"The diversity of Savannah is one of the wonderful defining attributes of living here," says Jacqui Drazen, community programming coordinator at Savannah's Jewish Educational Alliance.

And the annual Joan and Murray Gefen Savannah Jewish Film Festival is "part of that diversity," she adds.

Over the past 14 years, the festival, which showcases both feature films and short subjects rooted in Jewish and/or Israeli culture, has slowly but surely grown from a blink-and-you-might-miss-it cultural diversion mostly known only to our area's Jewish community to one of the most notable themed cinema-related happenings in a city increasingly known for such things.

Given the comfortable environment of the JEA's auditorium, the facility's central, easy-to-find location (with free parking onsite, no less), and the welcoming nature of the event, more and more members of the public can now be found filling the padded seats, and - in some cases - arriving early for a delicious nosh before the show in the adjoining dining room.

The result? An increasing number of folks, from kids to senior citizens, are learning about Judaism and worldwide Jewissh arts and culture, while also being entertained.

To hear Drazen tell it, that sort of broad-based civic support was a big part of the festival's goal all along.

"Great movies use the power of film to entertain and educate," she says. "That helped us to choose the movies we did. The stories and experiences portrayed, while [shown from a Jewish perspective], are issues facing everyone. The universality of those stories speaks to all of us."

While some similar festivals (there are scores of Jewish film fests held throughout the U.S. each year) brand their events with an overarching theme or mission statement that plays into the titles they choose to screen, Drazen says the Savannah Jewish Film Festival has no such official theme.

However, while the organizers always strive to "weave a story about the Jewish experience in different ways," she admits that with the state of Israel is celebrating it's 70th year of existence, this year's event does place "a little more emphasis on Israel" in recognition of that milestone.

"The film festival committee is a passionate group of film buffs, many who have been active in the selection committee for a number of years," she continues. "We were happy to welcome a number of new participants this year, which brings in differing viewpoints.

"Our committee originally considered a list of about 40 films, each exploring themes of identity, history and culture. The selection process is rather long. It began in early summer of last year and we finalized our lineup this past November. We watched trailers for the movies, read reviews and consulted with other film festivals across the country. Eventually, we narrowed it down to the top nine."

Drazen says the lineup this committee ultimately settled on should have something to interest most anyone. "There are films from all different genres. We have documentaries, fiction films, romantic comedies and mysteries and thrillers."

She also notes that a special effort was made to include movies that had already earned high honors and positive critiques from those who had seen them at similar events earlier in the season. In this respect, one can think of the Savannah Jewish Film Fest as something of a "Best Of" for U.S. Jewish film fests in general.

When prompted to mention any one particular film she is most excited to have in this year's lineup, Drazen is quick to note "The Wedding Plan."

"I love romantic comedies," she explains, adding, "Everyone on our committee loved the film, so it was a 'shoo-in' for inclusion. It didn't win lots of awards or make big waves on the indie film circuit, but it's fun, relatable and a universal feel-good movie that will make folks laugh."

And what about those aforementioned optional lunches and dinners that can be reserved in advance?

"Three years ago we spoke to many of our moviegoers and asked them if they came directly to the movies or went out for dinner before and after," Drazen explains. "A significant number told us they 'made a night of it' with dinner before and drinks afterward. So, we saw this as an opportunity to provide a 'packaged experience' of dinner and a movie. This option is a truly unique element of our festival.

"The culinary talents are courtesy of local caterer Bryan Graves and his team. Bryan reviews the films along with our committee to develop a menu that reflects the film. That way, when possible, we can pair our meals with the themes of the films they accompany. My favorite lunch meal this year is a mojo lime chicken with black beans, rice and vegetables to go with the documentary 'Cuba's Forgotten Jewels,' which is about Jews who escaped war-torn Europe by heading to Havana to evade the Nazis."

Returning to the idea of diversity, Drazen notes that 2018 marks almost three centuries of the existence of a local Jewish population.

"It is our 285th year in Savannah, so the Jewish community has always been a part of the fabric of our city. It's a testament to the strength of our entire community that we all live, learn and watch films together."

IF YOU GO

What: Annual Joan and Murray Gefen Memorial Savannah Jewish Film Festival

When: Through Feb. 3

Where: Jewish Educational Alliance, 5111 Abercorn St.

Cost: $10 per film; $100 full festival pass, with additional fees for meals and cocktail receptions; discounts for JEA members

Info: savannahjea.org

SCHEDULE

Jan. 24

6 p.m. Hors d'oeuvres and cocktails

7 p.m. "The Testament"

Jan. 25

12:30 p.m. Lunch

1:30 p.m. "Cuba's Forgotten Jewels"

6 p.m. Dinner

7 p.m. "Big Sonia"

Jan. 27

7:30 p.m. Dessert reception

8:15 p.m. "Menashe"

Jan. 28

6 p.m. Dinner

7 p.m. "Past Life"

Jan. 30

6 p.m. Dinner

7 p.m. "The 90 Minute War"

Feb. 1

12:30 p.m. Lunch

1:30 p.m. "In Our Hands: The Battle for Jerusalem"

6 p.m. Dinner

7 p.m. "The Wedding Plan"

Feb. 3

7:30 p.m. Dessert reception

8:15 p.m. "The Women's Balcony"