Savannah has enjoyed a healthy and vibrant Jewish community for 286 years. For the past 15 years, that community — and the city at large — has also enjoyed a healthy and vibrant Jewish Film Festival.

Organized and presented by the Jewish Educational Alliance, the 2019 Joan and Murray Gefen Memorial Savannah Jewish Film Festival (or SJFF for short) runs Jan. 23 through Feb. 2. Its lineup this year includes 10 different recently released and critically acclaimed feature-length films made both in the U.S.A. and abroad, each of which shines a light on some aspects of Jewish and/or Israeli culture, either directly or indirectly.

 

Taken as a whole, the SJFF serves as a window into the Jewish mindset and experience, from an unusually wide range of filmmakers and vantage points. This year’s selections include dramas, comedies, romances films and documentaries. And, contrary to what one might expect from such an event, the vast majority of the films on display have nothing to do with the Holocaust.

If that seems like a harsh statement, understand that most films made which deal with subject matter related to Jewish or Israeli identity never receive wide theatrical release here in America, if they are even released here at all. That’s because they are, by and large, not viewed as commercially viable, and so can generally only be found here in the states on DVD, cable, satellite or an online streaming platform.

The only exceptions to that rule? Holocaust dramas.

Why? Well, as far as mainstream interest goes, the simple realities of Jewish life, contemporary or otherwise, simply can’t hold a candle to the infamous atrocities of WWII. Plus, if you’re going to make a period piece which in some way recreates the rather epic scale of the Holocaust, that costs a lot of money. And films which cost a lot of money to make are not generally made unless there is a sufficient budget in place to promote them — whereas small, human-interest films (a.k.a. “indies”) usually have token advertising budgets at best.

The end result? Every few years or so, one or two Holocaust dramas appear which receive plenty of press attention and sometimes major awards, crowding out the myriad of smaller films which are often infinitely more relevant to the day-to-day lives of modern Jews and those interested in such things. This winds up skewing public perception, giving the misleading appearance that virtually all Jewish-themed feature films are A) dwelling in the past, B) telling some version of a story that most folks have heard repeatedly before, and C) incredibly depressing.

It can at times be something of a challenge for Jewish film festivals to seek out more uplifting, lighthearted or contemporary motion pictures to showcase, but this year that is just what the SJFF has strived to do. And it appears they may have accomplished that worthwhile goal.

Only two of the 10 films in this year’s event (“1945” and “The Invisibles”) deal directly with the Holocaust, and both of them are described by SJFF organizers as more “hopeful” and “inspiring” than might often be expected from such fare.

 

Instead, this year’s lineup runs the gamut of genres, from the 2018 documentary “93Queen,” which offers a behind-the-scenes look at a group of hardscrabble and devoutly religious Hasidic Jewish women from Borough Park, Brooklyn, who break all manner of male-dominated traditions to form the first all-female volunteer ambulance corps in New York City, to the breakout 2017 indie “Keep The Change.” The latter of which has won several major prizes at esteemed competitions including the Best U.S. Narrative Feature and Best New Narrative Director awards at the Tribeca Film Fest. Jacqui Drazen McGrail, community programming coordinator for both Savannah’s Jewish Educational Alliance and the Savannah Jewish Federation, describes it as “a romantic comedy about autistic adults who meet in a Jewish Community Center.”

“'Keep The Change’ is not primarily about the character’s Jewish identity,” Drazen McGrail explains. “It’s about the importance of inclusion. It’s also a chance for a group of people who have traditionally been marginalized and underrepresented in fictional movies to be the focal point of a touching story.” Following that screening, the JEA will host a live panel discussion about autism led by Patti Victor, president of the Matthew Reardon Center for Autism.

Similarly, Drazen McGrail notes that the festival’s closing night selection, 2017’s “The Boy Downstairs,” which is described as a witty, easygoing love story starring Zosia Mamet (from HBO’s “Girls”), is about two modern-day NYC millennials grappling with a failed romantic relationship and the concept of youthful independence. “The main characters are Jewish,” she offers. “But the focus is not on their religion.”

