Retired UGA professors thought, ‘How hard can it be?’

By Rebecca McCarthy

They had worked with the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, reviewing entries, and an art house movie theater had just opened in Athens. So Athenians Abraham and Carmen Tesser thought their city could offer a viable venue for the Atlanta organizers.

The couple tried to persuade the Atlanta festival organizers to come to Athens for two years, but nothing happened.

So one evening, over wine with friends, the Tessers decided that Athens could stage its own Jewish film festival. “Sure, we could do it,” Carmen said, then laughed. “Famous last words.”

The Tessers, retired University of Georgia professors, realized they needed a nimble organization to do everything that needed doing. Such as being designated a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization so they could accept donations. And finding venues. And raising money. And forming committees to get everything else done.

Regardless of the help from other volunteers, the Tessers estimate that they were working about 40 hours a week on the festival.

They held a meeting, inviting people from the community as well as the local synagogue, to talk about what would happen. “You ever heard that Woody Allen line? ‘Want to make God laugh? Plan,’ ” Carmen said. “It was kind of like that.”

Even though it was the fall of 2008 and the economy was tumbling, people were enthusiastic about the proposed festival. Financial support, from both the Jewish community and the Athens community at large, never wavered. In addition to individual donations, the Georgia Humanities Council, the Athens-Clarke County Mayor’s Community Improvement Fund, the Israeli Consulate General to the Southeast and the German Consulate General in Atlanta all contributed.

Mama’s Boy, an Athens restaurant, told the organizers it couldn’t give money but offered to provide food. “And that changed the whole nature of the festival,” Abraham said. “It became an event with food and snacks as well as movies. At every movie now, there’s food, something to nosh on.”

He said that picking the films was an interesting process. But bringing in movies isn’t cheap. They knew that the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival had three people evaluating every submission, so they decided to follow suit. They didn’t want to show only films about the Holocaust. Or just comedies. Or movies from one particular country or region. Nor did they want anything playing in commercial theaters.

They opted for a variety of films, all of which met the requirement of being by young Jewish filmmakers or having Jewish themes.

“We were reviewing movies all year,” Carmen said. “Initially, we thought, ‘How hard can it be?’ Well, we found out.”

There were free screenings almost monthly at places around town, including the Athens Clarke County Library, the University of Georgia Tate Center theater, the Georgia Museum of Art, Cine, the Athens Academy and the Morton Theatre.

By March 2009, when the festival started, the organization had accrued about $20,000. For the three-day festival, the organizing committee also wanted to bring someone from at least one film, be it the director, the screenwriter or an actor, to talk with the audience. Such guests have become a feature of the festival.

Despite the snow that fell on the evening of the opening gala — a semiformal event with food, music and a movie at Cine — the festival was deemed a success. Abraham and Carmen decided to carry on as festival directors for another year and then to review potential winners for two more years. They now are supporters but are no longer directly involved.

If someone asked the Tessers how to start a film festival, they said, they would tell the person to be committed or dedicated and to have other people who are committed to hard work.

“It is a lot of hard work, but the rewards are great,” Carmen said.

“We let it go, and it’s still here,” Abraham said. “That’s the most exciting part: that it’s still here and going strong.”