The Atlanta Jewish Film Festival opens Jan. 29 with “Run Boy Run,” a powerful drama about a 9-year-old who survives the Holocaust in an odyssey through Poland’s woods and farms, and it doesn’t let up on the intensity for three weeks.
The AJFF is known for international and independent titles targeting the serious-minded filmgoer. As usual, the 14th annual event, stretching 23 days through Feb. 20, delivers a bounty of thought-provoking cinema.
Its 65 films from 20 countries explore topics including the 14 centuries of shared history between people of often-clashing faiths (“Jews and Muslims: Intimate Strangers”), Filipino migrant workers fearing deportation in Israel (“Transit”), the true story of a Polish Jew who converted to Catholicism and became the archbishop of Paris (“The Jewish Cardinal”) and a political thriller about a Palestinian pressured into becoming an informant for Israeli intelligence (“Omar”).
The first film to be fully funded by the Palestinian cinema industry, “Omar” was nominated last week for an Academy Award for best foreign language film.
Though they were not nominated, the AJFF will screen five other films entered by their home countries for consideration for Oscar consideration in the same category: “Bethlehem” by Israel; “The German Doctor,” Argentina; “In the Shadow,” Czech Republic; “The Third Half,” Macedonia; and “Transit,” Philippines.
The festival boasts one other Oscar nominee: “The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life,” up for best documentary short. It’s an introduction to the world’s oldest-known Holocaust survivor, a 109-year-old Londoner who maintains a positive outlook despite heart-rending losses during the Nazi occupation of Prague.
Of course, the fest isn’t all serious business. It also will feature a number of comedies and rom-coms for leavening. The schedule even includes a trio of documentaries exploring Jewish humor: “Mel Brooks: Make a Noise,” “Quality Balls: The David Steinberg Story” and “When Jews Were Funny.”
The AJFF is Atlanta’s best-attended film festival, drawing a record of nearly 32,000 in 2013, and the country’s second-largest Jewish film festival, after San Francisco’s.
Roughly a quarter of its draw, based on audience surveys, is non-Jewish. Launched in 2000 by the American Jewish Committee, its mission is to break down cultural barriers.
“This is a celebration of film more than anything else,” AJFF Executive Director Kenny Blank said, “just great universal storytelling that would appeal to anyone.”
Yet it’s the sort of storytelling that’s relatively rare to find on metro Atlanta’s commercial screens, which no doubt helps make so many of the festival’s screenings sell out in advance.
“We have our share of discerning moviegoers (in Atlanta), but they are not enough to sustain ticket sales on a random basis in the theatrical market,” noted Matthew H. Bernstein, professor and chair of Emory University’s Department of Film and Media Studies.
“Getting anyone to a movie that is not a superhero/action blockbuster is hard work,” continued Bernstein, the fest’s programming co-chair. “Like any film festival, the AJFF focuses the mind, as it were, giving people the opportunity to see films before they might be shown elsewhere or to see films that will never be shown theatrically. People like to be in on the exclusiveness and cutting edge. It is what drives every film festival from Sundance to New York to Venice to Berlin to Cannes. (But the) AJFF has no glamour quotient, per se. The focus is on the films.”
Organizers did a little tweaking this year to make the fest, especially the most popular titles that typically sell out well in advance, more accessible. They increased the number of screenings to 152 (28 more than last year) while decreasing the number of films from 71 to 65 (53 features and a dozen shorts) and extended the event by a day.
The AJFF also is adding either screens or days or moving to bigger auditoriums at Georgia Theatre Company’s Merchants Walk, Regal Cinemas Atlantic Station Stadium 18 and Regal Cinemas North Point Market 8.
Additionally, the fest is moving into a seventh screening venue for the final day, the Woodruff Arts Center’s Rich Auditorium. There will be a free dessert reception between showings of the closing night feature, “Next Year Jerusalem,” a life-affirming documentary about Connecticut nursing home residents who embark on a final adventure to Israel.
Other notable programming:
- A 25th anniversary screening of “Driving Miss Daisy, ” followed by a panel with many who worked on the Atlanta-filmed favorite. Two other revivals will mark significant anniversaries: Sidney Lumet’s “The Pawnbroker” (50th) and “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz” (40th).
- Many films will be followed by Q&As with filmmakers, stars or experts. The AJFF also will host a first-time panel discussion. “‘Bethlehem’ vs. ‘Omar’: Conflict and Context” (11:10 a.m. Feb. 16 at Regal Atlantic Station) will explore two films from different sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide.
- Also new this year, the Creative Loafing Art Party, an attempt to engage 20- and 30-somethings, will celebrate iconic Jewish filmmakers Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks and the Coen brothers. It’s pitched as an “immersive” film-themed happening, with projections from the honorees’ films, contemporary takes on classic movie poster art, photo booths, DJ, food and drink.
“One of our goals is always how do we attract that younger demographic to a festival that has a stigma attached to it of being ‘something for my grandparents or parents,’” Blank said of the 8 p.m. Feb. 8 happening at the Westside Cultural Arts Center. “It’s an ongoing audience development effort.”
Atlanta Jewish Film Festival
Jan. 29 through Feb. 20 at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre (opening night only), Regal Cinemas North Point Market 8, Georgia Theatre Company Merchants Walk, Lefont Sandy Springs, United Artists Tara Cinemas 4, Regal Cinemas Atlantic Station Stadium 18, Westside Cultural Arts Center (Creative Loafing Art Party on Feb. 8 only) and Woodruff Arts Center’s Rich Auditorium (closing day/night only). 1-866-214-2072, www.ajff.org.