Encores of sellouts, 5 world premieres, historic fliers and Theodore Bikel highlight festival

By Michael Jacobs | AJT

Above and Beyond Kicks off the Festival Jan. 28

The 15th annual Atlanta Jewish Film Festival offers 50 feature-length films and 15 shorts in 165 screenings with 48,000 tickets over 23 days, and dozens of those screenings sold out the day tickets went on sale.

The festival is the same number of days as last year but, in the constant struggle to increase capacity, has squeezed in 9 percent to 10 percent more tickets, festival Associate Director Brad Pilcher said.

“I believe this is the best lineup of films I’ve been a party to in my time with the festival, nearing a decade,” Pilcher said. He noted that some films are showing five times, so if your preferred screening is sold out, don’t give up hope.

Also to meet demand, the festival for the first time has saved screen time at Lefont Sandy Springs and United Artists Tara Cinemas on the second-to-last night and final afternoon of the festival, Feb. 18 and 19, for up to nine encore showings of movies that sold out.

“It’s been something that audiences have asked us for for years, and we’ve always wanted to do it,” Pilcher said.

He expects six to eight films to make the encore list, based on demand and distributor limitations. The festival will announce the list just after the festival opens, so be prepared to act quickly on tickets.

The festival opens Jan. 28 at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre with a gala screening of “Above and Beyond,” about the American war veterans who put their citizenship and their lives on the line to launch the Israeli air force during the War of Independence.

“It’s inspiring in a way that makes you understand why we refer to the greatest generation as the greatest generation,” Pilcher said.

For the opening, “you have to think about the space a film fills,” said Judy Marx, one of the two co-chairs of the film evaluation process. “Some are big. This one’s big.”

That left no choice for the closing night, she said. It had to be “Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholom Aleichem.”

“He has been such a good friend of the film festival since before I produced the first festival,” Marx said, explaining that she and Cookie Shapiro met Bikel in San Francisco at a conference on film festivals the summer before the Atlanta festival launched.

Jonathan Pryce stars in “Dough” – Beginning Jan. 31

Along with many U.S., East Coast, Southeast and Atlanta premieres, the festival is hosting five world premieres:

• “Dough,” a British feature starring one-time Bond villain Jonathan Pryce as an aging Jewish baker who hires a pot-dealing Muslim apprentice from Darfur. Pilcher said the warmhearted story is relevant to today with its interfaith connections, generational divides, immigration and changing mores.

Touchdown Israel premieres Feb. 5 at Regal Avalon

• “J Street: The Art of the Possible,” a controversial examination of the liberal-leaning alternative to AIPAC in the world of pro-Israel lobbying.

• “Raise the Roof,” a documentary about the re-creation of an elaborate wooden synagogue from Poland, led by two University of Georgia graduates who are neither Jewish nor Polish. “It’s a wonderful movie,” Marx said. “When we see the pictures of the synagogue and what was lost there, there’s a sadness to it.” Pilcher said it’s interesting to see the project’s interfaith, interethnic and international connections.

• “Streit’s: Matzo and the American Dream,” the story of the family-owned, 90-year-old New York factory that produces 40 percent of the U.S. matzo but is closing after Passover this year.

• “Happy in the Box,” a based-on-true-events Italian short about a photographer who steals a tombstone. It’s part of the first shorts program.

“What struck me in this year’s festival and this year’s process was the really remarkable number of good shorts,” Marx said. “I’m sorry we couldn’t put more in.”

The selection committee sometimes spent more time talking about a short than the film’s running time, she said.

Also getting a lot of discussion before winning spots in the festival lineup were “J Street” and “Sacred Sperm,” Marx said.

“J Street” is an important topic and a well-made film, she said, but there’s always nervousness when a film presents divided opinions about Israel.

“I’m very interested to see how the ‘J Street’ film is received and the conversation around it,” said her film evaluation co-chair, Gabe Wardell. “That’s as interesting as the film itself.”

“Sacred Sperm” is beautifully made and compelling to watch, Marx said, but it’s tough for a gathering of 70 people to talk about the film’s topic, masturbation. “There was an acknowledgment that who else is going to tell that story but us?”

Wardell said, “I couldn’t take my eyes off it.”

Other films singled out by Pilcher, Marx and Wardell include:

• “Touchdown Israel,” a documentary about American football played in Israel in a league sponsored by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. “It’s just this well-made documentary,” Pilcher said, about “a sport that we don’t even think about being international.”

• “In Silence,” which Pilcher said “isn’t just another Holocaust film.” The docudrama about artists at Terezin uses voiceovers while the characters on screen never speak. The result, Pilcher said, is lyrical.

• “Night Will Fall,” a documentary about the making of the ultimate Holocaust documentary, which Alfred Hitchcock and others were piecing together from footage fresh from liberated camps, only to have the project canceled. “Night Will Fall” features some of the raw, graphic, brutal footage while telling the story of how the original documentary finally was completed after seven decades.

• “Magic Men” and “The Last Mentsch” are parallel tales of Holocaust survivors who go back to their home countries late in life (Greece for “Magic Men,” Hungary for “Last Mentsch”). “Both are stories that are Holocaust stories, but they’re not Holocaust stories,” Marx said. They explore what it means that we’re losing the last survivors.

• “Zero Motivation,” a comedy about young Israeli women doing their military service as office workers at an isolated southern base. “It’s really an interesting look at the absurdity,” much like “M*A*S*H” or “Catch-22,” Wardell said. “It made an impression on me.”

• “Soft Vengeance: Albie Sachs and the New South Africa,” a documentary about a human rights lawyer who returned from exile to help write the post-apartheid South African Constitution. “It really ties in issues of human rights and the rule of law, standing up for things that matter, not stepping down in the face of tyranny, danger and threats,” Wardell said. “It’s a terrific film. I hope people take the time to see it.”

• “Avalon,” the Barry Levinson film about a Jewish immigrant family in Baltimore, in a special 25th-anniversary screening. Wardell, who is from Baltimore, is a big fan. “Levinson’s best work comes from these personal stories he tells.”

No one involved in the selection process got everything he or she wanted, Wardell said, because it’s not a festival for any particular person.

“It’s not arbitrary. We didn’t just check off a lot of boxes,” he said of the selection process. “There’s a reason why this is the pre-eminent festival in the region. No other festival comes close.”

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Tickets

Visit ajff.org to see the availability and purchase tickets for each film. You also can call 866-214-2072 to buy tickets, but you’ll pay a service fee of $2.50 per order.

Many screenings sell out quickly, but you can purchase tickets for other shows at the venue box offices during the hours of festival screenings.

Tickets for most shows are $9 before 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and $13 other times. People 65 and older, 12 and under, or with a valid student ID can get $10 tickets.

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Venues

Aside from opening night at the Cobb Energy Center and closing night at the Woodruff Arts Center, the film screenings are at five locations:

• Regal Cinemas Atlantic Station in Midtown.

• Georgia Theatre Company Merchants Walk in East Cobb.

• Lefont Sandy Springs.

• Regal Cinemas Avalon in Alpharetta.

• United Artists Tara Cinemas west of Toco Hills.