The atmosphere on the set of the new drama "Question Marks" ("Simanei She'ela") is less than exciting. This is the last day of filming and it seems that even the employees in the building housing the offices of the rabbinate in the town of Shoham have gotten used to the dozens of visitors there.
This is almost surprising, given that in a small side office there with little adornments on its walls, one of the most dramatic scenes of the series - which itself deals with conflict-laden material - is now being filmed.
"Question Marks" which will air later this year on Channel Two (Reshet), deals with the world of those who leave the ultra-Orthodox life. The show revolves around the secret apartment for those who are in the process of leaving or have left the ultra-Orthodox way of life, run by the fictitious Simanei She'ela organization (which is reminiscent of real organizations such as Hillel - the right to choose).
The characters coming to the apartment or passing through it are mostly based on real people. The contrasts between a life with clearly defined rules and an unconstrained life and between the family structure they left and the state of complete disassociation provided the show's creators with dramas that could not have been made up.
"Unlike the (national) religious who wear knitted skullcaps, these are people who came out of the most devout Hasidic and Lithuanian systems," says the show's creator and writer, Ido Dror (who also wrote the script for the film, "For My Father" ["Sof Shavua B'Tel Aviv"]). "They have never read a newspaper or watched television. They don't know who Madonna, Michael Jackson or Dudu Topaz is. They have never seen dogs, for example. They don't know what Internet is. They don't know math and they measure things in cubits and handbreadths. Some of them speak only Yiddish and poor Hebrew. It's as if they are being completely reborn. To me, they are like immigrants; they have to learn everything over from scratch."
The characters in the series went through these experiences, says Dror, in the same apartment and the same environment. Eli, played by actor Dan Shapiro, left behind a wife and son, whom he sees on the street once a week.
Shira, played by Gala Kogan, is a comic artist (whose drawings were done by the illustrator Netali Ron-Raz) who left the ultra-Orthodox life because she was barren, among other reasons.
Itay Turgeman plays Chemi, who leaves his ultra-Orthodox way of life only to hole up in the apartment and be thrown out onto the streets after six months, alone and lacking direction.
Didi (or Devora), played by Tal Talmon, left the ultra-Orthodox way of life two years ago and instead of dealing with a trauma in her past, becomes a stripper.
The scene being filmed now features Turgeman and Talmon. In the narrow room, almost 10 crew members crowd in. When the filming is done, the actors disperse to the dusty courtyard.
"Of all the characters in the series, Chemi comes from the least stringent background," says Turgeman of the role he plays. "He comes from the north of the country, from a yeshiva that is not very stringent, and a family with a Middle Eastern background which in general has a more lenient approach to religious observance. He comes to Tel Aviv brimming with confidence, certain that he will be able to endear himself to others with the natural charm he knows he has, but he comes down with a kind of urban shell shock."
During the series the character goes through a process of self-destruction and searching, testing the limits and assessment of the surroundings. In Turgeman's work as well, it seems the limit was stretched and the question arose of how to relate to a character whose life is wholly apart from the familiar and comfortable life of the actor playing him.
"What is especially interesting to me is the understanding that my reality, which I understand and can get by in, is something completely foreign and unknown," agrees Turgeman. "It's interesting to me as an actor how a person looks at a reality that is so foreign to him, what happens to him."
It is possible that the answer to this question can actually be found on the set. Religious affairs consultant Ido Lev, who was nicknamed Idos, roams around restlessly. One minute he bursts onto a scene, straightens the ends of the ritual fringes worn by the actor and the next minute he is correcting another actor, specifying the precise pronunciation of a sentence. Lev's job is to ensure there are no flaws in credibility, but more than anything else he seems to be a key source of inspiration. The earring he wears is, in this case, nothing more than successful camouflage.
"Two years ago a connection was forged between me, as someone who left the ultra-Orthodox life and Ido Dror, the writer," he relates. Lev, 30, began his move away from the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle around seven years ago, when he was a Kretshnif Hasid, married and a father of two. "It was a path filled with hardship," he recalls. "I didn't see the kids for close to six years, I had to supplement my education, complete the matriculation exams and take the psychometric test. Only three years ago did I acquire basic knowledge in all subjects related to the basic professions such as math, for example."
It seems that there are similarities between you and some of the characters. Do you identify with them?
"When I read the script for the first time, there were many characters I connected with. Each character is someone that I can actually point to, refer to by name. There is a perfect fit, as with a stencil. There are scenes that I know from real life, whether it's a soldier who stays on the base because he doesn't have where to go, or if it's roaming around without the most basic education and working as a waiter at the age of 35. These are people who appear completely normal, floating around here, but who don't have minimal knowledge, the basic tools, even the language. As a whole, it's a process that is very hard and very lonely to embark on. If not for the Hillel association, which helped me personally very much, I don't know how I would have managed."
An hour and a half later the crew moves to another location. Among Shoham's Jerusalem stone homes, Dan Shapiro is being filmed together with the actor who plays his son for one of the final scenes in the series.
With ultra-Orthodox inspectors patrolling, the set is turned into a street in the ultra-Orthodox city of Ramat Beit Shemesh. The atmosphere which until a moment ago had been secular and commonplace has been transformed.
"To me this series exposes a world that is unknown. When we started there was 'Merhak Negi'a' and 'Meurav Yerushalmi,' but there was no series about ultra-Orthodox characters," director Ofir Babayoff says, referring to two other TV series about the religious. "The process these people are undergoing, which we are trying to present here, is not simple. Usually these are young people who are coming from a closed world. When they cross this line they arrive with no tools, without knowledge. It's not just a move from the periphery to the big city or from one country to another."
Film and television characters, Babayoff explains, will always look for something about themselves and to teach something about themselves. However in such a reality, it is a particularly extreme process.
"The truth is that when this process occurs in reality, everything they knew about the world and about themselves, about the laws and concepts, no longer exists. Someone who was prodigy and a genius is suddenly a bartender and stuck in some place; his genius is not expressed because there he knew how to philosophize and refine and here that has no value."
Aren't you bothered by the fact that the characters you describe are pretty extreme, a criminal, and a stripper?
"There really are many former ultra-Orthodox who get lost. From a situation where everything is known and dictated, even to the extent of what shoelace to wear, which side to knot first, everything is now open and permitted. It's a situation where a person needs to find himself anew, and he joins in human dramas such as divorce, for example, which in and of itself is also a dramatic and tragic situation. Everything is based on in-depth study. These are things that happen all the time. Criminals and people who lose their direction and get into crime and drugs, it happens a lot."
You are not worried about being perceived as too judgmental?
"It's not a series that is coming to judge. Given the fact that the series talks about those who leave ultra-Orthodoxy, we are on their side, but it's important to say that it's not anti-religious. It's a series about people who preferred to change everything in their life and they have their reasons for doing so. The aim is not to portray a move from darkness into light, but people who move from one situation to another and that forces them to find themselves, to redefine themselves. It's not one-dimensional."
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