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Orthodox Israeli director opens window on closed society

Israeli film director Rama Burshtein (R) chats with an unidentified man during the Haifa Film Festival on October 20, 2016, in Haifa. Burshtein's team includes all the usual movie-making roles, but with a couple of exceptions: her rabbi and an assistant who keeps her from coming into contact with men. NIR KAFRI / AFP

Israeli film director Rama Burshtein (R) chats with an unidentified man during the Haifa Film Festival on October 20, 2016, in Haifa. Burshtein’s team includes all the usual movie-making roles, but with a couple of exceptions: her rabbi and an assistant who keeps her from coming into contact with men.<br />NIR KAFRI / AFP

Film director Rama Burshtein’s team includes all the usual movie-making roles, but with a couple of exceptions: her rabbi and an assistant who keeps her from coming into contact with men.

That’s because Burshtein also happens to be an ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman, which means she strictly observes religious tradition.

It leaves the director of the “Fill the Void,” her critically-acclaimed 2012 breakout film which was shown at the Venice Film Festival, with a difficult balance strike between her art and her beliefs.

And there is no instruction manual on how to do it, says this 49-year-old American-Israeli, wearing a multi-coloured head wrap to hide her hair, as required of ultra-Orthodox women.

“Every time I have to go back to my rabbi, and together we’re thinking on how to deal with situations that come up. There is no book that tells you how to make cinema with Halakha (Jewish law).”

While there is a mini-industry of ultra-Orthodox movie-making within Israel that caters to this closed community, Burshtein is the first to have crossed over into the mainstream with so much success.

She recently presented her latest film, a romantic comedy called “Through the Wall,” at the Haifa Film Festival.

The story revolves around a 30-something woman who returns to her faith and is set to marry, but is left by her fiance a month before the wedding. But she doesn’t cancel the reception, the invitations or the rabbi — relying on God to deliver her a husband.

“Everything that is happening in my movies has to be according to the Halakha, which means men and women would not touch in my film,” Burshtein said.

“They would play together, but not touch.”

– ‘Very naughty’ –
The director also has to abide by certain rules herself.

“I never sit alone with a man,” she said.

“I work with male cinematographers, but I have a personal assistant that sits with me all the time, not because I am a righteous person, but because I am very, very naughty and I need to protect myself because I can kind of lose it and I become friendly with everybody.”

Her production team also doesn’t work on the Sabbath, the Jewish day of rest.

Torn between two lives, it took years for Burshtein to make “Fill the Void.”

Born in New York to a secular Jewish family, she was a fan of Quentin Tarantino who studied cinema and was at one time briefly interested in Buddhism.

At 25, she decided to join the ultra-Orthodox community. Her husband is a mohel, who carries out circumcisions according to Jewish law.

“When I became religious, I thought I would never do anything that was connected to cinema,” she said.

“I got married, I had four kids and I was really busy with my new life.”

But that was to change.

“Doing films for the secular world, the general public, came out of pain, not me wanting to do it or deciding to do it,” she said.

“I just felt that we don’t have a voice and everyone is interpreting us just the way they feel like, even if it has nothing to do with us and what is happening in my world.”

– A growing presence –
“Fill the Void” tells the story of an 18-year-old Hassidic girl whose sister dies in childbirth. She is then pressured to marry her sister’s husband.

The ultra-Orthodox community in Israel, estimated at between seven and 10 percent of the eight million population, has for many years been largely absent from popular culture.

They tend to live in their own communities, with the men typically dedicating their lives to religious study.

But in recent years, the Orthodox lifestyle has found its way into mainstream films such as Amos Gitai’s “Kadosh” (1999), “Eyes Wide Open” from Haim Tabakman (2009) and David Volach’s “My Father My Lord” (2007).

And the Israeli television series “Shtisel,” about an ultra-Orthodox family in Jerusalem which is partly in Yiddish, is being adapted in the United States by Amazon.

“In several years, (the ultra-Orthodox) they have become ubiquitous, even central” to music, films and television, said Avner Shavit, film critic for Israeli news site Walla.

– ‘4,000 years old’ –
With Burshtein, both Israelis and foreigners are being offered a unique look at the issue of woman within the community.

The ultra-Orthodox themselves, however, can often seem uninterested in what the rest of the world says about them.

Only a few people close to Burshtein attended the recent premier of her film in Haifa — easily identifiable in their black coats and skullcaps, long dresses and scarves.

“My community, they don’t feel the need to make that bridge (with the secular audience).”

“They are busy with their lives. Most of my friends have 10 kids.”

While her films may be “kosher,” they are filled with emotion, focusing on a look or the breathing of a character.

Film critic Shavit said he even detected something of a “feminist” undercurrent at times — “if we see it in its context” of extreme conservatism.

Burshtein said she does not intend to stop anytime soon.

“We are almost 4,000 years old,” she said.

“We have a lot of stories.”

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