Works by a talented group of creative Israeli filmmakers dominate these half-dozen choices from the 2021 Atlanta Jewish Film Festival. During the past decade, Israel has emerged as a major center for both streamed television series and feature film productions, and this year’s festival is confirmation of how far it has come in such a short time.
Here We Are
A divorced Israeli father abandons his lucrative and successful career as a commercial artist to care for his autistic son, then finds he can’t give him up when the young man is about to be placed in a group home. The film deftly chronicles the emotional price some parents face as they are forced to deal with such difficult situations. Last year it swept the top awards at Israel’s celebrated Ophir Awards, winning best screenplay, best actor, best supporting actor and best director for Nir Bergman, who has been interviewed for the festival website. The film is also up for the AJFF’s jury prize for narrative films. Director Bergman may also be remembered for his role in creating the Israeli TV show “B’Tipul” that ultimately became the basis for HBO’s highly successful “In Treatment” series.
Love It Was Not
The extraordinary and often-chilling story of a love affair between an Austrian SS officer and a young Jewish girl in Auschwitz. Israeli filmmaker Maya Sarfaty has chased down archival footage from a variety of sources in this often-chilling portrayal of a seemingly deep relationship that develops between the Nazi, Franz Wunsch and 20-year-old Helena Citron. The film expands on Sarfaty’s 2016 student Academy Award short to examine, through a series of revealing interviews with a group of women who were inmates with Citron in the infamous death camp, how and why the long romance endured in such horrific circumstances.
A Crime on the Bayou
Noted documentarian Nancy Buirski’s takes an ambitious look at a case from 1960s civil rights history that changed the course of American jurisprudence. The film recounts the efforts of attorney Richard Sobel to defend a young Black man, Gary Duncan, against charges that he assaulted a white teenager in south Louisiana’s Plaquemine Parish. On its face the case was a simple one, which without Sobel’s intervention might never have been given a second thought. Ultimately, the issues were argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, which handed down a verdict that changed the interpretation of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But more than just the story of a legal fight, Buirski’s powerful film emerges as a symbolic examination of American racism that seems particularly timely when seen against the backdrop of events of the past year.
Victor and Raya Frenkel arrive in Israel in 1990 as part of the exodus of Jews from Russia. In that country they were well known to Russian audiences as the unseen but familiar vocal talent that dubbed in the screen performances for a long list of Hollywood icons. In their new home they are aging nobodies with little more than memories of their past fame, their frayed relationship they have as husband and wife and their golden voices. This wishful romantic feature film follows the couple as they reclaim their true voices, often in unexpected ways and rekindle their love for one another. A moving tribute to the mystery of love at any age.
Fans of Shira Haas, who has received international acclaim for her roles in two streamed series that portray life in the Hasidic world, “Unorthodox” and “Shtisel,” turns in another brilliant performance in this film. She’s Vika, a teenage Russian immigrant in Israel with health issues that lead to her confinement to a wheelchair. As she matures sexually and emotionally, she clashes with her mother over Asia’s unique and open approach to rearing her daughter. Out of that they develop a new understanding and appreciation of one another. The film had its world premiere at last year’s prestigious Tribeca Film Festival in New York, where it won top awards for cinematography and best actress for Haas. It claimed the Nora Ephron Award for Ruthy Pribar, in her film debut, for outstanding work by a female director. And it picked up nine honors at Israel’s recent Ophir Awards ceremony and is the country’s entry for best foreign film at the Academy Awards.
‘Til Kingdom Come
The fervent support by the evangelical community for the state of Israel gets a closeup look in this controversial documentary. Emmy award-winning Israeli filmmaker Maya Zinshtein profiles the Christian Bingham family in Binghamtown, a poor rural community in the heart of Kentucky’s coal country and their ties to the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. This timely look at the influential political bonds between fundamentalist Christianity, Washington politics and the Jewish state is slated for wider distribution on public television later this year.
Matthew H. Bernstein is Goodrich C. White Professor of Film and Media at Emory University and chair of the department. He is a longtime board member of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival.
Bob Bahr leads the Center for Media and The Moving Image, where he develops programs on film and society. He writes regularly about film and culture for the AJT.