Atlanta Jewish Film Festival celebrates 10 years in reel time

The subtext to the 50 documentaries showcased at the festival always comes back to the nature of identity

The documentary Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness zeroes in on an idea shared with most of the other films at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival. An anthropologist suggests that Jewish-Americans grappled with their identities as "Jews" vs. "Americans" sooner than other ethnic groups, because Jews didn't have a home country in the same way other immigrants did.

The nature of identity, Jewish and otherwise, recurs so often in the work showcased at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival that it may be part of the subtext to nearly every film in the organization's 10-year history. With a mission "to explore universal stories with Jewish themes," the festival's programming frequently returns to ideas of how individuals define themselves as part of religions, cultures, communities and even history. The 50 documentaries and features that comprise the 10th annual festival prove to be no exception.

Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness (3 out of 5 stars, Mon., Jan. 18, 2:15 p.m.) overtly takes cultural identity in America as its subject. Director Llewellyn M. Smith profiles anthropologist Melville J. Herskovits, who's credited with establishing African studies in America throughout the 1920s-1950s. At a time when anthropology was obsessed with measuring skulls, lips and other physical traits, Herskovits' scholarship proved that "biological inheritance does not dictate cultural behavior," and identified the African roots in African-American culture.

While occasionally sketchy with Herskovits' biographical details, Smith's film all but blazes with excitement at the implications of the professor's ideas, which explore the origins of many contemporary race-related stereotypes. Some of the film's biracial interviewees (including dreadlocked Harvard historian Vincent Brown) use their own experiences to discuss how they face profiling by others. Herskovits' most famous and controversial work, The Myth of the Negro Past, was criticized by some black scholars for potentially undermining integration, but was later embraced by black militants. Ironically, a film that questions who has the authority to define a race blurs its own authenticity with "photo-montage reenactments" not always easy to distinguish from the real thing.

The seriocomic historical drama Mein Kampf (3 out of 5 stars, Wed., Jan. 20, 7:30 p.m.; Thurs., Jan. 21, 3:45 p.m.) depicts a young man discovering his sense of self. This is a big deal, given that the youth in question is Adolf Hitler (Tom Schilling). Switzerland's Urs Odermatt directs an adaptation of the play by Hungary's George Tabori, an imaginary take on Hitler's failed attempt to establish himself as an artist in Vienna.

Like the book I Was a Teenage Fascist, Schilling's performance offers a reasonably convincing portrait of Hitler, who launches into aggrieved, self-aggrandizing speeches at every opportunity. (A century later, you can imagine him spending his days posting 1,000-word comments on various message boards.) Hitler finds lodging at a run-down hostel for artists where he encounters storytelling street-peddler Schlomo Herzl (Götz George), who writes a memoir with the working title Mein Kampf. Schlomo takes the anti-Semitic, unemployable would-be painter under his wing, but soon regrets it. George gives a splendidly avuncular performance, and the colorful ensemble (including an elderly mail carrier who may be Death herself) could belong in the tales of Isaac Bashevis Singer or Mikhail Bulgakov.

Schlomo inadvertently gives Hitler such trademarks as his haircut, mustache, speech-making gesticulations and the idea to enter politics: think "Hitler: Year One." Despite its offbeat premise and earthy humor, Mein Kampf's plot doesn't have far to go, so it tends to move in circles and struggles to find the proper tone.

The enigmatic Israeli drama Seven Minutes in Heaven (3 out of 5 stars, Thurs., Jan. 21, 6:50 p.m.; Fri., Jan. 22, 11 a.m.) delves into the mystery of a young Jerusalem woman named Galia (Reymond Amsellem) who has narrowly escaped a terrorist bombing of a bus. The film opens with Galia tenderly shaving her comatose boyfriend, who wasn't so lucky. Burdened with a faulty memory and survivor's guilt, Galia strives to find meaning in her life and the incident by tracking down the elusive paramedic who rescued her.

Not to be confused with Five Minutes of Heaven, a drama about the aftermath of a terrorist act in Northern Ireland, Seven Minutes in Heaven's narrow focus on its characters and otherworldly hints suggest that twists are imminent. The audience may not predict them all, but the film's dramatic beats seem preordained, so it's never particularly surprising. Nevertheless, Amsellem's soft-spoken but deeply felt performance gives Galia a complex, sorrowful emotional life.

Jewishness proves incidental to the plot of Mary and Max (4 out of 5 stars, Sun., Jan. 17, 9:30 p.m.; Mon., Jan. 18, 4:30 p.m.), but it's exactly the kind of lovely, idiosyncratic film that deserves as much festival attention as possible, given its limited commercial prospects. (In fact, it opened the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, and screened at the Plaza Theatre on Nov. 16). Australian director Adam Elliot won an Oscar in 2003 for his animated short Harvie Krumpet, and Mary and Max shares the Claymation style and a blend of the grotesque, the slapstick, and the bittersweet.

The film follows the unlikely friendship of two lonely souls: Mary Daisy Dinkle (voiced as an adult by Toni Collette), initially an 8-year-old girl in Melbourne, Australia, and Max Jerry Horovitz (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a 44-year-old obese Jew with Asperger's syndrome in New York City. They connect via chance in 1976, sustain a bond through their mutual alienation and love of chocolate, and remain pen pals for two decades. Max experiences panic attacks after Mary's innocent questions about popularity and sexuality, giving the film a fresh perspective on the difficulties of growing up and sustaining relationships.

Elliot seems to possess an endless supply of puns and sight gags: Mary claims that a neighbor who fears going outdoors suffers from "home-aphobia." Apart from vibrant flourishes of red in flowers and lipstick, Mary exists in a brown-colored suburb, while Max lives in a grayscale city. The ugly physical caricatures and darkly comic jokes can be almost relentless (and shtick with a doomed street mime seems especially tired), but reflect the points of view of depressed individuals who can only dwell on the drab and the dirty. Mary and Max transcends its grubbiness to reveal the redemptive powers of friendship. Plus, the Claymation's malleability makes a subtle point about identity: Our lives can resemble clay shaped by our friendships, cultures and places in the universe.