“Chai!” The Austin Jewish Film Festival is 18 Years Old!

The Jewish Outlook

Sep 23, 2020

AJFF Director interviews “Breaking Bread” film director Beth Elise Hawk from Los Angeles and Rabbi Alan Freedman from Austin. Screenshot courtesy of AJFF.

By David Finkel, AJFF Director

One year ago, the AJFF audience gathered at the Long Center for the Performing Arts for a gala opening event honoring Cynthia Winer as she retired from her role as AJFF co-director. What a difference a year makes.

In January 2020, AJFF kicked off AJFF365, a monthly film series presented with support from Shalom Austin. AJFF365 had great physical events with a growing audience in the first quarter, until the pandemic struck. Like all organizations, the organization then had to make some tough choices: Does AJFF hibernate? Does AJFF try to keep going? What about the fall festival? Organizers made some big decisions. Rather than sit this out, AJFF was going to lean in. The organization rapidly switched to online programs. AJFF licensed its own video-on-demand (VOD) platform, so patrons could have a better and more consistent experience and be comfortable with its use before the annual festival, held this year Nov. 7-13. But could AJFF do more than create some kind of online festival?

In the world of fashion, what is old can become new again, and so it is with drive-in theaters. Could AJFF include drive-in presentations? Foremost in planning was keeping AJFF audience and volunteers secure and creating events that would be truly memorable. 

After much research and planning, leaders came up with safe, socially distanced drive-in programs for opening and closing nights, to be held at the Dell Jewish Community Center, with an online virtual festival for the remainder of the week. These drive-in events will feature food, drink, pre-show entertainment, a fantastic film, and a live-over-Zoom Q&A with the filmmaker following the movie. 

While many other festivals are scaling back programs this year and including only a handful of films, AJFF decided to take full advantage of its VOD system and not being limited by the number of theater seats. Although in 2019 AJFF showed about 15 feature films and 10 shorts, this year the organization already has more than 60 titles confirmed. In addition to the best-of-the-best new Jewish and Israeli films AJFF is known for, the festival is bringing back some favorite films from previous festivals. AJFF is also programming a very diverse range of additional films, so there is guaranteed to be something for everyone—even an Israeli slasher/comedy horror film!  

Be sure to read the festival program guide in this month’s Jewish Outlook and visit AustinJFF.org for the latest information. A Virtual Festival Pass—on sale now— offers the best experience. Watch whatever, whenever during the festival week!

The pandemic has wreaked havoc on everyone’s lives and institutions. In fact, AJFF’s director has been helping many other Jewish festivals throughout North America understand how to run virtual festivals of their own. The pandemic has also decimated some of AJFF’s major funding—regular grants have been reduced or cancelled. More than ever, AJFF is relying on the support of members and donors this year. At the same time, community members are in tough financial situations of their own, and special tickets are available for those who cannot afford regular prices.

Despite this dreadful pandemic, AJFF—unlike many other community organizations—has been able to continue to educate and entertain its audience. AJFF has also found that filmmakers are much more willing to participate in virtual Q&A programs; AJFF has had online audience participation programs with filmmakers and actors from all over the world, including prominent personalities such as Jesse Eisenberg. AJFF is also planning for an unprecedented number of Q&As. Just last month the festival was able to present a special sneak peek showing of the film “Breaking Bread” that is due for theatrical distribution in 2021, followed by a great Q&A panel with the director and Rabbi Freedman of Temple Beth Shalom.

AJFF leaders appreciate the many community organizations that have partnered with the festival to co-present AJFF365 virtual programs, allowing AJFF to make many of them free of charge to the audience. It is gratifying to hear from participants how thankful they are for all of this special programming when community members cannot gather together safely.

None of this programming takes place without a lot of effort. AJFF is so grateful to all volunteers for their countless hours performing all the functions that are needed to produce these events and enable the festival to take place.

No one knows when it will be possible to get back together in person, but AJFF leaders know that the 18th—”chai”—year of the festival will be the liveliest ever! (Chai, “life” in Hebrew, represents the number 18.) Join AJFF by sharing this information with family and friends. They won’t want to miss a moment of this amazing year. ■

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