By Michael Jacobs | AJT “24 Days” begins Jan. 29

French films have always played a big role at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, but the terrorism Jan. 7 to 9 and years of surging anti-Semitism add timeliness to this year’s selections.

“French culture is in a complicated place with Muslims and Jews,” said Gabe Wardell, co-chair of the festival’s Film Evaluation Committee. “It seems to triangulate around Jewish identity, Muslim identity, the French reaction to that and the impact on the culture.”

Five of the festival’s 50 features films are from France: “24 Days,” “Belle and Sébastien,” “Once in a Lifetime,” “Serial (Bad) Weddings” and “An Untold Diplomatic History: France and Israel since 1948.”

Wardell said the films that didn’t make the cut show France’s complicated relationship with Jews through portrayals that aren’t as sensitive, but “the ones that did make it into the festival are rich and provocative.”

While “Belle and Sébastien,” a young-adult story set in the Alps in World War II, and “Serial (Bad) Weddings,” a comedy that addresses the problems of multiculturalism in modern France, are popular mainstream movies that just happen to have some Jewish characters and concerns, the other three films strike at the heart of French Jews’ problems.

“The filmmakers made these now for a reason,” Judy Marx, Wardell’s co-chair, said of “24 Days” and “Untold Story.”

Most painful and most direct in its depiction of anti-Semitism is “24 Days,” which dramatizes the kidnapping of 23-year-old French Jew Ilan Halimi in 2006.

Marx said “24 Days” “is one of the most gripping, edge-of-your-seat films that we saw, so compelling … so terrifying at the same time. It’s clearly called for now for a reason.”

The horror of “24 Days” comes not just from the treatment of Halimi at the hands of his abductors, but also from police officials’ refusal to view the case as an anti-Semitic incident.

“The committee saw it as a microcosm of what’s going on in France,” said Marx, who wonders about the response in France. “I don’t think that a film like ‘24 Days’ would have been made a few years ago. I don’t think the French film industry would have encouraged that story to be told.”

Zabou Breitman and Pascal Elbé star in “24 Days”

Wardell said: “France has such a tremendous and rich cinematic history. It’s great to see them address some of these issues in cinema.”

He said “Once in a Lifetime” hits the high points of the multicultural conversation. In the tradition of urban classroom dramas such as “Freedom Writers,” “Stand and Deliver” and “To Sir With Love,” the film features a teacher trying to reach her poor, inner-city, multicultural high school students. Her opportunity comes through a national competition on the theme of child victims of the Nazis, plus an encounter with a Holocaust survivor.

“It speaks to the issue of multiculturalism in France and beyond,” said Brad Pilcher, the festival’s associate director.

The world beyond is the focus of “An Untold Diplomatic History,” which provides the international context of the domestic pressures on French Jews.

“The French relationship around Israel and the Middle East tends to be seen as antagonistic,” Wardell said. “It’s complicated.”

Marx said there was a lot of discussion about whether to include the film because it’s not always favorable to Israel, but it’s valuable for showing how the close friendship between Israel and France turned sour.

“The rise of the Muslim community is no small part of that conversation,” she said. “There’s fear and anxiety about and among that population.”

Only time will tell whether these films are chronicling the latest challenges to French Jewry or the beginning of a permanent decline.

“We won’t know that on film for another couple years,” Marx said. “The process of capturing the stories that will tell that story, we’re not there yet.”