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Atlanta Jewish Film Festival: Identity heft 

Festival provides themes of belonging

The eighth annual Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, running from Jan. 16-27, boasts a silly ad campaign featuring Jewish twists on popular movies like Brokeback Mountain (featuring two young hunks wearing yarmulkes) and a play on Rocky called Rabbi: "The whole sermon was a million to one shot."

But this year's lineup of films is eccentric, diverse and wonderfully far from the multiplex fare the ad campaign spoofs. Many of the films, such as the documentary I Have Never Forgotten You (about Holocaust survivor and Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal), deal explicitly with Jewish identity and the seminal 20th-century trauma of the Holocaust.

But other films take a more elastic view of "Jewish" themes, such as the documentary Chicago 10 about the radical activists – many of them Jewish – who disrupted the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

Here are our recommendations of some of the most intriguing films at this year's festival.

SURFWISE

5 stars

If you see no other film at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival this year, make it Doug Pray's relentlessly fascinating, winning documentary about the bohemian, sexually liberated, straight-edge Jewish surfer Dorian "Doc" Paskowitz. Surfwise chronicles the eccentric life path of this Stanford-educated doctor who turned his back on conventional notions of success in the 1960s and became a surfer. Paskowitz went on to found the Tel Aviv surf scene, became a surfing legend and created his own alternative lifestyle based on healthy eating and the pursuit of freedom instead of money. Paskowitz's life change and the radical philosophy that underpinned it include a family of nine children that he and his wife raised in a 24-foot camper in a nomadic lifestyle crisscrossing the United States and South America. The Paskowitzes prove an exceedingly charismatic bunch whose unique way of looking at the world packs an emotional wallop in Pray's portrait of this amazing family.

The story of the off-the-grid surfing Paskowitz family initially looks idyllic and in some respects was. Like the surfing doc Riding Giants, Surfwise enthusiastically captures surfing's transcendent, spiritual dimensions. But it also doesn't sugarcoat the Paskowitz legacy of family dysfunction. As grown-ups the Paskowitz kids seethe with resentment about their limited job prospects and life with a demanding, autocratic father.

Sun., Jan. 20, 8:55 p.m., Regal Atlantic Station; Mon., Jan. 21, 2:20 p.m., Lefont Sandy Springs.

THE MEMORY THIEF

4 stars

Creepy and unsettling but undeniably thought-provoking, Gil Kofman's off-the-wall indie is ballsy enough to link the unimaginable suffering of the Holocaust to the ennui and loneliness of one contemporary man. Mark Webber plays Lukas, a greasy, blandly intense toll-booth operator whose chance encounter with a Holocaust survivor triggers a radical life change. In an almost pathological expression of empathy, Lukas begins to fuel his own sense of alienation by emotionally connecting to the Holocaust.

Thurs., Jan. 24, 7 p.m., Lefont Sandy Springs.

MY FATHER MY LORD

3 stars

Told with poetic economy and a minimum of dialogue, this Israeli feature often has the rhythms and subtle details of a silent film. Director David Volach's film centers on a young boy growing up in an orthodox Jerusalem community and his simple delight in a dove perched on his school window or a family trip to the Dead Sea. As his sense of inquiry and excitement about the world grows, his devout rabbi father (Assi Dayan) tries to direct and control his knowledge through the Torah. The film is about parents as a child's primary teachers and the ones who mediate their experience of both the physical and the spiritual world. There are frictions and injustices in the family, but the film is also a gentle, loving portrait of this tightly knit group and the peculiarities of their religion-dominated world.

Sun., Jan. 20, 6:45 p.m., Regal Atlantic Station; Mon., Jan. 21, 6:55 p.m. Lefont Sandy Springs.

For more information about the festival, visit www.ajff.org.

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