We're incredibly proud that AJFF attracts some of the most talented, passionate people. From our staff, to our volunteers, or even to members of our audience, there's a huge group of people that make AJFF a world-class cultural event. This month, we're putting the spotlight on our 2020 Film Evaluation Co-Chairs, Sandra Craine and Jason Evans.
A Little Bit about Sandra and Jason
Sandra Craine's Atlanta career began in 1985 when she joined the program staff at the AJCC on Peachtree and then transitioned to the new MJCCA adding new responsibilities as the Assistant Executive Director. Sandra is currently the part-time education coordinator at the Anne Frank in the World exhibit sponsored by the Georgia Commission on the Holocaust. She is excited to assume the role of Co-Chair of the Film Evaluation Committee. To paraphrase a line from one of the best known films, Casablanca, Sandra sees this endeavor “as the beginning of a beautiful relationship.”
Jason Evans has been in love with the movies his whole life. When he was in high school, CNN’s film critic, Carol Buckland, did not have a car to drive to screenings, so Jason was her designated driver. He began watching movies with a critical eye then and has never stopped. He has been a writer and producer at CNN for more than 30 years and his film commentary and criticism have been featured on CNN, local radio stations, and in the Wall Street Journal.
How did you come to be involved with AJFF?
Sandra: I became involved after attending the AJFF since its inception 19 years ago. I’m a committed cinephile and love learning about different cultures. I decided to volunteer on the Film Evaluation Committee and Guest Programming Committees. It has been an enriching experience to see the world on film.
Jason: It was about a dozen years ago… A friend of mine at CNN, Judy Milestone, was on the Guest Programming Committee for the AJFF and she asked me if I wanted to join that committee. I quickly fell in love with the process of melding films with compelling speakers and soon found myself begging Kenny Blank for a larger role in the Festival. After 4 years as Co-Chair of Guest Programming I have moved to Film Selection and I think I love that even more than the guest stuff.
What is the most interesting challenge, in improving AJFF, that you get to help with?
Sandra: The most interesting challenge that I will face is to help the Film Evaluation Committee better understand our mission. There is no one specific aspect that defines a Jewish film. We offer such a broad range of narratives and documentaries to explore. Some films entertain and others educate. I want to communicate to our committee members to view films outside of their comfort level. I personally will watch more shorts that I previously neglected. I want to encourage open dialogues and promote new ideas and perspectives that will result in a menu of films for our diverse audiences.
Jason: I think people don’t realize how overwhelming the job is of wrangling everything together is for the festival. We have to screen more than 700 films to help pick the ones to go into the festival. We have to find more than 200 guests to talk at every single screening. I try to put a light-hearted spin on all that work and help the committees to tackle it in manageable chunks. This is work, make no mistake about it, but I see it as my role to make it fun for the committees and to make sure we are spending our time efficiently and smartly. I often get to speak about the festival at screenings or other events and I always want my audience to understand how important the volunteers are to making this sprawling event happen. I hope to leave my audience laughing and smiling, but I also want them to know the labor that goes into making this the best Jewish film festival in the world.
What is your fondest memory from being involved with AJFF?
Sandra: I’m unable to pinpoint any specific fondest memory. I really appreciate the post-film discussions with a filmmaker or actor, which enriches my film experience.
Jason: Last winter, Kenny Blank asked me to host the 2019 AJFF Sponsor Preview Party. I had to sit on stage for an hour and a half and entertain an audience of more than 200 folks as we unveiled the festival lineup to them. There was a lot of planning that went into it by the entire AJFF professional team, and more than a few nerves on my part. In the days leading up to it, I was consumed with fine-tuning my script and practicing to make it all go smoothly. I could barely sleep in the days leading up to it. In the end, I had a great time and I think the sponsors really enjoyed it. I wish I could get that passionate and excited about everything in my life!
How has your experience outside of AJFF played into your work with the festival?
Sandra: In my professional life I have always worked with volunteers. I recognize and respect the immense contribution volunteers bring to an organization. The dedicated members of the Film Evaluation Committee are a perfect example. They spend countless hours screening and evaluating the hundreds of film entries. Their range of opinions and recommendations provide the basis of the AJFF. These volunteers are our cultural ambassadors to the community.
Jason: In my role as a film critic, I see more than 100 Hollywood movies a year in theaters. It gives me a great perspective on quality filmmaking.
A few bonus questions!
What is the most rewarding aspect of being involved with AJFF?
Sandra: The most rewarding aspect of being involved in the AJFF is gaining new perspectives from films around the world. Watching the AJFF evolve into the country’s largest and most respected Jewish film festival is fantastic. I love being part of one of the city’s major cultural events.
How do you describe AJFF to those who've never experienced it?
Jason: Hollywood inundates us with easy-to-digest entertainment. Sometimes, it is worth being challenged because the reward is something much more enriching. The films selected to appear in the AJFF are some of the best international films and some of the most compelling documentaries you will find. They almost always make you think and provoke fascinating conversation. The best part is the way the community embraces this festival. It is the social highlight of the year for many of us and I cherish getting to watch these compelling films alongside my best friends.
What's your favorite AJFF film, and why?
Sandra: One of my favorite 2019 films is Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of the People. I knew the name related to the prize for journalists and writers. I learned that he arrived in America as a penniless immigrant to become a champion for freedom of the press. His newspapers exposed corruption and served as a manual for immigrants. Another favorite is Who Will Write Our History. In this documentary we see the resilience and courage of the resistors during the Holocaust. It reinforces our historical memory.
Jason: In the 2018 festival, there was a film called 1945. It was the story of a Hungarian town that had driven all the Jews out of town when Germany invaded. One day after the war, two Jews are spotted coming back toward the town. No one knows why they are here but the villagers are so consumed by guilt over what they have done that they assume it must be revenge. Eventually, it is shown that the Jews are here merely to bury some relatives who died, but the town is so consumed by guilt over what they did during the Holocaust that they quite literally burn the town to the ground. The film contains some truly haunting and beautiful imagery and tells so much about guilt and regret without resorting to an obvious narrative. It is a truly powerful film. I also adored the Opening Night film in 2016, Remember, with Christopher Plummer and Martin Landau. It was a twisty, unexpected story of Holocaust revenge that really delivered.
Thank you to Sandra and Jason for their time and efforts around the 2020 AJFF. Stay tuned to see whom we profile next month.