Drazen McGrail hopes that this inclusive attitude toward the roster of films at this year’s SJFF will continue to attract audience members from outside the local Jewish community — folks who just love the opportunity to see all sorts of unusual movies in a public setting, but who may not have a personal religious or ethnic connection to Judaism. She sees this annual event as a marvelous opportunity for those outside the Jewish community to not only learn about and appreciate Jewish history and culture, but to recognize the many similarities and common bonds between Jews and Gentiles alike.

Take, for example, 2018’s “This Is Home,” which will be shown Jan. 27. It won the coveted Audience Award for Best Documentary in the category of World Cinema at the prestigious Sundance Film Fest. It literally has nothing to do with Judaism. Rather, it is the true story of four Syrian refugee families who are allowed to resettle in the U.S. in Baltimore, Md., provided they are able to find gainful employment, achieve fluency in English and become self-sufficient, all within eight months.

“These are folks from the Middle East, but they are not Jewish,” explains Drazen McGrail. “However, Jews in particular can readily relate to their situation. Our people have often had to move under duress and deal with the difficulty of resettling in new lands when our living conditions are in turmoil.”

Following this screening, the JEA will host a live panel discussion in their auditorium on immigration and resettlement led by Lauren Cruickshank, program manager and refugee services for Inspiritus, formerly known as Lutheran Services of Georgia.

Drazen McGrail stresses that the SJFF fulfills its mission when it spotlights cinematic stories which “intersect with other communities both here in Savannah and around the world.”

“We seek to use the power of film to both entertain and educate,” she enthuses, adding that this festival strives to “challenge conventional perspectives on complex and challenging issues facing both the Jewish and global communities.”

As food is famously a key component of Jewish history and tradition, this year’s SJFF once more offers optional pre-film lunch and dinner meals catered onsite by Chef Bryan Graves, who also runs the kitchen at downtown’s historic synagogue Temple Mickve Israel.

“This makes for an inexpensive night out, including both lunch or dinner and a movie,” says Drazen McGrail. These meals can only be reserved online, at least 48 hours in advance.

“I have really enjoyed trying to come up with specific menu items that are a thematic match for certain films,” she continues. “For example, since the movie ‘93Queen’ takes place in Brooklyn, I thought, now what food is synonymous with Brooklyn? So, for that film, we’ll have designer hotdogs with creative toppings, just like you’d find at a trendy New York City restaurant. Then, for our children’s matinee, we’re offering healthy kids meals of chicken tenders with zucchini fries and cinnamon-glazed carrots.”

The matinee she’s referring to is a rare public screening of legendary animator Don Bluth’s 1986 musical-adventure gem “An American Tail,” produced by Steve Spielberg. It’s the charming story of a young Russian mouse whose family emigrates from Russia to the U.S. in the late 1800s and the hardships he endures in trying to be reunited with his relatives. Although the mouse’s family is never explicitly referred to as Jewish, the influence of Judaism and Jewish history is undeniable on the film’s symbolism, imagery and score, and is considered something of an open secret.

In the end, though, the Savannah Jewish Film Festival aspires to be about more than just a celebration of Jewish history and culture, and to provide programming that anyone can appreciate and relate to, regardless of race, religion, age or background. Drazen McGrail said the diversity of the group of 20 volunteers who comprised the selection committee which chose this year’s titles speaks to that goal.

 

“We structured the process this year so it was easier for younger people to take part,” she says. “We had folks of all ages, education levels and backgrounds involved in casting votes and making suggestions. Mothers, single men, retirees…”

This amalgam of local movie lovers served as a microcosm of the entire Savannah community, and together they were able to whittle down 80 prospective movies to the 10 which make up the final roster. Six of those films are in spoken English, while four of them are in foreign languages, but will be shown with English subtitles.

