ATLANTA — It’s opening night at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival (AJFF) and executive director Kenny Blank is all smiles. In its 18th year, AJFF is now tied as the largest Jewish film festival in the world.
On this particular evening, AJFF is screening “Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me,” a documentary by filmmaker Sam Pollard. An African-American and Puerto Rican convert to Judaism, Davis was considered to be one of the biggest entertainers of his time.
AJFF, which ran this year from January 24 through February 15, aims to be a platform for diverse Jewish voices, because the Jewish experience is almost impossible to define, said Blank. “The films that the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival screens are as varied as what it means to identify as Jewish,” Blank said.
It’s difficult to gauge if other Jewish film festivals across the US would have chosen this particular documentary for opening night. But in Atlanta, the home of the Civil Rights Movement and the largest majority African-American city in the US, featuring a film with a Black-Jewish subject is part of the strategic programming that Blank said is the secret to the festival’s longevity.
“In the early years we were presenting a pretty narrow selection of films that dealt with Jewish life in a limited fashion,” he said. “The range of subjects and genres was limited, but through the years we’ve made an effort to expand the programming.”
The niche festival that draws 40,000
AJFF was founded by the local chapter of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) in the year 2000. At that time, the purpose was to provide film screenings for the Atlanta Jewish community.
But what began as a small film festival drawing only 1,900 people evolved into a 23-day event attracting nearly 40,000 attendees, a quarter of whom are not Jewish. The festival includes more than 76 films from 27 different countries at 192 screenings.
Three years ago AJFF became its own non profit so that both it and the AJC could focus on their core missions. The two organizations continue to work closely to ensure the success of the festival, said Dov Wilker, regional director of the American Jewish Committee.
This year the festival screened “Foxtrot,” a film that’s caused controversy from Israel to Paris. The story follows the family of a fallen IDF soldier and includes a scene in which soldiers from the son’s unit cover-up the accidental killing of four Palestinian teenagers.
Israel boycotted the Israeli Film Festival in Paris over a screening of the movie, and it was denounced by Israel’s Minister of Culture Miri Regev. However, Blanks said “Foxtrot” was an obvious choice for the 2018 lineup as its pedigree was impossible to ignore.
“In terms of the controversy surrounding the film, AJFF maintains its position that as a champion of freedom of expression, we do not dictate what is acceptable subject matter for artistic exploration,” Blank said.
“Foxtrot” won 13 Israeli Academy Awards, including wins for Best Film and Best Director. It was also the National Board of Review Best Foreign Language Film winner and Israel’s submission for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. The screenings for Foxtrot sold out, and Blank said the film “resonated strongly with audiences.”
All film submissions are scrutinized through a process which includes a screening by the evaluation committee, a vote, and discussion. The committee is chosen by a competitive application process open to the Atlanta community, including those with no professional film experience.
Israeli films are at an advantage because they automatically meet the mission of the festival. In the case of “Foxtrot,” Wilker said there was never a question of screening the film.
“The only question was whether the film was going to be made available to them by the distributor as opposed to not,” Wilker said. “The tremendous value is that the festival provides stories that people wouldn’t normally hear about.”
Stories, narratives, and relationships
AJFF includes a variety of films and shorts to show different facets of Israeli life. In 2017, AJFF won a $10,000 grant from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to support its Israeli programming.
This year the line-up included “The Cousin,” about a young Palestinian laborer accused of assaulting a young Israeli girl; “The Cakemaker,” a film about a closeted gay baker dealing with grief; and “The Testament,” a film about an Orthodox researcher who learns a family secret while digging through Holocaust history.
Blank makes the final decision on all films, but Gabe Wardell, film evaluation committee co-chair, said the evaluation committee “takes the bullet.” Many of the films are removed from the screening website in a matter of hours because they’re deemed inappropriate — like a Christmas movie submitted for this year’s festival.
“There are some movies you don’t want to subject the panel to, but you need to put it all out there and get feedback and confirm that it’s inappropriate,” Wardell said.
The evaluation experience is subjective, and everyone is looking for something different when viewing each film. However, Wardell said this year showed a commitment to storytelling that is reflected in the importance of stories, narratives, and relationships.
“The issue this year was looking at films that have a strong narrative component that connects with people and that people are passionate about,” Wardell said. “Even the documentaries are about stories and characters and how people relate to one another.”
Curating an engaging story lineup is only half the battle, said Max Leventhal, AJFF vice-president. Tickets sales account for a small portion of funding, causing the festival to depend heavily on corporate sponsorships.
This sets them apart from festivals in Israel where, Leventhal said, the government has a budget for sponsorship and companies are slow to give.
“We have never survived on ticket sales and we never could,” Leventhal said. “There’s no public funding. The private partnerships with corporations is extremely important and the individual sponsorships are very large.”
Sponsorship for AJFF comes from large foundations such as The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, The Coca-Cola Company, Fulton County Arts Council, Turner/Turner Classic Movies, MailChimp, and other corporations that call Atlanta home.
Donations are also a large chunk of funding amounting to over $1.2 million for the 2018 AJFF. Of the 690 donors, 2 percent are corporate donors, 96% are from private donations and those at the producer level, and 2.6% comes from grants. Many attendees and committees members also give large donations to help AJFF carry out its mission.
The support AJFF receives allows the organization to provide year-round programming enabling them to form relationships with various community partners and grow their footprint in metro Atlanta.
Programming includes AJFF Selects, a monthly film screening series; AJFF Conversation, a post-screening Q&A; and AJFF Campus, a small festival in partnership with Emory University.
AJFF is proud to carry the title of the largest Jewish film festival in the world (alongside San Francisco), but Wardell said the festival deserves to be recognized as one of the best international venues for film lovers.
“If you were to show the lineup to any festival goer in the world and take the word Jewish out of the title I think any aficionado would respond favorably to this lineup,” Wardell said. “It just so happens to be a Jewish film festival.”