For its 11th festival, the Los Angeles Sephardic Jewish Film Festival (LASJFF) needed an honoree for its gala, which takes place Nov. 11 at Paramount Studios in Hollywood. At the same time, the Portuguese-American actress Daniela Ruah needed a community. Or at least as much of a community as a busy young actress on a hit TV show can find time to fit in.
Which is probably why it was a kind of kismet that Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, director of the Sephardic Education Center (SEC), was half-watching “The Craig Ferguson Show” one evening in January, just as “NCIS: Los Angeles” star Ruah was being asked about her just-concluded 2011 holidays back in her homeland.
Ferguson asked Ruah about her experience at Christmas, and the actress replied that for her the celebration would be Chanukah.
“And he said, ‘I didn’t know you were Jewish. … How do you pronounce it
in Portuguese?’ And she said, ‘Chanu-KAH,’ ” Bouskila recalled. “The minute I heard that Sephardic pronunciation, I started Googling her. That night I sent an e-mail to [festival co-director] Neil [Sheff] saying, ‘I think I’ve found our honoree.’ ”
As it happened, a board member of the SEC was a close friend of the wardrobe manager for “NCIS: Los Angeles.” Through that connection, the SEC reached out to Ruah, who met with Bouskila and Sheff. The actress was flattered at the invitation, but puzzled, professing to consider herself unworthy yet of any career recognition.
“ ‘NCIS: Los Angeles’ is sort of like the first big thing I’ve ever done here,” Ruah said. “I was so taken aback by this wonderful offer, so to speak, that I was, like, ‘Are you sure?’ They were so sweet. They said, ‘This is more that we’re proud you’re of Sephardic Jewish descent. We’re proud of where you are and where you’re going.’ ”
Confirmed Bouskila, “If Jews are very tribal, Sephardic Jews are even more tribal in pride over our own. She deserves it. It’s a big deal.”
The daughter of a surgeon father and an otologist mother, Ruah was born in Boston but moved to Portugal at age 5. She attended university in London and has worked extensively in Portugal, including winning the Portuguese equivalent of “Dancing With the Stars.” In 2009, Ruah was living in New York and making the rounds for pilot season when CBS was casting for “NCIS: Los Angeles,” the spin-off of the franchise “NCIS.” Despite giving what she felt was a horrible audition, Ruah got a callback, nailed that second chance and won the part of special agent Kensi Blye, a character who was originally conceived as Asian. A week later, she had relocated to Los Angeles and — on the small screen, at least — she has been fighting, shooting and detecting ever since.
With seven days between the move and shooting, Ruah decided to apply the lessons learned from Craig Wroe’s guidebook, “An Actor Prepares … to Live in New York City,” to her move to Los Angeles.
“Before you start searching for work, and before you start learning the business, the most important thing is to have a safe haven to come home to,” Ruah said. “You need to make yourself a home and a place where you feel safe and where you are yourself.”
The haven part is long taken care of, says Ruah, who shares hers with two dogs. Through the discovery of the Sephardic center and the upcoming festival award, Ruah now has also found a community that in some ways mimics her roots in Portugal — to which she returns twice yearly during the show’s hiatus, and again at Chanu-KAH.
Ruah by now has met on more than one occasion with Sheff and co-director Sarita Fields. When Ruah’s father was visiting, she took him to celebrate Rosh Hashanah at Sheff’s house, and she has gone to holiday services at the center when her schedule permits.
“It was sort of like the community I was looking for sort of came to me, and they were so accepting,” Ruah said. “Someone once asked me how did being Sephardic influence and play a part in my life. I come from such a small community. Here, people are both Ashkenazi and Sephardic; you can’t distinguish between the two, because otherwise you’d have three people in each place, and that’s not a community. Everybody kind of gels together.”
As the recipient of the 2012 festival’s Cinema Sepharad Award, Ruah takes her place quite comfortably within a festival lineup that is most decidedly tribal, yet also very wide- reaching. The five-night festival includes feature films, shorts and documentaries with thematic ties to Jewish communities in Iraq, India, Morocco, Sudan, Rhodes and Cuba. The international flavor even gets localized on the LASJFF’s closing day, with the 2 p.m. short documentary “Once Upon a Time at 55th and Hoover,” which chronicles the community of Rhodesli Sephardic Jews who congregated in the community of South Los Angeles.
The Nov. 13 screening of “The Visionary: The Life of Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel,” which focuses on the life of the Israel’s first Sephardic Chief Rabbi, will be followed by a Q-and-A with Israeli Knesset Member Rabbi Haim Amsalem, a man Bouskila says could be the modern-day reincarnation of Rabbi Uziel. With the Israeli film “Persian Lullaby” (Nov. 14 at 7:30 p.m. at the Laemmle Music Hall), LASJFF screens its first-ever film that is partially in Farsi.
Sheff, who combs through hundreds of submissions looking for films that both contain Sephardic ties and are appropriate for a PG- or PG-13-minded audience, has seen the festival grow and blossom. Of the approximately 70 Jewish film festivals in North America, LASJFF’s is one of the few focused on Sephardic content.
“The idea is to show the Sephardic experience on screen with a dual purpose,” Sheff said. “Those who aren’t too familiar with that experience can learn from the film something about what the experience of other Jews was like. And also people like to see at least a portion of their own family experience on screen.”
An outgrowth of SEC programs, the film festival began in 1997 as an alternative to annual fundraisers and a new way of enticing younger Jews to connect to their heritage. In addition to trips to Israel and opportunities to study abroad, the SEC developed the film festival as a way for Sephardic Jews of all nationalities to see themselves represented on screen. And to represent themselves: LASJFF has a student film competition that encourages filmmakers to continue the storytelling tradition.
“The basic idea is that the opening night would be a fundraiser in place of a boring typical dinner at the Beverly Hilton,” Bouskila said. “The rest of the week would be a film festival in a public movie theater. In addition to raising money, the festival is like a cultural contribution to the community of Los Angeles — Jewish and non Jewish. It serves as a big event that the SEC does for the community.”
For more information about the festival, visit http://sephardicfilmfestival.com/shop/.