By Bob Bahr
It is just after 7 o’clock on the final evening of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, and I am struggling with a platter stacked with 20 pounds of marinated stuffed grape leaves.
I’m part of an effort to feed a hungry closing night crowd after the final festival documentary film about Israeli food.
Dangling from my neck is a purple-and-white plastic card that boldly proclaims me a festival “Volunteer,” something I had been doing in one way or another for eight months.
Little did I think that my journey that began in June as a volunteer at the AJFF would end in front of mounds of medjool dates and dried apricots, gallons of hummus, and a film festival credential that threatens to be lost amid the large mound of oily grape leaves I carry.
For eight months I have been part of one of the most ambitious cultural programs that the Jewish community has created in this city.
Without the help of a small army of volunteers and financial contributors working under the festival’s executive director, Kenny Blank, and his very capable professional staff and board of directors, the festival simply wouldn’t have happened.
Volunteers helped to whittle down over 500 film entries that became the 77 finalists in the festival. The 163 volunteers who participated in the six-month film evaluation process created over 13,000 individual evaluations for the films they screened.
Volunteers also accounted for an overwhelming majority of the 400 participants who provided programming before or after many of the films during the three-week run.
Finally, volunteers donated much of the multimillion-dollar budget for the festival. Because ticket sales account for only 20 percent of the budget, the rest comes from a long list of donors, large and small. Their names pack four closely spaced pages in this year’s program guide.
Their efforts are a testament to the maturity and deep strength that the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival has developed over its 16-year history.
Those efforts also confirm the immense vitality of an organization that stepped out 18 months ago as an independent nonprofit entity, separate from its founder, the American Jewish Committee.
But all this is not surprising for a festival that has been part of a Jewish educational and cultural movement that has made motion pictures into a major force in America’s Jewish cultural life.
Since 1980, when the first Jewish film festival was organized in the United States in San Francisco, these festivals have grown and prospered, even as support for other cultural programs has tightened. Today there are over 100 Jewish film festivals that serve in varying degrees as a source of Jewish identity and participation in their local communities.
In Atlanta this year’s showings provided many encounters with inspiring, little-known corners of Jewish experience and life. Who knew about Carvalho’s trek across the uncharted American West or Ina Pinkney’s breakfasts or David Broza’s journey across the ethnically frozen borders of Jerusalem?
For many for whom Jewish learning is a daily process or just a sometime thing, the festival provided an opportunity to grapple in a darkened theater with many profoundly Jewish themes.
There was the message of intercultural understanding and intergenerational forgiveness in “The Midnight Orchestra,” a discourse on the ultimate cost of loneliness and despair in “Mountain,” and the powerful search for meaning in a difficult life in “Wedding Doll,” to mention just a few.
Many who attended could speak at length and with passion about their favorites. Often the individual conversations about these films would continue long after the screen had flickered out.
As support for the Atlanta Jewish film Festival grows from year to year, so does recognition of the power of the Jewish film movement to help create, as one critical observer put it, a community that is reborn and revitalized.
In a world where we are more often defined by our differences than by our agreements, a Jewish film festival such as ours bring us together on common and congenial grounds.
Through the power of film and the lure of Jewish stories, we are able to forget, if only for a few short weeks, our religious and ideological differences.
It helps us to engage in a conversation about what truly matters to us all. The great gift of the festival is that it encourages the healthy dialogue that is at the heart of a vibrant and dynamic community existence.
That all came together last week as the closing night’s film ended and the crowd spilled out into the theater lobby. Plates of chicken wings, swirls of hummus and bites of barbecued lamb pitas competed with film talk and farewells.
As I took off my volunteer badge for a final time, I was reminded that in the sharing of the food, as in the sharing of all the ideas and experiences that had bound this crowd together, this festival was truly not just a celebration of the movies, but also a celebration of us.
Bob Bahr has just begun a six-week series at The Temple (the-temple.org) titled “Fitting In — A Short History of Jewish Film in America.” It is co-sponsored by the AJFF and the Breman Museum.