October 22, 2018

The Ladino Lens

Neil Sheff is candid about why he co-founded the Sephardic Educational Center’s (SEC) Los Angeles Sephardic Film Festival four years ago.

Sure, there were Jewish and Israeli film festivals in town. “But they didn’t deal with the Sephardic community or its experiences,” he says. When the existing festivals highlighted the old country experience, the emphasis was on Ashkenazi Yiddish culture. “But I don’t speak Yiddish, understand Yiddish or relate to Yiddish,” the 39-year-old attorney says. “I relate to Ladino.”

So in 1995, when Sheff, international chair of SEC’s young adult movement, received a videotape of an intriguing movie on Spanish crypto-Jews, he decided to take action. He called Sarita Hasson Fields, president of L.A. Friends of SEC, and pitched a film festival.

“The reason SEC exists is to catch up to the Ashkenazi world, to show the overall Jewish experience,” he explains. “Come to the festival and you’ll learn about the ‘other’ Jews.”

Since then, the Sephardic festival, which screens Nov. 9-16, has grown from three films and a couple hundred viewers to an international affair, with more than a thousand patrons, a filmmakers’ seminar and an awards ceremony. The eight movies and documentaries this year are Turkish, Greek, Yugoslavian, Lebanese, North African and Iraqi. “We try to highlight as wide an array of Sephardic communities as we can,” Sheff says, adding that the diverse films express Sephardic themes of migration and assimilation. Festival committee members don’t just showcase Sephardic films; they’re advocates for Sephardic filmmakers. When the producer of “The Key From Spain: The Songs and Stories of Flory Jagoda” attended a 1999 festival seminar, officials hooked her up with the Maurice Amado Foundation to obtain completion funds. (The film premieres at this year’s festival.) When the producers of “The Life of Frank Iny: A Granddaughter’s Journey,” the story of a Baghdadi philanthropist, come to town this month, Sheff will help set up interviews with L.A. Iraqis for their next film.

One sign that the festival has arrived is the opening-night screening of the French thriller “K” by popular Algerian-Jewish director Alexandre Arcady. Casbah-bred Arcady, who’ll appear in person at the festival’s opening night gala, regularly earns good box office for movies in which Sephardic protagonists struggle against racism and anti-Semitism. “K,” his latest, focuses on Sam, a Sephardic cop who has been playing chess for two decades with Joseph Katz, an antiques dealer and Holocaust survivor. Then Katz kills a man he insists was an SS officer. The antiques dealer is found dead, and Sam must travel to Berlin to learn the shattering truth about his late friend.

“I wanted to make a film about tolerance and the need for everyone to take responsibility,” Arcady has said in an interview in France, home to the third-largest Sephardic population in the world. ” ‘K’ is well in touch with what is happening today in France. You only have to watch the increasing popularity of the National Front, the negative and extremist ideas, to understand why it was necessary for me to make this film.”For information about the Sephardic Film Festival, call (310) 273-8567.