AJFF: 5 From 5 – Festival Insiders’ Best Bets

AJFF: 5 From 5 – Festival Insiders’ Best Bets

Our special Atlanta Jewish Film Festival special section this week offers individual reviews of most of the 55 feature films, as well as our suggestions for creative ways to match your special interests to the options presented by more than 200 screenings.

But no one knows more about the festival and its films than the many volunteers who work to put the festival together, so, with the help of the Gina McKenzie, the CEO and president of GEM Public Relations, we asked five festival leaders to name five films they’re eager for festival audiences to see.

Steve Labovitz

AJFF board president

It is difficult for me to limit my recommendations to just five movies. There will be so many great ones, and my recommendation to the community is to see as many as they can.

With that said, our opening night film, “Alone in Berlin,” is one that should not be missed, and since it is only shown one time during the festival, I think it is a must. The actors involved are superb, including Emma Thompson, one of the stars, and the plot is very interesting as it is inspired by a true story.

As you are aware, the wonderful things about our festival include the thought-provoking dialogue that follows.

Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson resist the Nazi regime one postcard at a time in “Alone in Berlin.”
Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson resist the Nazi regime one postcard at a time in “Alone in Berlin.” (Read our Review)

I have no doubt that a very controversial film like “Keep Quiet” will be a very buzz-worthy topic for the duration of the festival and beyond. This movie is about a notorious, anti-Semitic and fascist firebrand who undergoes an astonishing transformation after finding out he is Jewish. I believe this film will be thought-provoking.

For sports fans, and I know there are many in Atlanta, including me, I think that two of the movies we will be showing this year are must-sees. One is “On the Map,” which is a documentary, and it deals with the incredible European victory by the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team against all odds in 1977. And the other is “Olympic Pride, American Prejudice.” This one features the racial politics of the 1936 Summer Olympic Games in Germany, and it parallels the treatment of Jewish and black athletes.

In light of what is taking place politically, I believe “The Settlers” is a must-see, particularly because of the controversy dealing with the right of Israel to construct the settlements in the West Bank. I think this will also be a very thought-provoking film. I know an interesting discussion will follow.

One of the historical films that we show, celebrating the anniversary of an older film with a Jewish theme that is worth seeing, is “My Favorite Year.” I saw this many years ago, and this is a classic comedy. This film is celebrating its 35th anniversary.

Also I want to give a shout-out to Brad Lichtenstein from Atlanta, whose film “There Are Jews Here” will be shown at the festival as well. I know Brad personally, and he has put a great deal of work into this documentary. I believe there are many in the community who will find this very interesting since it centers around smaller Jewish communities in the South.

Finally, while I can’t select a favorite, I certainly hope that our audience will attend one of our four shorts programs this year. These shorts programs showcase some of the most diverse filmmaking that AJFF has to offer.


Spring Asher

Festival chair

There are 75 films coming to the festival this year, with picks for everyone — sports stories, comedies, Holocaust stories, documentaries and more.

Tal Brody is carried off the court after Maccabi Tel Aviv’s upset over Soviet powerhouse CSKA Moscow in the 1977 European semifinals, the “Miracle on Hardwood” recounted in “On the Map,” showing Jan. 28 and Feb. 3, 4 and 7.
“On the Map,” showing Jan. 28 and Feb. 3, 4 and 7. (Read our Review)

We are theater buffs, so we will surely see “Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Happened,” a behind-the-scenes look at a rare Steven Sondheim flop, with interviews with Sondheim and young star Jason Alexander.

Fannie’s Journey” is the story of a brave young girl who leads a small band of orphans through Nazi-occupied France. It’s a great opportunity to bring history alive for younger audiences.

There are lots of sports films, including documentary “On the Map,” the upset victory of the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team over a Cold War adversary.

Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You” is a documentary about his television career, including “All in the Family” and “Maude,” and at 93 he has a new one coming, I have been told.

Abulele” is a family-friendly fantasy film from Israel about a troubled boy in a secret friendship with Abulele, a mythical creature.

