17th annual event adds jury awards, Saturday afternoon shows

By David Ryback

Here’s to another year of another highly anticipated social event: the 17th Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, which opens Tuesday, Jan. 24, with “Alone in Berlin” and closes Wednesday, Feb. 15, with “The Women’s Balcony.”

Perhaps the most enjoyable Jewish community event in Atlanta, the festival is comparable to meetings at the synagogue for the High Holidays as a time to reconnect with old friends and with newer ones made at past festival screenings.

“Our film festival is an old-school way of keeping us together as a community,” AJFF Executive Director Kenny Blank says.

“Our film festival is an old-school way of keeping us together as a community,” AJFF Executive Director Kenny Blank says.

As in years past, I sat down with the executive director of the festival, Kenny Blank, to find out what’s new that you, as part of the Atlanta Jewish community, might want to know. The Atlanta festival is one of the two largest Jewish film festivals in the world, behind only the originator of the format, San Francisco, which topped 40,000 in attendance over the summer.

The festival released its schedule of 55 features and 20 shorts Friday, Jan. 6, and tickets go on sale at ajff.org and by phone at 678-701-6104 on Wednesday, Jan. 18.

I began by asking about new elements for 2017.

Blank: Well, one of the most obvious changes is our decision to have showings on Saturday afternoons. There still will be no showings Friday evening or Saturday morning, out of respect for observant audiences. This is just in our DNA, a cultural sensitivity to our other Jewish community institutions and those devoted to worship. This shift is in response to increased demand for greater access to these films. We seek inclusivity … building bridges of understanding among diverse groups, more necessary now than ever.

Ryback: What about themes in the films? Any themes jump out at you?
Blank: The themes emerge organically. Of course, there are the familiar subjects that have renewed urgency, given world events and increased nationalism worldwide. For instance, in the documentary film “Keep Quiet,” a fascist politician in the higher ranks of Hungary’s far-right extremist party learns that his maternal grandparents were Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. Under the guidance of an empathetic rabbi, he goes through his own transformation of embracing what he formerly denounced.

Then there’s our opening feature, “Alone in Berlin,” another true story, in which a quiet, working-class German couple loses their son in the war. This jolts them into defiance, and they begin releasing handwritten postcards throughout Berlin, denouncing the Nazis. Both these films show what is possible when we are true to our inner selves, to defy prejudice and bigotry wherever it rears its ugly head.

Ryback: Sounds fascinating. I can’t wait to see the festival begin. What about the learning opportunities following each showing? Panels, Q&As?

Blank: We haven’t done our job if we don’t allow for opportunities for dialogue after the movie. So many movies are disposable entertainment. You forget what it’s all about in a day, a week or so. The Atlanta Jewish Film Festival presents stories on film that stay with people for weeks, even years, and spark a conversation. Roughly half the showings feature a Q&A with the filmmaker, actor or expert.

Ryback: How many films will there be?
Blank: Over 50 features, as well as 20 shorts, altogether shown over 202 individual screenings. The more popular films will have more repeat screenings. Many of these in-demand films will now also be available on Saturday afternoons. For those who have more flexibility, matinee showings during the week are a great option.

Ryback: Wonderful. It’s helpful to get an overview of the program. When will the program be available to the public?

Blank: This year we’ve decided to push that date a little farther down the calendar — reason being that we didn’t want the hubbub of festival planning and ticket buying to collide with the holiday season. This way, festivalgoers are free to make their selections closer to the screening dates and with less concern about conflicts in their schedules.

Ryback: Yes, people get very excited about the event. Over the years, it seems people look forward to the event as a time to reconnect with old friends.

Blank: Absolutely. They can reconnect with people they haven’t seen in a while in the lobby or even waiting in line — that’s part of the experience.
Ryback: Kind of a friendly competition — the running for the seats. It brings people of a community together, just as someone reading the newspaper to the rest of the village in the shtetls of older generations. I’m reminded of such a scene in “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Blank: So many seem to live in their silos now. There’s more disconnection. Our film festival is an old-school way of keeping us together as a community, responding to the films one at a time, sharing emotions, tales of personal experience. At the end of the day, it’s a way of connecting with people, finding real community.

Ryback: With all the demand for these wonderful films, have you considered expanding the time frame?
Blank: The annual festival already spans almost a month. We think the greater opportunities are not expanding the festival, but introducing other programs throughout the calendar year. This past year we introduced our first-ever industry prize, the Icon Award, honoring Jewish filmmaker Lawrence Kasdan, who directed “The Big Chill” and wrote several of the “Star Wars” films. We’ll see more programs like this in the future.

Ryback: Kenny, how are you feeling about your leadership experience this year?

Blank: I’m just the steward. I am so proud of the incredibly talented professional team we have, including volunteers, generous sponsors and donors. Somehow this whole enterprise seemed to have taken on a life of its own, now on a sustainable path, allowing us to grow in both numbers and quality, protecting it all for the next generation.

Ryback: But what about your role?

Blank: My role is to channel all this wonderful energy of the best and brightest in our community, to capture their best thinking and honor it all. I make it a point to hear from everyone as we make decisions about the future of the organization.

Ryback: Can I ask what you mean by that?
Blank: We’re in the process of raising our industry relevancy both nationally and internationally, collaborating with other festivals. In February we’re hosting the national conference of Jewish film festivals. About 150 people meet every other year for this. We’re also getting more involved with other Georgia film festivals for common interests. So, you see, there’s a lot happening.

Ryback: What about our own film festival? What’s new there?
Blank: Well, we are moving ahead with jury prizes to complement our audience awards. There will be juries to award prizes for the categories of narrative, documentary and short films, as well as unique prize categories emphasizing intergroup bridge-building, human rights and emerging filmmakers. These will be curated by film industry leaders, both critics as well as academics.

David Ryback, a psychologist in private practice and author of eight books, is a consultant and speaker on topics focusing on emotional intelligence and effective communication. He is the head of EQ Associates International and can be reached at David@EQassociates.com.