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Preview: From comedies to the Holocaust, Atlanta Jewish Film Festival offers a stirring lineup

Canter's Deli patrons in Los Angeles break out into "Hava Nagila."
Patrons of Canter's Deli in Los Angeles break into song in "Hava Nagila (The Movie)."

In its 13 years, the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival has become one of the city’s best and most dependable destinations for thought-provoking features and documentaries from around the globe, regardless of one’s religious affiliation or lack thereof.

“I continue to be surprised by what really good films turn up at the festival,” says Matthew Bernstein, film professor at Emory University and programming chairman of this year’s festival. This year’s offerings include an abundance of comedies from places as diverse as Israel and France. And, of course, more than a few titles touch on the Holocaust, whether the art-world documentary “Portrait of Wally” or the Swedish coming-of-age drama “Simon and the Oaks.”

“There are always going to be films about the Holocaust,” Bernstein says, “but what’s amazing is that there are always new stories to be told there.”

In addition to its nice helping of comedies, AJFF 2013 is an especially tuneful year. “Hava Nagila (The Movie),” “Simon and the Oaks,” “The Ballad of the Weeping Spring,” “Orchestra of Exiles,” “A.K.A. Doc Pomus,” “Defiant Requiem” and “El Gusto,” for instance, all revolve around music.

Bernstein is especially fond of “Hava Nagila,” the festival’s opening-night film. “It’s fun, and in some ways it’s like the Coen Brothers’ movie ‘A Serious Man.’ That film re-created, down to the architecture of the synagogue, what I grew up with in the ’60s in New York.”

A few of his other favorites: “Lore,” from Australian director Cate Shortland (“Somersault”), exploring a young German woman’s struggles with her anti-Semitic indoctrination in the last days of World War II; “No Place on Earth,” a documentary about multiple families of Ukrainian Jews who survived for more than a year by literally going underground, hiding in caves; and “The Last White Knight.” As Bernstein says of the latter, “I never really wanted to meet a member of the Ku Klux Klan, but this does it for you from the safety of your seat.”

As usual, the festival will screen its offerings at multiple venues, from January 30 through February 20. Check out its website for complete details and updates on events and special appearances by filmmakers, authors and actors. Here are thumbnail appreciations of some of what will be shown:

“The Ballad of the Weeping Spring.” The central joke may go on a little long, but otherwise this music-mad movie is an affectionate homage to the spaghetti and sushi Westerns of yore. (Think Leone and Kurosawa.) It’s the tale of a young man who seeks out a group of fellow musicians — rather than gunslingers, “Seven Samurai” style — to perform one last concert for his terminally ill father.

“God’s Neighbors.” So what are you gonna do when the dreamy boy in your neighborhood turns out to be a religious fanatic? This compelling and unsettling study of extremism focuses on Avi (Roy Assaf), a young, devout Israeli who rides herd (with his two best buds) on anyone in the neighborhood who he thinks isn’t being respectfully observant. Their tactics include throwing both punches and Molotov cocktails, all wielded without any sense of hypocrisy, in the name of their Creator. A change in attitude comes via lovely young Miri (Rotem Ziesman-Cohen), who first draws Avi’s attention by wearing what he thinks is provocatively scant clothing, then makes him question everything he believes in through her common sense and decency.

“Hava Nagila (The Movie).” A playful look at the life-affirming song that became an improbable worldwide phenomenon in the 1950s and ’60s, Roberta Grossman’s documentary is a savvy choice to kick off this year’s festival. You’ll laugh, you’ll be entertained, but good luck getting that ditty out of your head when the movie is over. The interesting roster of talking heads includes Harry Belafonte, Leonard Nimoy, Glen Campbell and Connie Francis.

“Koch.” An affectionate look at the three-term mayor of New York City, a.k.a. Mr. How’m-I-Doin’? The documentary pokes around at some of the tricky questions that have always surrounded Koch (especially regarding his private life) but never goes especially deep. So it’s a little like saying, “Yeah, Ed made some enemies in the decade-plus that he ran New York. But give him a break, he’s one of us!” But the movie is worth a look, if only as a reminder of the days when Manhattan was a place where people other than gazillionares could afford to live.

“The Last White Knight.” When Paul Saltzman first encountered Delay De La Beckwith in 1965, the latter and some of his cronies tried to beat the heck out of this do-gooder young Jew from the North, who was helping register Mississippi blacks to vote. Forty-three years later, the director and his attacker — son of Medgar Evers’ convicted killer, Byron — meet up and talk things over. What’s scary is what a nice old man De La Beckwith seems to be, and he becomes quite friendly with Saltzman. It’s a fascinating look at shifty moral relativism. (The documentary includes interviews with Harry Belafonte, who’s also a big part of “Hava Nagila.” Small world, nu?)

“No Place on Earth.” Forsaken by their Christian neighbors in their small Ukrainian village, a group of Jewish families go to extremes for survival, wriggling down into the depths of caves, where they manage to elude the Nazis for more than a year. Distinguished by thorough, well-shot re-creations of the story, the documentary includes interviews with survivors, now in their 80s and older. A return trip to the caves that sheltered them is one of the most moving things you’re likely to see onscreen this year.

“Out in the Dark.” A gay “Romeo and Juliet,” in which the lovers are separated not by family but by tribe, religion and borderland. Nicholas Jacob plays a Palestinian psychology student who sneaks into Tel Aviv for surreptitious visits to a gay bar, where he meets a Jewish lawyer played by Michael Aloni. In this sexy, suspenseful drama, both men find that they’re in over their heads, to different degrees, and learn the hard way that, sometimes, love just isn’t enough.

“Portrait of Wally.” You could think of this as a microcosm follow-up to the overview provided by “The Rape of Europa,” which screened at the festival a few years ago. As that documentary showed us, the Nazis weren’t just mass murderers but aficionados of the fine arts as well. (OK, let’s be real and call them what they were: looters.) This is the story of the titular painting by Egon Schiele of his mistress, a canvas that was appropriated from its rightful owner during World War II and suffered decades of legal battles over its legitimate ownership. Fans of the Museum of Modern Art and NPR should brace themselves to see both institutions behaving very badly.

“Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir.” Love him or hate him, you have to admit that Polanski can be a great filmmaker, and his lifetime experiences (surviving both the Nazis and the Manson family and fleeing the U.S. after being charged with statutory rape) are remarkable. His longtime friend Andrew Braunsberg interviews him here, during the time he was under house arrest in Switzerland, in a documentary that’s more respectful and comprehensive than especially vivid or insightful.

“Simon and the Oaks.” A pastoral coming-of-age story about a young man in Sweden who befriends a Jewish boy, unaware that he himself is half Jewish too. A sprawling, beautifully shot and acted drama that spans many years and many moods, it features a quietly devastating act of emotional injustice between a young man and the woman who loved and raised him.

“The World Is Funny.” Three estranged siblings have to put their disagreements behind them in this uplifting drama about life, death, healing and storytelling. Dramatically intricate, its overlapping, initially mysterious plotlines — as Bernstein points out in the festival’s must-have guide — recall the works of Robert Altman and Paul Thomas Anderson. Interestingly enough, like “Ballad of the Weeping Spring,” the movie centers on the quest to put together a concert for a dying person, and a fatal car wreck in the past. Also, it shares an actress from “God’s Neighbors.”

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