The Eighth Annual Atlanta Jewish Film Festival (AJFF), which runs from January 16-27, 2008, is positioned to offer a substantial variety of choices to 2008 AJFF attendees. To fully grasp the scope of this year’s AJFF, I posed a series of questions to Kenny Blank, AJFF’s Executive Director, and he was kind enough to give me some insightful answers. My thanks to Mr. Blank for his time and to Becky Biggs for facilitating the interview.
Tim O’Shea: This year marks the eighth year of the festival–how much has the festival changed since it first launched in 2000?
Kenny Blank: While the goal remains the same, to use film to build bridges of understanding between the many different cultural and religious communities in Atlanta, our festival has grown in scope and complexity. In order to meet the expectations of both our audience and our sponsors, including our presenter the Atlanta Chapter of the American Jewish Committee, we have improved the post-film discussions, bringing in more filmmakers, actors and writers; we have expanded our outreach and publicity by using the most up-to-date technology; and we have worked hard to create a high-class festival atmosphere that makes all those attending feel like they are someplace special.
O’Shea: In addition to expanding the festival to 12 days, what other improvements were made to the festival in the past year?
Blank: Growing the festival to 12 days means growing in lots of ways: we had to find more great films; to find more great films, we had to grow our volunteer corps; to grow our volunteer corps, we had to increase our outreach; to increase our outreach, we had to improve our publicity; to improve our publicity, we had to find new sponsors; all of which are tremendous improvements to the festival.
O’Shea: How many films were submitted for consideration from which festival organizers picked the 47 films that will be shown? Can you provide a brief overview of the selection process (which I believe involved 143 committee members)?
Blank: Approximately 300 films were submitted this year from which the committee selected 47. The selection process averages about 17 weeks, during which each individual committee member watches an average of 37 films (although some watched well over 100). The committee is comprised of a diverse range of individuals, from academics and religious leaders, to film buffs and community figureheads, which insures the selection of a wide-range of films with appeal to a broad audience. Together the committee debates the merits and appeal of each film with potential to screen at the AJFF.
O’Shea: Who are some of the academics, authors and other experts participating in the 32 Q&A sessions at the festival?
Blank: Special guests this year include:
* Joe Diaz, Israel Ministry of Tourism for the film Aviva My Love
* Uri Rosenheck, Former IDF Commander for the film Beaufort
* Philippe Ardanaz, Consul General of France for the film, Being Jewish in France
* Richard Trank, director of I Have Never Forgotten You
* Gil Kofman, director, and Jerry Adler, actor, in Memory Thief
* Valerie Harper, actress, Tony Cacciotti and Jeremy Kagan, producers and David Steiner, director of Golda’s Balcony
* Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz, Juliette Paskowitz, and Jonathan Paskowitz, family members in the documentary film Surfwise
* Sabrina Ben Abdallan, actress in Two Ladies
* Francis Benhamou, actress in Arranged
O’Shea: How challenging was it for the AJFF to garner Helen Hunt’s theatrical directorial debut, Then She Found Me, as the festival’s opening night film?
Blank: The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, and was in the running for Sundance, so there was a small possibility of a conflict, but luckily the AJFF was able to secure it as the Opening Night Film. There was also some debate as to whether the film was “Jewish enough”, but ultimately committee members felt it was a great fit for the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival.
O’Shea: While this festival seeks to examine “Jewish life, culture and history,” am I correct in assuming the AJFF’s hope is to attract and inform those who are not normally part of the Jewish experience/culture?
Blank: The American Jewish Committee, the agency that produces the festival, is constantly seeking to engage the greater community in dialogue. We use film to explore our own identity but also to connect with others on the universal issues that impact everyone (family life, alienation, growing old, integration, activism, etc). It is by using Jewish stories to talk about universal experiences that we draw such diverse audiences.
O’Shea: How many kinds of film genres are represented in the festival?
Blank: About six film genres are represented (action, adventure, comedy, drama, historical and war). But there are many sub-categories of films including, sports, romance, biographical and films that appeal to both men and women. The festival also features both narrative and documentary films, and even spotlights some great animated films, including Chicago 10 which screens on Thursday, January 17, for Young Professional’s Night.
O’Shea: There are many films this year that deal with Muslim-Jewish relations. What kind of outreach measures have you implemented to interest the Muslim community in attending?
Blank: The American Jewish Committee’s inter-religious efforts have always involved the Muslim community. Through coalitions like the Faith Alliance of Metro Atlanta and World Pilgrims, the dialogue between our communities has flourished. By experiencing these films together – by laughing, sighing, and – maybe – crying, we hope that our conversations will deepen.