Staff Picks of the 2019 AJFF


We, as a staff, love talking about the films of the festival to anyone, anytime, almost any place. Now is the time we get talk about them non-stop with everyone else and we're taking full advantage. So, what are the Staff Picks of the 2019 AJFF? 

Kenny Blank, Executive Director 

To Dust
Nuanced, irreverent, well-produced, and beautifully cast, To Dust is the embodiment of the type of film you can often only experience at a film festival. The subject of death, the grieving process and the physical decomposition of the body – not typical fodder for film. But in the hands of first-time filmmaker Shawn Snyder and award-winning actors Géza Röhrig (best known for his breakout role in Son of Saul) and Matthew Broderick, these difficult topics are given a surprisingly thoughtful, comedic and perversely charming treatment. Winner of the Tribeca Film Festival Audience Award, this is a wonderfully strange film entry that will leave you thinking for a long time to come. AJFF audiences will have the unique opportunity to process with the film with director Shawn Snyder and actor Géza Röhrig, both who will be in attendance at the screenings.

Brad Pilcher, Associate Director

It Must Schwing!: The Blue Note Story
As an avid vinyl collector, and a lover of a good jazz record, I was delighted by this story of Blue Note Records and the two German-Jewish expats who founded it: Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff. My own graphic design background drew me to Wolff's in-studio photographs of the musicians, which were converted, in the hands of designer Reid Miles, into some of the most iconic musical artwork of all time. Seriously, check out this 7-minute mini-doc about the lasting influence of Blue Note's album covers on the aesthetics of a musical genre, released by Vox last November. Then after you watch that, run to buy tickets for It Must Schwing!

Lori Zelony, Development Director

The Light of Hope
Every year there are always films that call to me, as someone committed to outreach, as a mother; the list goes on. The Light of Hope, a dramatic depiction of the true story of Elizabeth Eidenbenz, a Red Cross nurse later recognized as Righteous among the Nations, resonated with me on many levels. In addition to being a moving film, the film is also a beautiful one. I invite you to be inspired by this lovely depiction of courage and strength depicted in harrowing times.

Danit Drory, Development Associate 

93Queen offers an incredible story of brave Hasidic women beginning their journey in the workforce. Rachel “Ruchie” Freier fights to break free of the Hasidic stigma that women are not allowed or able to work. Instead Ruchie encourages a group of women to train as paramedics and soon creates an all-female paramedic service, call Ezras Nashim. On this journey of trying to break the Hasidic norm, Ruchie is bombarded with abuse and challenges. But in Ruchie’s perspective, if men are able to work, then why can’t women work too?

Steve Laine, Finance Manager

It Must Schwing!: The Blue Note Story
I chose this film because I have a deep appreciation for music, and specifically for the level of difficulty involved in performing improvisational jazz.  I have sung bass for 20+ years. I also believe strongly in working with people of all ages, genders, races, religions, as equals.  It's about the effort, the mission, finding common threads versus differences.  Here, the relationship was all about the music, the respect of God-given talent, and the pursuit of excellence;  it was not about age, race, religion, or gender.   

Shellie Schmals, Film Programming Manager 

Carl Laemmle
Among his life's work, Carl Laemmle was a trailblazer, inventor, and family man.  I enjoyed learning about Carl's contributions to the early days of Hollywood; how he grew Universal Pictures by trusting his creative instinct and the team around him, and the way he popularized Frankenstein and Dracula by developing them as characters with emotion, rather than monsters. Most importantly is that this documentary tugged at my heart strings. Carl loved family life and worked tirelessly to save his loved ones from the Nazi regime.

Sara Grasberg, Programming Associate 

The Golem
AJFF features films of nearly every genre, sure, but for a horror film to make the cut, it really has to hit all the right notes—and that’s coming from me, AJFF’s resident horror film fanatic. But The Golem is a film that does just that, and in spectacular fashion. It is not your average gore-fest lacking in substance, style, and meaning. On the contrary, this film strikes such a delicate balance between offering up satisfying scares and smart, sophisticated storytelling—not to mention its stunning visuals and careful attention to period detail, easily on par with some of our most gorgeous historical dramas. The Paz brothers (the Israeli filmmaking duo behind past AJFF film, JeruZalem) somehow even weave both creepy kid horror tropes and feminist themes of motherhood into this remixed retelling of a well-known Jewish folktale. Horror films this rich and rewarding are truly rare—not just for AJFF, but in general. 

Chris Holland, Event Operations Manager

The Golem
Genre films that fit the AJFF mold come along rarely enough that I can’t help but root for them. The Golem may be labeled as a horror film but it offers performances and nuance not often found in your typical slasher fare. The “horror” aspect is a slow burn with tactically deployed scares but the film’s story of a grieving mother’s revenge is riveting. 

Paul Glaze, Operations Associate

The Unorthodox
What struck me immediately about The Unorthodox was how kinetic the cinematography is. From the opening sequence to the final shot, every scene in this movie breathes. It also provides a colorful, if romantic, adaptation and primer of some pivotal, recent moments in the Israeli Sephardic community.

Leah Sitkoff, Communications Manager

Working Woman
That, that right there, I found myself thinking repeatedly when watching this film. That expression on her face, that scenario you hoped wouldn’t come to pass, that feeling you get when watching someone do all they can to avoid the hurt waiting for them. I love that this film, like The Tale, presents its subject, its truth, in the cleanest and most forthright manner that it can. The world of injustice can often be grey but the ideals of maintaining one’s self-worth and the value of fighting the good fight should always matter. This film serves as a wonderful reminder.

Katherine Crosby, Community Programming Manager

The Other Story
Though the films are where our programming starts, I find I’m biased towards some of them based on some of the terrific guests we bring in surrounding them, as I manage all of them. I am so looking forward to having Avi Nesher join us for not one, but four screenings, of his film, The Other Story. To see the film and then hear the perspective from the man responsible for writing, directing, and producing this thought-provoking film is going to be a treat our AJFF festival goers will not soon forget!