Atlanta Jewish Film Festival kicks off its 15th Edition with “Above and Beyond” (****)

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An image from “Above and Beyond.”

Tonight, the 15th annual Atlanta Jewish Film Festival kicks off at the Cobb Energy Centre in Vinings. Following a luxurious gala event, a screening of “Above and Beyond” will play to an audience of several thousand.

“Above and Beyond,” directed by Roberta Grossman and produced by Nancy Spielberg, tells the little-known story of the group of young men who volunteered to help create the Israeli Air Force following World War II. The documentary explores historical, factual happenings as told by the actual men involved. Filled with nostalgic disbelief and whole-hearted appreciation for one another, the men (now in their 70s and 80s) recall their experiences and walk us through this immensely important time in Jewish history. The outcome is a moving and engrossing story of bravery, loyalty and faith.

The film opens with veterans Lou Lenart and Coleman Goldstein telling a story in which they fly themselves to Palestine after hearing about the unrest and threat to Jews. “We didn’t have life rafts, we didn’t have radios, we were in a hurry,” Lou recounts over sepia-toned footage of two tiny aircrafts chugging along. They left Italy and headed straight for Palestine. Arab leaders, who were threatening the Jews with a “second holocaust,” outnumbered and outgunned the Palestinians by a long shot. The Jewish people there had no air force and thus no real way of defending themselves from the impending Arab invasion.

This opening sequence where we see these two young men leaving everything behind and risking their lives in an effort to go help their fellow Jews is really telling of the entire story. Young men from all over America and Europe jumped at the opportunity to help out. Against many of their mothers’ wills, they had to do this. They couldn’t live with themselves if they let their fellow Jews be helplessly invaded. A few of the guys talk about seeing Israel for the first time and feeling like they were home. They felt like they had been there before.

There is so much love and respect for one another behind the watery eyes of these men. The way in which they recall “the most important thing they ever did” is fascinating to watch. Lou and Coleman are just the tip of the iceberg, however. Throughout the film, interviews with survivors and their descendants help to illustrate the extraordinary tale. We even get some interviews with Paul Reubens (Pee Wee Herman), whose father flew in a lot of these missions.

“Above and Beyond” is a well constructed and consistently thrilling film. It is mesmerizing listening to the survivors tell their own story. By the end, it’s clear just how much these men were impacted by it all. It made them who they are today. It made them appreciate where they came from. There’s also a real sense of disbelief among the men that is amusing—it’s almost as if none of them can believe it all actually really happened.

Two years ago, another Grossman documentary, “Hava Nagila (The Movie),” opened up the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival.

4 out of 5 stars.

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