October 27, 2018: What should have been a gala opening night for the 16th annual Austin Jewish Film Festival was instead marred by a horrific event 1,400 miles away in Pittsburgh. Robert Gregory Bowers walked into the Tree of Life synagogue carrying an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle and three Glock .357 pistols and proceeded to open fire on attendees of the Shabbat morning services, killing 11 congregants and wounding six others.
AJFF co-director and programmer David Finkel recalled that the festival was showing A Heartbeat Away. "It's a film about how Israeli doctors and cardiologists apolitically travel all over the world, including the Arab world, and find cases that are basically death sentences in third world countries. They then bring these cases back to Israel for treatment, all while having to get around the fact that there's often no diplomatic relations between Israel and whatever country the patient is coming from. It's dangerous, lifesaving work. The rabbi at AJFF noted that obviously this was a tragic night, but then here's an example of how film is reaffirming life itself, which is something that Jews do in times of crisis." With xenophobic nationalism and outright alt-right anti-Semitism brazenly on the rise not only here in the U.S. but across the entire globe, one could be forgiven for assuming AJFF 2019's programming might be, well, a tad darker than in previous years. One would be wrong, though.
This year's selections include Hulu's engaging and often hilarious Ask Dr. Ruth, about the life and impact of the titular septuagenarian sex therapist, talk show personality, author, and Holocaust survivor. Another documentary, On the Map, recounts the Cinderella story of Israeli basketball team Maccabi Tel Aviv's triumph over the USSR's presumed unbeatable Red Army Moscow to take the 1977 European Championship. Backdropped by a veritable meat grinder of Cold War machinations and Israeli national turmoil following the Yom Kippur War and the Munich Olympics massacre, director Dani Menken's white-knuckled, crowd-pleaser documentary is as thrilling as it is improbable.
And then there's Palestinian-born filmmaker Sameh Zoabi's Tel Aviv on Fire, which mines the fertile rom-comedic ground around a pro-Palestinian soap opera that's also a hit in Israel and the lowly production assistant (Venice Film Festival award winner Kais Nashif) who must daily traverse the Israeli-Palestinian territories checkpoint to get to work.
"We have the word 'Jewish' in our film festival title," said Finkel, "and some people might think that because they may not be Jewish, then it's not for them. It's quite the opposite. It just means that the stories or the content have some connection [to Judaism], whether it's Jewish actors, Jewish writers, Jewish values. But honestly, these films are universal and the selectivity that goes into choosing the films is very, very high, and that, I think, is born out of the fact that at least two of them have been submitted for Oscar nominations."
That includes documentary short "A Night at the Garden," recounting a 1939 American Nazi Party rally that sold out Madison Square Garden. Finkel said, "You want to talk about timeliness of films? You look at this and you think, 'This is America? And they're saying the Pledge of Allegiance?' I wish I could say that this was something we would only see in a long-ago historical context, but unfortunately we can't. Those who don't learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it. So we're trying to make sure that people learn their history."
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