By Martha Nodar

David Kuniansky

Celebrating its 11th anniversary, the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival comes to theaters Feb. 8 through Feb. 27. The festival, the brainchild of the Atlanta Chapter of the American Jewish Committee, is expected to draw more than 20,000 patrons this year.

One of the volunteers who helps pull the festival together is Sandy Springs resident, AJC member and former co-chair of the festival, David Kuniansky.

Kuniansky said the organization’s mission is to build bridges of understanding in the community. He said the idea of having a Jewish film festival in Atlanta originated with AJC member Cookie Shapiro, who thought much could be accomplished through art.

To that end, the festival’s film selection volunteer committee’s co-chairs Tom Karsch and Phyllis Lazarus oversee approximately 70 to 80 volunteers who screen films for the festival that are consistent with the organization’s mission.

Kuniansky, now semi-retired and a self-declared “big movie buff,” has been one of the festival’s screeners for the last seven years. He said there are approximately 500 volunteers working behind the scenes.

“We begin screening in June and end in October,” Kuniansky said. “For this year’s festival, I screened 238 films from approximately 400 to 500 entries, out of which we have selected around 60. These films have universal themes of humanity. We owe it to our audience to show films of human interest with no political propaganda.”

Kuniansky said the screeners watch the films as a group or watch them individually on DVD and then go online and fill out an evaluation form. The results are tabulated and films are placed on the finalist category.

1930s Detroit Tigers slugger Hank Greenberg is featured in “Jews and Baseball,” the opener of this year’s Atlanta Jewish Film Festival on Feb. 8.

“The selection committee is composed of movie lovers and people with expertise in cinema, the arts, and Jewish subjects, who make recommendations for the festival,” said Kenny Blank, the festival’s director. “The screeners carefully consider artistic quality, subject matter and outreach potential.”

Among the locales participating in what has become Atlanta’s largest film festival are the Buckhead Theatre and Lefont Sandy Springs Theatre.

Sandy Springs resident Clare Habif said she has been attending the festival for the last five years.

“I love going to the Lefont Sandy Springs because it is so close to home,” she said. “Some years I see more movies than others depending on my schedule and the availability of tickets – they sell out fast.”

Jason Wiley, Lefont Sandy Springs’ general manager said his theater has been participating in the festival for the last six years.

“It is nonstop from the day the festival begins to the day it ends,” Wiley said referring to the crowds of patrons. “This festival attracts many Jewish families, but we also see a number of non-Jewish members of the community as well.”

Blank refers to the festival as a “contemporary storytelling” medium and hopes his audience will be affected long after leaving the theatre.

Among the films that may induce conversations is “The Loners,” a story about two Russian immigrant soldiers serving time in an Israeli prison. Also, “Wagner & Me” recounts the struggles of Stephen Fry trying to come to terms with his appreciation of Richard Wagner’s classical music and his feelings toward Wagner’s anti-Semitism at the same time. Wagner (1813-1883) was especially vocal against Jewish musicians of his time. Four decades after Wagner’s death, Hitler used Wagner’s music to introduce his speeches during the Third Reich.

Revenue obtained from the sale of the tickets is reinvested in the following year’s festival, Blank said.

“We never take our audience for granted,” Blank added. “Our long term opportunity is to continue to attract new and diverse audiences to the festival. The AJFF truly offers an exceptional cultural experience for all, Jewish and non-Jewish.”

Blank emphasized without the volunteers this event would not be possible.

“Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story” is the festival’s opener at the Fabulous Fox Theatre on Feb. 8.

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Atlanta Jewish Film Festival

The festival runs Feb. 8-27 at several local theaters, including the Buckhead Theatre and Lefont Sandy Springs. Ticket prices vary.

For more information visit: www.ajff.org.