He calls them the "other" Jews. That's because Neil Sheff is partly one of those "others" (i.e., Sephardic Jews). In promoting the fifth annual Los Angeles Sephardic Film Festival, Sheff, whose ancestors came from the island of Rhodes, promises that anyone who comes to the festival will learn much about a culture that is often forgotten.
Sheff co-founded the Sephardic Educational Center's program, which runs Nov. 4 to Nov. 11, after he noticed that Jewish and Israeli film festivals in town were ignoring the Sephardic experience. "The emphasis was always on Ashkenazi and Yiddish culture. But I don't speak or relate to Yiddish. I relate to Ladino."
So do many of the protagonists in the 10 movies scheduled to screen at the 2001 Sephardic festival. The documentary "The Last Marranos" features a secret community of Portuguese Jews -- descendants of people forced to convert to Catholicism in 1497 -- who attend Mass but covertly light Shabbat candles.
Judeo-Arabic is the Sephardic language of choice in the festival's opening night movie, "La Veritte; Si Je Mens! 2" (Would I Lie to You? 2), Thomas Gilou's 2001 hit French caper about several North African Jews who concoct an outlandish scheme to get ahead in business. Along the way, they invoke superstitions and wear hamsehs, hand-shaped amulets intended to ward off the evil eye. The comedy, set in Paris' Sephardic-dominated garment district, also depicts a North African Jewish henna ceremony -- which has helped make the movie a cult classic among Sephardic Jews in Los Angeles. "A lot of people have watched bootlegged copies of the videotape," Sheff confides. "But our screening -- which also happens to be the U.S. premiere -- will be the only one with English-language subtitles."
"Dad on the Run" (2000), by French filmmaker Dante Desarthe, also illustrates the pull of tradition on the most assimilated of Sephardic Jews. A Paris musician playing a bar mitzvah suddenly realizes he has only a few hours to complete what he thinks is a crucial North African family custom: burying his son's foreskin three days after circumcision. "So he runs all over town trying to find a place to bury it," Sheff says. "He thinks he's found a good place by a tree, until he remembers what dogs like to do to trees."
Sheff says that the goal of the festival is simple: "To expose the exotic and fascinating aspects of Sephardic culture to the Jewish and general communities," he says.
Actress Lainie Kazan and Hollywood businessman Bob Israel will be honored at the festival's opening night gala at the Directors Guild. For information about any the gala, screening times or to attend a filmmakers' seminar, of the events, call (310) 273-8567.