The Athens Jewish Film Festival is back, and bigger and better than ever. Events span five days, beginning with a Sunday gala at the Georgia Museum of Art and ending with a closing party at the Rialto Club, Hotel Indigo’s music venue. In between are movies and shorts from the Ukraine, Australia, the United States, Germany, Israel, Canada, France and Russia.
This marks the 10th year of the festival, which began after organizers realized the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival didn’t want to expand its reach to venues in Athens. So movie buffs Abe and Carmen Tesser and several other Athens residents decided to stage a film festival of their own.
“It was the right thing at the right time,” says Abe Tesser, noting that local art-house theater Ciné had just opened. “We wanted it to be a community event, not just something for Jews.”
Longtime board member Ron Zell, this year’s festival president, says the board works hard to keep the films affordable to the general public and to showcase films from across the globe that focus on Jewish life, history and traditions. Last year was the only one in which the festival didn’t turn a profit, but, says Zell, “we’ve lasted longer than the well-known Robert Osborne Classic Film Festival,” which ended in 2010.
The Athens Jewish Film Festival has partnered with both the Willson Center for the Humanities and Arts at the University of Georgia and the Georgia Center for the Humanities to feature other events throughout the year. This year’s celebration began with a free showing of The Band’s Visit at Ciné in January. The theater was crowded with more than 100 people, says Tesser, “and it wasn’t just Jews, it was a lot of other people from the community.”
At some of the events are Jews who may not belong to the local synagogue, Congregation Children of Israel, but who want to connect with their heritage, according to Tesser. The festival has become an established feature in Athens, something the community looks forward to, and, often helps with. The ushers at this year’s screenings are members of Holy Cross Lutheran Church.
The Tessers remember the first year, when the event was still in the process of applying for nonprofit status, and board members scrambled to get the word out. Now, a social media presence keeps people informed and up to date.
“Opportunities like the Jewish Film Festival [are] just one reason I love Athens,” says Realtor Jane Mayer. She says she loves the variety of films and looks forward to the festival every year.
In terms of the festival’s future, Zell says, “It’s difficult to maintain the status quo, as the board is made up of only 13 members, plus two associates, doing the bulk of the work. We need new blood to advance the festival forward.” Getting donations is becoming more difficult, Zell says. None of the board’s volunteers are professional salespeople.
The festival will kick off with a gala at the Georgia Museum of Art on Mar. 24 that includes a dinner, adult beverages and a showing of The Women’s Balcony.
Zell says the board decided not to schedule screenings late at night. Films to be screened at Ciné include Monkey Business: The Adventures of Curious George’s Creators at 2 p.m., Tevye’s Daughters at 4 p.m. and Monsieur Mayonnaise at 6:45 p.m. on Sunday, Mar. 25; Paradise at 5 p.m. and Rabbi Wolff at 7:45 p.m. on Mar. 26; and Between Worlds at 5 p.m. and 90 Minute War at 7:15 p.m. on Mar. 27.
The last day features a series of short films and the presentation of an award for the best short at 5 p.m., followed by a showing of the award-winning documentary Body and Soul: An American Bridge at 6:15 p.m., and a closing party at Hotel Indigo at 7:30 p.m. To purchase tickets or a $45 festival pass, visit athensjff.org.