The AJFF, To Life!
The 20th Atlanta Jewish Film Festival Celebrates Life-Affirming Messages

By Lee Valentine Smith

In celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, the organizers have planned special opening and closing presentations. On February 10, the esteemed event kicks off with the world premiere of "Shared Legacies: The African-American Jewish Civil Rights Alliance," a riveting oral history of the supportive alliance between African-Americans and Jewish Americans by Dr. Shari Rogers.

The festival closes on a emotional note with two screenings of Tod Lending's latitudinal documentary "Saul & Ruby, To Life!" followed by a special Q and A and musical performance by the stars of the movie.

INsite was fortunate to speak with the directors of both films for some valuable plot and background information.

Shared Legacies

Dr. Shari Rogers examines the chronological lessons of Black-Jewish cooperation in this world premiere presentation. Presenting the historic facts and an urgent call to action, the film includes commentary from Holocaust survivors as well as interviews with many leaders of the movement. A number of prominent activists including Oscar-winning actor Louis Gossett Jr. and members of Martin Luther King's family are scheduled to attend.

It's great to open the festival with a film that embraces unity, empathy and partnership.

Shari Rogers: We are honored and excited to be a part of it. The timing can't be more appropriate, too. I've gotten emails from people who said they were actually moved, just by viewing by the trailer.

From the cast listing alone, you'll have the all-star film of the event.

We were so fortunate to speak with many of the most prominent leaders of both the African-American movement, but also from the Jewish American movement. We've invited many of them to attend the gala.

With Atlanta being a center of the civil rights movement, you'll obviously have a full dais of speakers as well.

We will and we just got confirmation that [legendary folk musician] Peter Yarrow, who sang at Dr. King's speech in Washington in 1963, will be singing "Blowin' In The Wind" before the film.

He's quite the activist.

He really is. He just doesn't stop. You know what I've found from interviewing these folks for the film, is they don't stop. They have such energy and they're not as young as they used to be. But you'd think they were in their fifties. People like Yarrow and really all of the many people we're featuring, they thrive on giving back, rolling up their sleeves and getting involved in the movement.

Is he on the panel for post-film discussion?

No, he's coming in just to sing the song, to open the whole event. But we'll have martin Luther King III, Rabbi Sugarman, Louis Gossett, Jr. and a number of other prominent people who are also seen in the film. So many people who were on the front lines of the events we discuss in the film will be there. It's shaping up to be a night of incredible history, on screen and off. I couldn't be more excited to bring these messages to festival. It's sure to be a night we'll never forget. I mean, to be able to watch a movie with the people who are actually in the movie, some of whom are in their 80s or 90s, it's going to a surreal event. It'll be like reality TV on steroids!

Saul & Ruby, To Life!

As an emotional finale, the festival closes with a screening of the new documentary by Academy Award-nominated and Emmy-winning documentarian Tod Lending that follows the real-life exploits of friends-activists-musicians Saul Dreier and Ruby Sosnowicz. Saul had a crazy dream to be a musician at the fragile age of 89. The film documents the story of the Holocaust Survivor Band with equal does of humor and pathos.

The film premiered in early January at the Miami Jewish Film Festival, how was the reaction?

Tod Lending: Just incredible. I'm so excited about the Jewish film festivals in general. It's interesting to me when you think of other ethnic groups, what other groups have this kind of incredible film festival circuit that is so specific to their own culture? I'm honored to be a part of it. I'm Jewish but I'd never done a Jewish-themed film before now. But I think it's about preserving our history, our culture and our stories. Storytelling with film is perfect for our culture.

Storytelling is key in any culture, but the Jewish tradition is particularly rich.

Hollywood was founded by Jewish immigrants, so there's a strong connection to film as a storytelling platform. And indeed, storytelling binds us all. From the Old Testament to today. It's the way most cultures survive.

Saul and Ruby is a very touching story. Can you give us a little thumbnail description of the main storyline?

Basically it's about these two Holocaust survivors who formed a band a bit late in life. Saul just turned 90, actually. He decided to leave something for his own legacy and came up with this rather unusual idea, to form a band. His wife said he was nuts, his Rabbi said he was crazy. He said because they said I'm crazy, I'm gonna do it. So I followed this klezmer duo around their community and retirement centers in Florida and along the way, they began to get pretty popular and went around the country.

How did you discover these guys?

I saw a little piece in the New York Times. I was just finishing up "All The Difference," which is what we call a longitudinal documentary. I'd followed two African American guys over a five-year period. I was looking for a new project and I just fell in love with these guys. I never imagined ever doing a film that had anything to do with the Holocaust. I just couldn't imagine finding a story that would have a new angle or something new to say at this point. I thought it would be good to follow these guys in the present and then to look back on their history. I met with them and they agreed to engage in a long-term project.

Agreeing to be filmed on a daily basis is a big commitment for anyone.

Yes! It requires a tremendous amount of trust. That's the bottom line. I always try to explain the process, but no one really knows how intrusive it can be until they're in the project, with cameras around all day and sometimes into the night. You're filming in bathrooms, in bedrooms, asking the most intimate of questions. The result shows some very vulnerable moments of loss, but there's also great humor and music. But when you do a film like this, along the way the filmmaker becomes a friend, a confidant, a therapist, a social worker. All the lines are blurred.

Is it a challenge to stay out of the story as you document it?

I really want my audience to walk in the shoes of the characters, so I am careful to stay out of the film when it comes to constructing the story. I try to be an invisible presence as I allow then to tell the story.

From your description, it sounds like the Holocaust isn't a major theme, but it's a constant presence.

Right, its presence emerges. I speckle it in very gradually as you're getting to know the characters. I slowly reveal pieces of their past. When they visit Poland is when it really comes out. But this film is as much about the healing power of music and living life to the fullest as it is about the Holocaust. The primary story is the journey of these two characters.

Due their advanced age, time was obviously of the essence.

I'd never filmed anyone of this age before and yes, there was a time pressure on this film without a doubt. I had no time to raise funds, no time to waste planning. It was all happening, it was unfolding as I shot. So I had to get it done. Even in the editing process, I was determined not to waste any time. I wanted them to see it and to be able to go to the festivals. I wanted them to see people enjoying their legacy.

Have they seen the finished product?

They saw it in Miami and they loved it. It's brought forth a lot of emotions for them and it's not always easy viewing in places. But it also reinforces their incredible resilience to overcome their losses and celebrate life. I'm happy to say that they like the movie so much that they'll be in Atlanta for the screening and afterwards, they're planning a special musical performance. I think it's going to be a life-affirming experience for everyone.

The Atlanta Jewish Film Festival opens Monday, February 10 with a gala screening of "Shared Legacies" with a stellar bill of special guests and closes Thursday, February 27 with afternoon and evening screenings of "Saul & Ruby, To Life!" For tickets and complete schedule, visit ajff.org.

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