Thursday, January 17, 2008

8th Atlanta Jewish Film Festival - Opening Nights!

The Atlanta Jewish Film Festival launched its eighth year in what was a truly impressive pair of opening weekend events. Since I am still in my first year of living in Atlanta, I had not attended the AJFF before, and its reputation had preceded it as being the premiere film festival in the city. If Opening Night is any indication, that is not understatement!

Opening night, or the official title, "Opening Night Red Carpet VIP Event" was extraordinary, in my festival going experience. And at $250/pair, the sold-out crowd is made up of obviously fervent supporters of the festival and the American Jewish Committee (the sponsors of the festival). Upon entering the Fox Sports Grill in Atlantic Station, which is next door to the Regal Atlantic Station Cinemas, where the film would be screened, and being greeted by a phalanx of volunteers and house managers (a good sign regarding the crowd control to come?), photographers were available to record your entrance. I was immediately greeted by the p.r. representatives from GCI Group and given a quick briefing on who's who in the room in the festival administration. After a short conversation with Festival Co-Chair Darren Katz and AJC Assistant Director, Dov Wilker (where I could hear myself babbling! argh!), I tripped upon the buffet dinner served before the film. I do not know who the attendees were, but if the parade of Sachs and Neiman-Marcus fashion was any indicator, these were movers and shakers of Atlanta society. The event itself was buzzing with several photographers (photos to come) and videographers. It was well staffed and the menu was delicious! I was actually pretty excited for what lay ahead for dessert after the film! Kudos to the Event Planner, whose name I regrettably did not write down during the opening remarks before the film.

As the screening approached, I began to wonder HOW they were going to move these hundreds of diners into the cinema and start anywhere near on time. I have grown used to festival opening nights running late, the record being held by last year's Altanta Film Festival which started over an hour late. An announcement was made over the restaurant's p.a. system and the crowd began to excitedly finish and move out. Scheduled to begin at 7:30, at approximately 7:40, a p.a. announcement settled the crowd and Sheri Labovits, President of the AJC, Atlanta Chapter, stepped up to the podium and began the evening, which was perhaps the most impressive moment of the evening! The crowd was there and ready FOR THE FILM! It wasn't the social circus that can mire such nights in an bog of networking and air kisses.

Ms. Labovitz was followed by an introduction to this year's festival by the 2008 AJFF Co-Chairs Darren Katz and David Kuniansky. They announced that as of that afternoon, ticket sales had surpassed 12,000 sold and that the AJFF was now the second largest film festival, next to the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. Their presentation included a stunningly professional and impressive short subject, "2008 AJFF: CINEMATIC BRIDGES", directed and produced by David Shapiro. The short was a concise and fairly thorough profile of the festival, it's goals and the incredibly involved selection process. There are no less than SEVENTY members of the film selection committee, so "the AJFF ensures a diverse range of movies which appeal to audiences of all kinds."

After the short subject, the AJFF Opening Night Honorary Chair, Eleanor Ringel Cater, introduced the film, "THEN SHE FOUND ME" (which just won the Audience Award at Palm Springs) and the author of the book upon which it is based, Elinor Lipman, who was adorably thrilled to be there. I will recap my experience of the film under a separate post, but will suffice to say that it was the a crowd pleaser and an excellent choice for an opening night!

After the film, Elinor Lipman discussed the eighteen year hiatus that the novel spent after it was optioned by Sigourney Weaver, and her brief experiences with Helen Hunt when she was contacted about its eventual production. It would seem that the novel was liberally adapted into the screenplay, however, Lipman seemed so pleased with the final product on screen, that she didn't mind. After the film, and back at the Fox Grill, Lipman and her publishers provided free copies of the book, and she was available to autograph, during the dessert, which also featured a table LOADED with cakes!

The evening was a rousing success in my book!

I was ready for the next event, the "Young Professionals Night Party", which was the only screening on the second night of the festival, and it too was located at the Fox Sports Grill and the Regal Atlantic Station Cinemas. I was expecting something much more low key, in the form of a cocktail party. I was wrong! THIS was what I had come to be used to as an Opening Night! At an outrageous bargain of only $18 per ticket, the dinner buffet may have been a slight step down on the menu compared to the night before, but was equally yummy and plentiful! This was a much more buzzing crowd and the transition from restaurant to cinema was even more excitedly managed.

Though the networking and air kisses were more prevalent, the program began promptly at 7:30, with a p.a. announced welcome, which silenced and settled the crowd. Why don't more festivals do that?! It was the most simple and effective crowd control device I've seen. It got everyone settled and allowed a 'space' for the introductory speaker to begin. At so many of these events, I've seen the speaker wander up to the podium, look out over the crowd and apparently HOPE that people will sit and quiet down. Anyway, the night's committee chairs, Katie Kolesky and Jackie Naggar introduced the evening, which included a number of trailers of films that the 'Young Professionals Committee' recommended (or sponsored?). Then the guest of the evening was introduced: Mark Dunn, who is a founding member of the Weather Underground, which was quite apropos for the evening's film, "CHICAGO 10". (Again, I'll recap my experience of the film under a separate post.)

Mr. Dunn does not have any associate with the film or its subject beyond his association with the peace movement at the time. After the film, Dunn was not so surprisingly frank about his feelings about the film. "It's long!" Har! Also, he has an aversion to documentaries that would suggest "movements are made by leaders. It was the movement that created [us]." During the rest of the Q&A, it became more of a lecture about the work of the student protesters in the late 60's as well as the state of foreign affairs today, which became just a bit heated once Iraq was brought up.

These opening events have me quite excited to see how the rest of the festival will be run! I inquired about who their projectionists are (to be answered later) and found that the house management is made up of volunteers. However, these volunteers are exceptionally involved in the process of the festival. The people taking audience ballot cards for "CHICAGO 10" were actually members of the film selection committee, as I found out after a brief chat. They had seen a minimum of 50 films to discuss in the committee, which is an exceptional commitment in itself, much less 'working the doors' of the fest.

The BUZZ film of the fest is "THE MEMORY THIEF" screening next Thursday! I can't wait to see it again!!

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