Snoop Dogg. Ethiopian immigrants. Orthodox lesbians. Frustrated writers. Wily con men. This year's Atlanta Jewish Film Festival takes an edgy, inclusive, off-the-radar approach to defining what, exactly, a Jewish film is supposed to look like. The 36 films of the sixth annual Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, held Jan. 23-29, feature innumerable perspectives, but our don't-miss picks follow below.
The Tenants 4 stars
Based on a novel by Bernard Malamud, Danny Green's gripping, creepy debut film generates gritty atmosphere that calls to mind Roman Polanski's claustrophobic apartment gothics like The Tenant and Rosemary's Baby (with a soupçon of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining thrown in for good measure). In 1972 Brooklyn, intense, obsessive writer Harry Lesser (Dylan McDermott) is the last tenant in an enormous, trashed apartment building that the owner (Seymour Cassel) can't sell until Harry leaves. Deep into his third book, Lesser refuses to budge from the apocalypse-empty building until he finishes writing the novel. One day, Lesser hears the familiar clatter of another typewriter and meets a kind of doppelganger: Willie Spearmint (Snoop Dogg), a vituperative, anti-Semitic black man also working on a novel in the abandoned building. The pair begin a strangely animosity-laced relationship, with Harry coaching Willie on his writing and Willie introducing Lesser to his beautiful girlfriend, with disastrous results.
Sat., Jan. 28, 9 p.m., Regal Cinemas Atlantic Station
Forgiving Dr. Mengele 4 stars
Eva Kor has witnessed the absolute worst of humankind. As a child, she and her twin sister, Miriam, were taken to Auschwitz where their entire family was murdered. Eva and Miriam ended up as guinea pigs in Nazi Dr. Mengele's vicious experiments. After immigrating to Terre Haute, Ind., Kor learned her German accent was the reason she could not work in real estate, found her house defaced with swastikas, and saw the small strip mall Holocaust museum she founded be torched by an arsonist. This compact, willful woman took some of the most unfathomable obstacles imaginable and found a means of dealing with her pain. While other Holocaust victims decried her for it, Kor decided to remedy her personal agony by forgiving Mengele and the rest of the Nazis. In our vengeance-fueled world, this fascinating documentary puts a shocking philosophical concept at its heart. Whether or not you agree with Kor's notions of forgiveness, it's hard not to feel that someone who survived such earthly tortures deserves any form of relief she manages to broker for herself.
Sun., Jan. 29, 3:40 p.m., Lefont Sandy Springs
Live and Become 3 stars
The Jewish quest for a homeland shows a remarkably diverse face in this drama about the mass exodus of persecuted Ethiopian Jews who endured rape, murder and famine in the 1980s' "Operation Moses" airlifts to the promised land of Israel. In a plot line reminiscent of Agnieszka Holland's Europa Europa (in which a Jewish boy impersonates a Hitler youth), Romanian filmmaker Radu Mihaileanu's film concerns a 7-year-old Christian boy who masquerades as Jewish to escape Africa. After a Jewish child at their Sudanese refugee camp dies, Schlomo's mother places the boy on the "Operation Moses" airlift. Schlomo shuttles from a succession of mothers, first the dead boy's mother, who teaches Schlomo to "pass" as Jewish when they land in Israel, and then a fiercely protective young Israeli (Yael Abecassis) who adopts Schlomo and helps him adapt to his new home. A profoundly moving portrait of the immigrant experience as a state of terminal anxiety, Live and Become does not shy away from Schlomo's experience of racism even within a shared Jewish heritage, yet builds to an ultimately hopeful vision.
Sat., Jan. 28, 7:10 p.m.; Sun., Jan. 29, 3:30 p.m. Lefont Sandy Springs
Fateless 5 stars
Holocaust films invite all manner of clichés about the resilience of the human spirit and man's inhumanity to man. Any filmmaker who can find a way to upend the conventions and bring new illumination to the subject deserves commendation. Hungarian filmmaker Lajos Koltai (adapting the autobiography of Nobel laureate Imre Kertész) follows Gyorgi (an incredible Marcell Nagy), a Budapest teen, as he watches the adult drama of the Holocaust unfold. Herded along to the camps, he is like any passive kid, doing what he is told while being mystified by adult behavior. Gyorgi finally lands in Buchenwald, where he is protected by several men who nurture him in his father's absence. Gyorgi witnesses -- and even participates in -- the passive, bureaucracy-enabled march to the concentration camps, and at the end of the war, he wonders how things can ever return to normal in an endless vortex of existential doubt. Like Forgiving Dr. Mengele, Fateless is a philosophical, morally complex film about the mental acrobatics great trauma and horror instill in survivors. Both films affirm that any efforts to create black-and-white extremes out of historical experience will be defeated by the nuanced, unbelievably complex makeup of the human mind.
Sun., Jan. 29, 8 p.m., Lefont Sandy Springs
For a complete schedule, see www.atlantajewishfilm.org.