In the late 1990s, Emory University film professor Matthew Bernstein organized an Atlanta Jewish film festival that mostly screened vintage work of filmmakers such as Woody Allen. The newest incarnation of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival focuses on new Jewish-filmed movies from America and around the world, and is rapidly becoming Atlanta's glitziest cinema event. Author of the book Screening a Lynching: The Leo Frank Case on Film and TV, Bernstein serves as co-chair of this year's festival (with Michael Coles) and discusses how they choose the films about the Chosen People.
What makes a film qualify for the festival?
We always ask some questions in the selection process. Is this an excellent film, whatever it's about? Does this fulfill the mission of the American Jewish Committee? Should we show it? And the other big issue is, "What makes a film Jewish?" If here's there's one line of dialogue about a character — "Oh, you're Jewish" — does that really qualify it? Sometimes it doesn't.
When did you become involved with the festival under executive director Kenny Blank?
Beginning a few years ago, I've been on the programming committee and the film selection committee, which isn't made up of film experts, but very smart people who love film. I was the first film professor any of them had ever seen. I think one of the key concepts I introduced was the idea of an art film, how they go more slowly and are more character-driven by design. I would usually take an example from the previous year's festival.
Can you give an example?
For instance, one year we showed this almost unwatchable movie called Death in Love. Jacqueline Bisset played this woman who survived the Holocaust by sleeping with this doctor who performed experiments at a concentration camp. There was a total dysfunctional family, lots of hysteria, lots of fits, made by a director who'd based it on his own family and clearly had to get it out of his system. This is not usually what people want to see. It's not entertaining in the usual sense. But this is a different way of depicting certain realities of life and relationships. Life isn't an adventure with the boring parts cut out. It was very personal film by the director, conveying the worldview of an artist, and it's a more challenging movie experience.
In recent politics, people seem to throw around comparisons to Hitler and the Holocaust with little justification. Do the festival's Holocaust-related movies help counteract that?
We can't have enough reminders of what Hitler did in real life. I'm struck not just that there's so many Holocaust movies, but that there's so many good Holocaust movies. You wonder what can be said that hasn't been said already, but every year I'm amazed at what can be done. The Round Up is almost as good as The Pianist, on par with Schindler's List, and really gives a sense of what it was like when Jewish people were pulled out of their homes in Paris. They were sent to this bicycle stadium, so today's audience has associations with New Orleans and Katrina victims. But there's also a film about a Holocaust survivor, called The Matchmaker, that's very heartwarming.
Is there a challenge to reach out to audiences who aren't Jewish?
We estimate that 20 percent of our audience last year was not Jewish. The great thing about this is, like the Atlanta Film Festival, like any film festival, is that you get so see films that may not even come to theaters. Some are certainly worthy, but distributors don't want to take a chance on them. I'm amazed that these films are out there, and amazed that [the festival] chose them.