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Q&A: 18th Austin Jewish Film Festival is ‘an affirmation of living’

Eric Webb
World War II story "The Crossing" is the opening film of the 18th Austin Jewish Film Festival.

The latest Austin cinema celebration to navigate strange days, the Austin Jewish Film Festival plans a mostly virtual event from Nov. 7 to 13.

David Finkel, the festival’s director, told the American-Statesman that organizers wanted to take full advantage of the online platform, and they actually ended up "programming more than three times the number of films we normally present in our festival, which as you can imagine is a lot of extra work.“

“This has also allowed us, in addition to the great mainstream narrative and documentary films we are known for, to program a number of more niche, quirky films that may not appeal to everyone, but may also help bring new audience members,” he added.

We caught up with Finkel about how the festival is pulling off their 2020 event, which also will feature a couple drive-in screenings, opening night film “The Crossing” and closing night film “Aulcie.” This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. For more information on tickets and screenings, go to austinjff.org.

American-Statesman: How did the team decide on a combination of virtual and drive-in?

David Finkel: When physical programs ceased, like most presenters, we were trying to figure out what we could do in a virtual world. An early event we planned was a Q&A with Dani Menkin, a great L.A.-based Israeli filmmaker who came to our festival last year to present his films "Picture of His Life" and "On the Map." Dani has a great new film for 2020 called "Aulcie," and during our Zoom-based Q&A in May, he said how much he would like to be back in Austin this year to present it. He said in a somewhat joking manner that "maybe we could show it as a drive-in event."

After the call, we started to think about that statement and asked ourselves, "Why not? Could we do drive-in events?" ... With a lot of planning, and assistance from experienced drive-in operators, we came up with a plan for two fun events for opening and closing nights.

The festival is celebrating its 18th year, which AJFF announced as a year of significance. Tell me a little more about how this theme has informed the fest this year.

In Hebrew, letters represent numbers as well as letters, which means every word has a numerical value and vice versa. The word "chai," which means “life” in Hebrew, equates to 18, which makes it an auspicious number. This is why Jews typically give or donate money in multiples of 18. We are commanded to "choose life," and we look at this as an affirmation of living and celebrating our lives as best we can. Holding a festival and having fun, safe experiences, even (in) the midst of a pandemic, is our expression of that ideal.

What are a couple standout films on the slate that you think speak to this moment in time?

"The Crossing" is our opening night drive-in movie. This is (a) beautiful, family-friendly story set in Norway in World War II about children helping Jewish refugee children try to escape to Sweden. It won Norway's Amanda, their (equivalent of an) Oscar, for best family-friendly movie. What might appear at first to be a children's film is actually quite deep and should have wide appeal. The acting is incredible, as is the cinematography of the Norwegian countryside. But it is the story about how even young people can make ... moral choices that is so strong — and especially resonant in today's world.

"Aulcie" is a great documentary about basketball player Aulcie Perry, who led his team to international prominence, but this isn't what I would call a sports story. It is a human interest story. He was married to one of Israel's top models, and they were the "it" couple. He converted to Judaism, but he also ran into problems with the law and experienced major setbacks. Ultimately, this is a great story of perseverance and redemption. We are also very excited to have the Capital City Black Film Festival as our community partner for this event.

One of the films that (local LGBTQ film festival) AGLIFF will be a community partner for is "Army of Lovers in the Holy Land." Thirty years after the queer Swedish disco-pop band Army of Lovers became an international phenomenon, its Jewish frontman, Jean-Pierre Barda, embarks on a new chapter when he uproots his existence to move from Sweden to Israel. In this new documentary, director Asaf Galay joins Barda (on) his journey at the age of 50. ...

Are there any films on the slate you think might take people by surprise?

We will have the U.S. premiere of "The Prague Orgy," which is based on a Philip Roth novel. A famous American writer accepts a quest from a Czech emigrant to bring him back unique Yiddish manuscripts from communist Czechoslovakia. The writer accepts not only a dangerous journey to Prague, where he is watched at every step by communist secret police, but he also needs to face the emigrant’s flamboyant and wild wife. She is in possession of the manuscripts and very angry at her husband, as he left with his mistress for the U.S. ...

"Happy Times" will be the North American premiere and is a comedy-slasher flick about a boorish Israeli American couple that plans a Sabbath dinner party for a group of fellow expat friends and family in their Hollywood Hills mansion. A deadly mix of alcohol, inflated egos, inappropriate lust and raging jealousy result in a cauldron of murderous mayhem. A shotgun, garden shears, kitchen knives and even a garbage disposal are used as weapons as these deranged guests turn on each other in director Michael Mayer’s outrageous and bloody comedy. ...

I have a special soft spot for another U.S. premiere we have — "Bukra Fil Mish Mish." Shortly after the death of his uncles, Didier Frenkel descends into the basement of their shared home and finds a treasure: an ancient archive of animated films from Egypt starring Mish-Mish Effendi, the Arab equivalent of Mickey Mouse, and others. His Jewish father and uncles created these characters but never got the attention they richly deserved. Didier begins restoring the films and unveils the story of the rise and fall of these pioneers of Arab animation. Surprisingly, Didier’s mother strongly opposes this project. This is a film that I "discovered" that had gone under the radar but is now getting the attention of a major distributor, and I expect it to show at many festivals in 2021.

Anything else?

While we are the Austin Jewish Film Festival, this just means that the stories have some sort of Jewish or Israeli connection, but in reality the themes are really universal. Our tagline of "For Jew and You Too" is an invitation for people of any religion (or none) to come enjoy our films.

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