Genevieve McGillicuddy

AJFF board member

Radio Days,” because it’s a treat to watch (and hear) this nostalgia-driven Woody Allen comedy about a young boy obsessed with radio during its heyday.

Olympic Pride, American Prejudice.” It’s always interesting to get a new perspective on a well-known historical event, and this documentary, about the 18 African-American athletes who competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, promises to shed light on this little-known story.

The Freedom to Marry,” a documentary that offers an in-depth look at the struggle for gay people to win the right to wed, is a great example of how the festival showcases stories that resonate deeply in our community.

To Be or Not to Be.” Never miss a chance to see any Ernst Lubitsch film on the big screen with a crowd. This is a crowd-pleasing comedy featuring the unlikely team of Carole Lombard and Jack Benny.

My Favorite Year.” Director Richard Benjamin will be in attendance for this rare, 35th-anniversary screening of his comedic masterpiece, featuring the indomitable Peter O’Toole.

Max Leventhal

Film evaluation co-chair

Narrative films are my preference in moviegoing. I like a moving, surprising and thoughtful story told with great artistry. In terms of documentaries, my preference is similar: moving, surprising and thoughtful, even artistic. For me, the difference is that in a documentary, I look for stories that appeal to the head and teach me something. In narrative, I look for films that speak to the heart and touch a deeply held personal truth.

Danish Jews Arne (David Dencik), Miriam (Danica Curcic) and Jakob Itkin (Anton Dalgård Guleryüz) live in terror of Nazi deportation in “Across the Waters,” being screened Jan. 28 and Feb. 4, 5 and 13.
Danish Jews Arne (David Dencik), Miriam (Danica Curcic) and Jakob Itkin (Anton Dalgård Guleryüz) live in terror of Nazi deportation in “Across the Waters,” being screened Jan. 28 and Feb. 4, 5 and 13.

So in alphabetical order, not in a ranked order, my favorites of the films I have viewed or am looking forward to seeing are:

Across the Waters” — A haunting journey through Denmark of the Holocaust diaspora and what it did to Jewish families escaping and to Danish families who were torn apart in the way they chose to abet desperate escape attempts to Sweden. A jazz musician and his family struggle with the Nazi aggression and make a late choice to leave Denmark. A fishing village is divided between those who will take advantage of the situation and those who see a humanitarian obligation. This is a moving drama, based on a true story, and is beautifully depicted.

Alone in Berlin” — It’s opening night. I have not seen this movie, but with Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson fighting for what’s right in Berlin during World War II, it has me hooked.

Bang! The Bert Berns Story” — We know the hits and the artists. This is a lush life story of the Jewish genius behind the music. Charming, funny and sad, this is a great biopic. It includes a cast of characters reminiscing and teaching the audience about the man they so clearly loved.

Beyond the Mountains and Hills” and “Past Life” — In communities that know war from experience, Israeli film artists tell beautiful, cinema verite stories of the complexity and depth of family and cultural life there. I link these two films, though they are very different. What they share are intensity, beautiful acting and strongly crafted filmmaking.

The Settlers” — The hottest topic in today’s news about Israel and the Palestinians is shown with raw footage of settlers in the West Bank. This film will bring to life the most difficult aspect of the Mideast conflict, in my opinion, in a way that is hard to truly comprehend and is educational. I look forward to the discussions after the film.

Hazel Gold

Film evaluation co-chair

Picking just five titles is not easy because this year’s AJFF lineup offers an embarrassment of riches: fiction and documentaries; Holocaust stories; art-house gems; portrayals of Jewish life around the globe (the United States, Europe, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East); and wonderful selections from the Israeli film industry.

