And God Created Women (Directors)

The pioneers of the Haredi women's film industry don't need male actors, and their movies are free of violence, obscene language and love scenes. Nevertheless, their melodramas are pulling in the crowds in Bnei Brak.

An ultra-Orthodox man set up straight rows of plastic chairs. The basement hall of the building in Jerusalem would soon be filled with teachers and students from Haredi girls' schools, on vacation.

A stream of women and girls flows down the narrow steps into the hall, and all at once the deserted place comes to life. The married yeshiva student who arranged the chairs now sits at the table with a cash box. He will also be screening the film and selling DVDs. A few minutes before the film begins everyone is smiling and there is a feeling of joy in the air. Movies are not shown every day in Haredi neighborhoods, especially not a new, theater-quality film and not a well-used, computer version of an old movie.

The Haredi film industry has flourished so far thanks to computer films, mainly low-budget, action films intended specifically for men and children. In the past five years a handful of feature films for women have begun to appear, most of them directed by Haredi women. They are screened at hotels catering to the Haredi population during the intermediate days of the week-long Passover and Sukkot holidays and during the summer, or at community centers or even wedding halls, advertised in free community newspapers.

Yehuda Grohweis is a member of the Gur Hasidic community and a leading director of computer-distributed films for the Haredi market. He explains that because Haredi men, who are commanded to study Torah, have no leisure culture, watching movies is a home activity only. Women in the community, however, "have greater legitimacy for going out to [Jewish studies] classes in the evening and for social activity."

Grohweis, who cannot recall exactly how many films he has made (in the dozens), only recently began to create films for women, which he views as a natural development of the industry. "Without sounding chauvinistic, cinema is a problematic area for Haredi women," he says. "First of all, for a film one needs $20,000-$30,000. A woman making her first movie must finance production from her household budget - instead of a new kitchen or enlarging a room. In the Haredi community that is usually a decision the husband makes," Grohweis says.

He says that it is even problematic for women to leave the home for filming. Nevertheless, most of the films intended for Haredi women are made by Haredi women who grew up in a world without films, not newly religious women who hastened to fill a vacuum in the field of Haredi culture. The exception is a single film made by the newly religious director Irit Sheleg.

Religious constraints have facilitated the entry of women into the industry: Films by male directors using female actresses are less likely to obtain rabbinical consent and thus risk losing their potential audience. But, as a pioneer female Haredi director admits, "There are few female directors because most don't survive. It can't be done without the support of your husband and of society."

According to Marlene Wenig, who teaches drama in Haredi frameworks, "Today there is a great thirst for cinema in the Haredi community," despite the fact that for years the medium was considered impure and was thought to encourage immoral behavior. Wenig says movies are still considered dangerous and problematic and are severely restricted in both form and content.

Wenig says the societal legitimacy for the new genre is based on "the understanding that it is a very attractive medium thanks to the illusion it transmits, and that it can be used to transmit our own messages." Wenig, a newly religious member of the Belz Hasidim, is writing her master's thesis at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem about the cinematic work of Haredi women. She believes these directors have artistic ambitions, even if it they are not obvious. "There is no question that the field is suffering from labor pains," she says. "The plots are convoluted and the quality of the photography is often poor because everything is shot with a single camera. But one must remember that the directors are operating in a vacuum and most of the audience hasn't seen movies before so they have no tools for comparison. But from one film to the next their work improves."

Jungle Boogie

Wenig relates that one director went to Tel Aviv University to read scripts in order to understand how to construct a script. There are also advantages to creating in a vacuum. For example, the film "A Perfect Break" used the soundtrack from Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction," with which both the audience and the director are unfamiliar.

The plots are usually convoluted melodramas, most of them tear-jerkers that are loaded with edifying messages and Haredi cliches: There will always be a goy (or a secular Jew) who discovers his Judaism; and twins separated at birth, one of whom grew up with goyim (or secular Jews) and returns to his origins. And an ancient copy of Psalms will always find its way to its owner.

In Grohweis' "Wedding Dress," a young woman with cancer dies before her wedding because the mother of the potential bone marrow donor forbids the procedure. The potential donor develops cancer herself on the eve of her own wedding, but there is a happy ending: The mother of the dead girl, in an act of forgiveness, donates her own bone marrow. In the final scene, a real tear-jerker, she also offers her dead daughter's wedding dress.

Grohweis' films are fast-paced and very well photographed. The recent film "A Perfect Break" by director Rahi Elias of Bnei Brak, suffers from poor photography, a convoluted script that moves slowly from the present to the Jewish shtetl of the early 20th century, and unconnected comic interludes.

Like most of these films, "A Perfect Break" is far too long, at over two hours. One director explained that the woman who pays NIS 40 for a ticket expects full value for her money. Moreover, there is no competition for her attention - from television, for example. And in fact, watching one of these films, which had many boring stretches, the women seemed to enjoy every moment. In other words, they cried nonstop.

"Fateful Revelation," directed by Dina Perlstein of Bnei Brak, is about a Haredi woman who is shocked to discover that her father was a Nazi criminal, but in the end it turns out that he is a Jew who, disguised as a Nazi, saved other Jews. Although there are boring parts the film was photographed in a very professional manner, in Prague. But the sound is problematic and parts are poorly dubbed.

Elias, from the Sanz Hasidic community, and Perlstein, a Belzer, are related to each other. Both began their film careers with sound and light shows, a popular medium in the Haredi community that combines dramatic skits with filmed sections and even slides. Their next efforts were full-length features.

In light of the development of the medium, it is not surprising to discover that alongside private frameworks for studying film, cinema departments are opening in educational institutions in Bnei Brak and Jerusalem. The most prominent and well-equipped one began two years ago in a Gur teachers' seminary in Bnei Brak at the initiative of the school's respected head. For obvious reasons the field of study is called "multimedia" rather than "film."

The students learn about genres, scripts, editing, animation, lighting and sound, as well as photography and production, from teachers from the national religious community as well as newly religious actresses.

Amelie's tank top

One of the teachers, a graduate of Jerusalem's Ma'ale School of Television, Film & the Arts, says the development of the field is threatened by rabbinical supervision. For example, when she showed the students clips from films including "The 400 Blows," "The Matrix" and even one Iranian film, the coordinator censored out nude scenes, expressions of love, violence and even curses. But sometimes mistakes creep in. When she showed part of the French film "Le Fabuleux destin d'Amelie Poulain," several students noticed that actress Audrey Tautou was wearing a tank top and raised an outcry.

The scandal reached the rabbis and the course was almost discontinued. The eventual compromise was to show only children's films. Still, after two years the teacher is leaving in disappointment, and the course will no longer be offered.

"In Haredi society it's hard to do genuine cinema," the teacher says. Even documentaries are a problem because "there is no culture of personal exposure. Because of their status as young women, the students cannot bring up any personal or interpersonal subject and are actually forbidden to do so. We had fantasies about personal films from their world, but didn't manage to change the worldview of most of them. We saw that they are interested mainly in earning a living."