Drazen McGrail hopes this will be the festival’s biggest year yet, but she knows that while the JEA’s membership (which skews noticeably older) is a built-in audience for such an event, it’s not always easy to convince younger folks to buy a ticket to see a film they may have never heard of in an auditorium that, while it is comfortable and spacious, was not designed specifically as a movie theater.

“I think this generation, with easy access to Netflix and HBO and big TVs, just don’t go out to the movies much,” she muses. “They sit at home on their couch and pause the movies and use their phone when they want to. It’s all so easy. That’s why we booked a film about millennials, as well as a kids movie this year. We want to encourage younger folks to support the arts and support public viewing of films. We want them to break out of those habits.”

IF YOU GO

What: “93Queen”

When: 1:30 p.m. Jan. 24

Where: Jewish Education Alliance, 5111 Abercorn St.

Cost: $12 (discount for JEA Members) online or at door

Info: savannahjea.org/film-schedule

Synopsis: Documentary about Hasidic women forming NYC’s first all-volunteer ambulance corps.

 

What: “Keep The Change”

When: 7 p.m. Jan. 24

Where: Jewish Education Alliance, 5111 Abercorn St.

Cost: $12 (discount for JEA Members) online or at door

Info: savannahjea.org/film-schedule

Synopsis: Heartfelt comedy about two autistic adults who meet and fall in love.

 

What: “1945”

When: 8:15 p.m. Jan. 26

Where: Jewish Education Alliance, 5111 Abercorn St.

Cost: $12 (discount for JEA Members) online or at door

Info: savannahjea.org/film-schedule

Synopsis: Hungarian-made portrait of the complex psychological scars the Holocaust left on its own participants.

 

What: “An American Tail”

When: 1:30 p.m. Jan. 27

Where: Jewish Education Alliance, 5111 Abercorn St.

Cost: $12 (discount for JEA Members) online or at door

Info: savannahjea.org/film-schedule

Synopsis: Beloved, kid-friendly 1986 animated allegory about late 1800s European immigrants to the USA.

 

What: “This Is Home”

When: 7 p.m. Jan. 27

Where: Jewish Education Alliance, 5111 Abercorn St.

Cost: $12 (discount for JEA Members) online or at door

Info: savannahjea.org/film-schedule

Synopsis: Documentary about four Syrian refugee families struggling to become U.S. citizens.

 

What: “A Bag of Marbles”

When: 7 p.m. Jan. 29

Where: Jewish Education Alliance, 5111 Abercorn St.

Cost: $12 (discount for JEA Members) online or at door

Info: savannahjea.org/film-schedule

Synopsis: A Jewish boy and his brother attempt to escape WWII Nazi persecution in occupied France.

 

What: “Challah Rising in the Desert: The Jews of New Mexico”

When: 1:30 p.m. Jan. 31

Where: Jewish Education Alliance, 5111 Abercorn St.

Cost: $12 (discount for JEA Members) online or at door

Info: savannahjea.org/film-schedule

Synopsis: Documentary tracing the lengthy history of Jewish New Mexicans, going back 400 years to the days of the Spanish Inquisition.

 

What: “The Invisibles”

When: 7 p.m. Jan. 31

Where: Jewish Education Alliance, 5111 Abercorn St.

Cost: $12 (discount for JEA Members) online or at door

Info: savannahjea.org/film-schedule

Synopsis: A hybrid docu-drama on the real-life story of 1,700 Jews who blended in and survived WWII living disguised in Berlin under Nazi rule.

 

What: “The Boy Downstairs”

When: 8:15 p.m. Feb.2

Where: Jewish Education Alliance, 5111 Abercorn St.

Cost: $12 (discount for JEA Members) online or at door

Info: savannahjea.org/film-schedule

Synopsis: Witty rom-com about a millennial woman who accidentally moves into an apart building alongside her ex-boyfriend.