A Year Like No Other: AJFF is a Role Model of the Virtual Festival
Screenshot of Happy Hour Trivia Night. Credit: Wendy R. Corn
By Wendy R. Corn
When it became clear that the pandemic was not backing down, the Austin Jewish Film Festival had two choices: pivot or withdraw from programming a 2020 line-up. David Finkel, festival director and technology wizard, saw the challenge as an opportunity. While many other festivals took the road to fold without being able to host screenings with a live audience, Finkel strapped in and was driven to pave a new highway.
“Think of our virtual festival as a kind of private Jewish Netflix for the entire festival period,” says the austinjff.org website. AJFF was able to extend the viewing window an extra week, allowing pass holders an added bonus.
It took some training and guidance of both the festival committee and audience to show that it’s possible in our current world of flat circle Zoom meetings to overcome this automated platform and participate in safe, socially distanced events. Folks enjoyed drive-ins on opening (“The Crossing from Norway, directed by Johanne Helgeland) and closing (“Aulcie”, directed by Dani Menkin) nights, and they had opportunities to watch more than 70 films anytime from home, attend an unprecedented number of Q&A events (searchable on the AJFF Vimeo Channel), and participate in a cinema trivia happy hour.
In a “normal year” the festival programs upwards of 30 films, but Finkel saw the 2020 festival as a vehicle with no limit in programming. The new platform allowed AJFF a chance to try a few edgier films, giving more filmmakers a platform to be seen, understanding that many independent films only have a film festival shelf life.
A festival could never exist without an audience, and it was paramount in “a year like no other” to make passes and tickets available using sliding scale pricing to allow access to all virtual films in the festival.
This year allowed an opportunity to cultivate more cross-promotion and community partnerships. The copious lineup included a host of new releases and Best of the Fest titles from earlier festivals, as well as featuring films in collaboration with other festivals, including All Genders, Lifestyles, and Identities Film Festival, Capital City Black Film Festival, Austin Polish Film Festival and Indie Meme.
AJFF programming continues year round with its’ AJFF365 monthly film program. In December, get a ticket for the mouth-watering documentary by Laura Gabbert, “Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles,” which follows celebrity chef Yotam Ottolenghi as he assembles a star-studded team of the world’s most innovative pastry chefs to put on a Versailles-themed culinary gala at the Met in NYC. The film will be followed by a Q&A with the director and chefs.
And be sure to watch for a free December musical documentary program, “Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas,” which follows the offbeat, amazing story of a group of Jewish songwriters who wrote the soundtrack to Christmas.
Those who missed this year’s festival should sign up on the email list, become an AJFF365 member, and learn about upcoming events at www.austinjff.org. ■
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