When Neil Sheff trekked up and down Rodeo Drive with a film crew, he received surprising answers to his man-in-the-street question, "What is Sephardic Jewry?"
"One person thought it had to do with going on safari," said Sheff, 42, co-founder of the Los Angeles Sephardic Jewish Film Festival. "Most people hadn't a clue."
Sheff's amusing video survey will help kick off the seventh annual film festival Nov. 14-21, which aims to introduce Sephardim to Angelenos who haven't a clue. "We hope to show there's more to Judaism than Ashkenazim, Yiddish and matzah balls," he said.
The festival -- one of only two of its kind in the world -- will do that via seven movies and documentaries depicting Jews from countries such as Spain, Turkey, Iraq, Egypt and Tunisia.
"We try to highlight as wide an array of Sephardic communities as possible," Sheff said.
But while the films are set in diverse milieus, they share Sephardic themes of "migration and integration," Sheff added. "After fleeing the Spanish Inquisition, Sephardim adopted customs of their new countries, while preserving their Jewish identities as best they could."
The cultural balancing act wasn't always easy, as some festival films depict. The opening night movie, "A Secret Passage," by Bosnian director Ademir Kenovic ("The Perfect Circle") revolves around a 16th-century family of women who secretly practice Judaism after inquisitors force them to convert. In the harrowing opening sequence -- which resembles a Nazi raid -- soldiers trash Jews' property and drag prisoners off to be executed.
The women eventually flee Spain to Antwerp and then Venice, where they attend mass in public but clandestinely recite Jewish prayers. Despite visa restrictions, the elder sister (Katherine Borowitz) hopes to arrange secret passage to Istanbul, where the family will be free to practice Judaism without penalty (Venice's Jews are confined to a crumbling ghetto). Obstacles arise, however, when the younger sister (Tara Fitzgerald) falls for a seductive Venetian nobleman (John Turturro, playing against type), causing a family rift that could prove fatal.
If the lush but sometimes slow-moving "Passage" follows the tradition of Venice as hostile to protagonists (think "Death in Venice"), another festival entry turns a lighter genre -- the deflowering film -- into a riff on Sephardic survival. In Ferid Boughedir's charming "A Summer in La Goulette," three 16-year-old girls -- one Jewish, one Muslim, one Catholic -- vow to lose their virginity to boys of diverse faiths during the 1967 festival of the Madonna. The nostalgic comedy isn't just an Arabic "American Pie," however; set just before the Six-Day War, which forced Jews to leave Tunisia, it's a comedy about tolerance and understanding, Boughedir has said.
Sheff hopes "La Goulette" and other festival films will help further an understanding of Sephardic culture.
"We want people to come and meet the 'other' Jews," he said.
"A Secret Passage" makes its West Coast premiere at the festival's opening gala Nov. 14, 3:30 p.m. at Paramount Studios; actress Lainie Kazan will be mistress of ceremonies while actor Hank Azaria and Al Ovadia, executive vice president of Sony Pictures Consumer Products will receive the Cinema Sepharad Award.
"A Summer in La Goulette" screens Nov. 21, 7 p.m. at Laemmle's Music Hall Theater, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. For more information on schedule of films and ticket sales, call (310) 441-1578 or (310) 441-9361, or visit www.seclosangeles.com.