When the Skirball Cultural Center launched its Latin Jewish film series seven years ago, it caught some members of both ethnic groups by surprise. "People acted just shocked that there were Jews south of the border," said Jordan Peimer, the Skirball's director of programs.
Today, that idea isn't likely to startle Skirball regulars. Over the years, the series, which was initially funded by the Irvine Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, has exposed filmgoers to the Jews of Cuba (the documentary "Jubanos"), Mexico ("A Kiss to This Land"), the Dominican Republic ("Shalom Amigos") and other parts of the hemisphere's Jewish diaspora. A retrospective on Argentine director Daniel Burman, including "Waiting for the Messiah," drew a diverse crowd to the Skirball's perch above the 405 Freeway.
"It seems like a really great way to bring together the Latin and Jewish communities in L.A.," Peimer said of the series.
This year's edition focuses on Argentina, which has had a complex and at times fraught relationship with its large Jewish-immigrant population, as the series' two remaining films illuminate: Lucía Puenzo's feature drama "The German Doctor" (screening Tuesday) and Gabriela Böhm's documentary "Raquel: A Marked Woman" (showing Feb. 20). The film series "Transatlantico" is part of a broader Skirball initiative, "Viva!," that explores connections between the two cultures.
"The German Doctor," set in Patagonia in 1960, is based on the true story of an Argentine family who lived with Josef Mengele without knowing the true identity of the Nazi doctor who conducted murderous medical experiments on Auschwitz concentration camp prisoners. Later, Mengele managed to escape to Brazil, where he died in 1979.
The movie, which Puenzo adapted from her own novel, "Wakolda," is scheduled to be released in the United States by Samuel Goldwyn in April.
"The film really gets at those strange contrasts that are so completely Argentina, that it becomes a country that harbors both the German and the Jew, the Nazi and the Jew, right next door to one another," Peimer said.
The 34-minute "Raquel" recounts the remarkable tale of Raquel Liberman, who was born in Lodz, Poland, and in 1922 immigrated to Argentina to join her tailor-husband. Soon after he died of tuberculosis, Liberman became one of thousands of Eastern European migrant women lured into prostitution by white-slavery syndicates that promised them seamstress jobs.
But after enduring this harsh and degrading life for several years (and hiding it from her two young sons, who were being raised elsewhere), Liberman one day courageously marched into the Buenos Aires police headquarters. To the astonished officers, she offered up personal testimony that would lead to the downfall of the Jewish mafia Zwi Migdal.
Böhm, a child of Holocaust survivors who was born in Argentina and now lives in Los Angeles, said she'd heard about Liberman's odyssey after finishing her previous film "The Longing: The Forgotten Jews of South America," a documentary about Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity.
Böhm began to research sex trafficking in South America in general but decided to focus on Liberman because she prefers character-based documentaries to conceptual ones.
"I felt that her story, following her dramatic arc, would give viewers a sense of her ordeal and the heroic aspect of her journey, as well as give us a historical context," said the director, who will give a talk and take part in a Q&A following the screening.
Argentina's population of Jewish heritage is estimated at between 200,000 and 300,000. Peimer believes that of all Latin America's capital cities, Buenos Aires, with its European-style architecture and cafe-literary society, may have felt particularly familiar and welcoming to some Jewish immigrants.
"For the more cosmopolitan Jews who ended up in Argentina, this really did feel like home," he said. "And I've been to Jewish delis in Buenos Aires — actually the worst pastrami I've ever had, and I'll go on record saying that! But otherwise you wouldn't know that you weren't in New York or Chicago."
Böhm said that when she was growing up in Argentina in the 1960s and '70s, the country still was feeling the after-effects of the terrible traumas of World War II. Anti-Semitism was more palpable in those days too.
"Many of my friends were also children of immigrants. And so we kept the same values, values of fear, of isolation, an insular community, ghetto-like, living in particular neighborhoods, going to the same clubs, going to a Jewish school."
That atmosphere "has changed dramatically," she said, making it easier for both Jewish and non-Jewish Argentines to probe deeper into the controversial aspects of their shared history and culture. Although the Skirball screening of "Raquel" will be the first anywhere, Böhm is hopeful her film will be shown in Argentina someday soon.
"Argentina has become more open in the last few years, and I feel that the old Jewish guard is dying out," she said. "The new generation is more curious and engaged in their historical Jewish past, with all its facets."
Where: Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd.
When: "The German Doctor," in German and Spanish with English subtitles, 8 p.m., Tue.; "Raquel: A Marked Woman," 8 p.m. Feb. 20
Tickets: "The German Doctor" is free, reservations available at http://www.skirball.org; "Raquel," $8 general, $5 full-time students, free for Skirball and JGSLA members
Information: (877) 722-4849