside look at a similar setup in the equally strong Bethlehem, above.) A beautifully shot, deserving nominee for this year’s foreign language film, this drama — the first feature made in the occupied territories — asks the question, How many forms can betrayal take?
Run Boy Run — Several times during this lyrical/brutal, fact-based drama, the central character, Srulik, sobs like a little kid. That’s because he is one. A nine-year-old who has to shiver alone through long nights of blasting snow, pretend to be a devout orphaned Christian to cadge some food, and keep his pants on so that no one can see he’s circumcised. (Yes, shades of Europa Europa.) Beautifully shot, beautifully scored, the film depicts an ever-shifting balance between kindness and cruelty that the boy encounters among the people he meets in his struggle to survive wartime Poland. This is a wonderful movie, and a good choice for the festival’s opening night. (I hope the AJFF can find a way to schedule additional screenings.) Though I was glad when Srulik’s’s suffering came to an end, I was sorry to say goodbye to this boy, about whom one of the adults he meets says, accurately, “You’re the bravest man I know.”
The Zigzag Kid — Nono isn’t the bravest man anybody ever knew, but he’s a wily and ingratiating 12-year-old in this silly, lovely family comedy set in the 1960s. Two days shy of his bar mitzvah, Nono, son of a police inspector, sets off across Europe on a mission to unravel the mysteries of his mother, who died when he was an infant. He’s aided by an unlikely older duo, a dapper international thief whose style outweighs his transgressions, and a famed chanteuse (Isabella Rossellini, no better a singer than she was fumbling her way through Blue Velvet almost 30 years ago, but no matter). If a good number of films in the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival are serious, heavy meals, Zigzag is dessert.