Neil Sheff was shocked to find himself something of a celebrity at a conference of North American Jewish film festival directors a couple years ago. Of the 75 festivals in the United States and Canada, his Los Angeles Sephardic Film Festival is the only one dedicated to showcasing the Sephardic experience. "I was literally surrounded by people who wanted to pick my brain," he said, incredulous.
It's a testament to how far the festival -- scheduled Nov. 10-17 -- has come since Sheff and fellow Sephardic Educational Center leader Sarita Hasson Fields founded it as a fundraising tool in 1996. While the Laemmle Theatres gave up stewardship of its Jewish film festival due to poor ticket sales, Sheff's event has thrived, drawing almost 2,000 patrons and raising $75,000 in 2001. Along the way it has hosted U.S. premieres of European hits such as Alexandre Arcady's "K" -- a French thriller that has since been picked up by other North American Jewish fests.
Sheff's 2002 program will continue the tradition with the U.S. debut of "A Bit of Luck," a poignant Moroccan family saga starring popular Israeli singer Zehava Ben, at the opening night gala Nov. 10. The seriocomedy "Desperado Square," about movie-obsessed Greek Jews near Tel Aviv, generated buzz in Israel and received a good review in Variety. A seminar devoted to the importance of ethnic filmmaking, inspired by the success of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," will draw panelists such as "Ghost World" producer Lianne Halfon, John Malkovich's producing partner. Meanwhile, documentaries such as "Adio Kerida," in which filmmaker Ruth Behar traces her family history in Havana, will further Sheff's goal of "highlighting as wide an array of Sephardic communities as we can."
Another goal, according to Sheff, is "to help Sephardic Jews catch up to the Ashkenazi world. As our event becomes more successful, we hope the message is come to the festival and learn about the 'other' Jews."