Celebrating its 20th anniversary year, the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival brings an extraordinary lineup of diverse films to venues across Atlanta and to its anchor venue, the Sandy Springs Performing Arts Center.

What began two decades ago with a handful of films and a modest number of a little more than 1,900 filmgoers is expected to welcome more than 40,000 attendees for this year’s run, Feb. 10 through 27.

A scene from the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival’s closing night film “Saul & Ruby, To Life.” (Special)

The anniversary program counts a total of 64 films: 48 features and 16 shorts. Among them are award-winning films and award-nominees, three world premieres, five North American premieres, two US premieres and a number of Atlanta premieres, from 17 countries around the globe. For many, it’s a film lovers’ wonderland. It is the largest Jewish Film Festival in Atlanta and one of the largest in the world.

The screenings are held at seven metro Atlanta venues. There are two venues in Sandy Springs: Regal Perimeter Pointe, which is hosting 38 screenings, and Sandy Springs Performing Arts Center’s Byers Theatre, which is hosting 19 screenings, including two screenings of the closing night film on Feb. 27, “Saul & Ruby, To Life” and an evening reception celebration.

The word is out that Saul Drier and Ruby Sosnovicz, two Holocaust survivors and musicians, in their nineties, who are the subjects of that closing night film, will be there. It’s an uplifting story of the duo seeking to bring peace and hope through music in the U.S. and their home country of Poland, even as anti-Semitism is on the rise.

Mounting the film festival is a major undertaking that involves hundreds of people and a complex set of considerations, from the films themselves, venues, guest speakers, finances and more.
Film festival president Max Leventhal has been involved with the event since its early days as one of the original members of the board of the Atlanta Jewish Film Society. He painted a vivid picture of what it takes to make the event happen every year.

“Committed, passionate people” is his first stroke on the canvas. “The Atlanta Jewish Film Festival has a small but mighty staff of 11 people year-round. Most of the others are volunteers – more than 400.

Max Leventhal, president of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival. (Atlanta Jewish Film Festival/Vaughn Gittens)

What makes a Jewish film? It’s a frequently asked question by audiences and the public in general. On Feb. 23, for the first time on the festival roster, there is an evening conversation between audience members and a five-person panel on just that topic at the Sandy Springs Performing Arts Center. The panel includes local and national film experts, Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul and Rabbi Brad Levenberg of Temple Sinai.

The AJFF description is “a cinematic exploration of Jewish experience — Jewish culture and history, life in Israel, and the work of Jewish artists — entertaining and engaging diverse audiences with film through a Jewish lens.”

“Essentially it encompasses obvious Jewish topics, such as life in Israel, the Holocaust, Jewish creative people, foreign films with Jewish characters and more. We try to be relatively broad,” said Leventhal. The question is an important part in the orientation of the Film Evaluation Committee of more than 200 members.

“Importantly, the committee is a widely diverse group that looks like metro Atlanta,” said Leventhal. “There are many loyalists and newcomers, too,” he added.

“For the 2020 festival, we started with 700 films to consider. Think of it as a big funnel,” said Leventhal. “The committee’s job is to get it down to a workable number.

This year, there were 21,561 evaluations, to be exact, according to the AJFF. The evaluations go on through October, then the screening and streaming process begins. Streamings are private for committee members via their computers, TVs and phones.

For detailed information on show schedules and tickets, go to ajff.org.

–Judith Schonbak