The titles below are among my favorites, telling stories that continued to resonate with me long after the credits finished rolling:

Fanny’s Journey” — This is a riveting film, based on a survivor’s memoir, of a group of Jewish children in occupied France who must manage to cross the border to Switzerland and safety. The director, Lola Doillon, has expertly cast the young actors — particularly the girl who plays 13-year-old Fanny. The actors communicate the intelligence and resilience of these children, playing cat and mouse with the Nazi soldiers, who are barely one step behind them. Viewers will be on the edge of their seats, as I was, rooting for them throughout their harrowing journey.

Bert Berns plays guitar during an early Van Morrison recording session. Berns’ story is told in “Bang!” on Jan. 26 and Feb. 3 and 11.
Bert Berns plays guitar during an early Van Morrison recording session. Berns’ story is told in “Bang!” on Jan. 26 and Feb. 3 and 11. (Read our Review)

The Tenth Man” — Other films by Argentine director Daniel Burman have already played the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival; “The Tenth Man” may be his most thematically relevant production to date. The film’s fictional protagonist, Ariel, wrestles with big questions: Can he go home again to his country, his family, and, in particular, his often absent father, Usher? His Jewish roots? Why, he wonders, are 10 men required for a minyan? Filmed on location in el Once, the heavily Jewish neighborhood of Buenos Aires, it offers an inside look into Argentina’s Jewish community, highlighting its solidarity but also its economic difficulties, which Usher tries to mitigate with the charitable foundation he runs. Handheld, lo-fi camera work lends this film a documentary feel and communicates the complex relationships and often chaotic pace that characterize life in Jewish Buenos Aires today; well-drawn characters and ironic humor also contribute to the movie’s charms.

There Are Jews Here” — This informative and often poignant documentary chronicles the story of Jewish communities in Texas, Pennsylvania, Montana and Alabama, all of them on the verge of disappearing as their member numbers dwindle. As I followed the film’s examination of the history of these small communities and listened to interviews with their residents, who express pride in their pasts and worry for their future, I was reminded how privileged we are to enjoy the many resources of big-city Jewish life in Atlanta, including the AJFF.

The Jews” — In contrast to “There Are Jews Here,” which chronicles the imminent demise of small American Jewish communities, the premise of the French comedy “The Jews” is that many of their countrymen believe French society is overrun by Jews (the original title, Ils sont partout, translates to “They’re Everywhere”). The film interweaves vignettes that satirize common Jewish stereotypes — “they’re rich,” “they control everything,” “they killed Jesus” — with scenes in which the director, Yvan Attal, confesses to his psychiatrist — hello, Woody Allen — the anxiety he feels over his Jewish identity. Most of the skits hit the comic bull’s eye. The film’s wit is biting, and the topic is especially opportune, given the rise of anti-Semitism in France and throughout Europe. Attal is a director who dares to say what many are thinking but are reluctant to express publicly.

The Settlers” — It’s hard to single out just one Israeli film. I recommend “The Settlers,” in the documentary category. As its title indicates, “The Settlers” recounts the history of the West Bank settlements, how they expanded and the implicit position of some key Israeli politicians vis-à-vis their growth. Through a mix of archival materials and interviews (with Jewish settlers and, on occasion, Palestinians), director Shimon Dotan offers the audience a complicated, pessimistic view of the conflict. Opinions on this film are sure to be divided. Just because this is a documentary doesn’t mean the vision Dotan presents is objective, and the omission of any reference to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is striking. But given the passage of the recent U.N. resolution condemning Israeli settlements, Dotan’s film could hardly be more timely, despite — or because of — the controversial argument it makes.

OK, I’m going to cheat and add one more title of a film that I can’t wait to see: “Bang! The Bert Berns Story.” As a huge fan of rock ’n’ roll, soul and R&B, I’m excited about this documentary about Berns, a songwriter I’d never heard of despite knowing the many hits he composed and produced in the ’60s. “Twist and Shout,” “Hang On Sloopy,” “Brown Eyed Girl” — the list goes on and on. Narrated by Steven Van Zandt, with interviews with rock luminaries and an insider’s view of the music industry, along with all that great music that Berns created or promoted, what’s not to like?

read more: