Haredi Filmmaker Has Faith That Secular Audiences Will Get Her Movies

Writer-director Rama Burshtein has made two acclaimed films about the ultra-Orthodox world - 'Fill the Void' and now 'Through the Wall.' However, she says she has no interest in preaching to the converted.

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Rama Burshtein.
Rama Burshtein.Credit: Iliya Melnikov
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman

Belief plays a key role in “Through the Wall” (“La’avor et Hakir”), Rama Burshtein’s terrific, funny new movie. Indeed, long after leaving the theater, it is hard to stop smiling at the memory of it. Even completely secular viewers seem to leave the film with a bit of faith in their hearts: Not necessarily religious belief or recognition of the existence of one God or another, but more a belief in hope, in the potential for good that lurks in this world, and the knowledge that even the most absurd, ridiculous and impossible things can sometimes surprise us.

“Through the Wall” tells the story of Michal (played by Noa Koller), a newly religious woman in her 30s who is poised to marry the right man – after many years of waiting. She already has the wedding hall, dress and caterer, but at the last moment the bridegroom decides he doesn’t want to marry her. Surprisingly, Michal decides not to cancel the wedding, but simply to find an alternative man to stand under the chuppah with. She embarks on a series of dates in order to find her one and only.

The movie is Burshtein’s sophomore effort after her equally acclaimed drama “Fill the Void” from 2012.

“Through the Wall” was one of the outstanding candidates at this year’s Ophir Awards (the Israeli Oscars) and won three prizes: Burshtein won for best screenplay, Koller took the best actress award (she also claimed the same prize at the Haifa Film Festival) and Hava Levi Rozelsky won for best costume design. After being shown at film festivals in Venice and Telluride, four U.S. distributors fought for the rights to release the film in America.

ALONG FOR THE BRIDE: From the film "Through the Wall."Credit: Norma Productions

In an interview with Haaretz, Burshtein, 49, emphasizes that the films she makes are intended specifically for a secular audience. “I’m not speaking to the ultra-Orthodox Jews [also known as Haredim], I’m talking to the nonreligious. That’s my cup of tea; that’s the discourse that interests me. The Haredi public has a very large fear of the new. And besides, there are men and women together in these movies – things they are not used to. So I definitely say it is not for the Haredim,” she says.

“The secular and the ultra-Orthodox both live inside me, I have all these sides in me,” she adds. “I come from a certain world, with a certain education, with certain loves. But I chose a world that is different and I’m doing a cross between these two things.”

Our interview was conducted in the offices of Norma Productions, which produced both her movies. She speaks quickly, and has a lot to say. She laughs, is charismatic, captivating; tells real-life stories; and occasionally relates a story from the scriptures – and all in a clearly secular language.

Burshtein was born in New York in 1967, to an American mother and Israeli father (both of whom have since passed away; her new film is dedicated to them, she says). She had an unusual childhood because her father was a sailor, and his wife and two daughters would often accompany him on long sea voyages. They also spent time alternating between the United States and Israel, but at 18 Rama spent three years traveling around the United States alone.

Director Rama Burshtein, left, and "Through the Wall" star Noa Koller at the Venice Film Festival, September 2016.Credit: Etore Ferrari/AP

Accurate reflection

Burshtein emerged as a major talent in Israeli cinema four years ago with “Fill the Void,” which offered an inside look into Haredi society, and conquered hearts both in Israel and worldwide. It won seven Ophirs, including best film; was the most-seen Israeli film in 2012; and its lead, Hadas Yaron, won the best actress award when the film premiered at the Venice Film Festival.

I’m not speaking to the ultra-Orthodox Jews, I’m talking to the nonreligious. That’s my cup of tea; that’s the discourse that interests me.

“Fill the Void” told the story of a young Haredi woman who is excited by her upcoming marriage to a good-looking yeshiva student. But she is forced to give up her dream when her sister dies during childbirth; her mother wants her to marry her widowed brother-in-law and become the newborn child’s mother.

There were sparks of humor in the film, but it wasn’t always easy to recognize them under the heavy veil of death and mourning. “Through the Wall,” though, is a romantic comedy that’s a far more accurate reflection of the personality of the woman behind it. Toward the end of the film, when the tension mounts as to whether Michal will succeed in finding her long-awaited husband, some secular viewers may begin to move uncomfortably in their seats. Suddenly, the penny drops that the protagonist’s tribulations are really nothing but a trial of faith.

During the movie, someone tells Michal that the deadline she has set God to find her a husband is a non-Jewish act, an attempt to trust in a miracle, and that even the righteous do not allow themselves to act in such a way.

From the film "Through the Wall."Credit: Norma Productions

Still, as the decisive moment approaches, the feeling grows that the identity and faith of the film’s creator plays a major role in plot developments. It’s hard to avoid the thought that someone wants to insert a few good words about God here.

Burshtein seeks to clarify her motives: The movie is a journey at whose heart lies an examination of faith, but not just faith in the religious sense of the word. “It is not just a test of faith in God, but more in the ability to believe in good, hope – which I think is the most precious thing today. This is a film that says the greatest courage is to believe there is a chance for good. That until the very last moment there is an option for the best [to happen]. [SPOILER ALERT:] That everything is open and everything is possible, even when she is already in her wedding dress and there is no groom. There is also a moment in the film in which she says it is a miracle to find love at any time, no less than to find it in just 12 days.”

Yet Burshtein admits that when she makes a movie, she is embarking upon a mission. But this is not a mission to bring the world back to religion; she is less interested in that. “What interests me is to say there is a God, and it is sweet. And not because I am saying, ‘Yalla, Rama, you’re on a mission!’ I simply feel it. I feel this sweetness and this good, and I have an interest to show it.”

It is not just a test of faith in God, but more in the ability to believe in good, hope – which I think is the most precious thing today.

Rama Burshtein. Credit: Iliya Melnikov

More than in “Fill the Void,” Burshtein says that today she feels there are some films that “give” and some films that “take.” Some films suck all the power out of you, while other films empower you and give you strength, she says.

“I’m really into making cinema that gives. And in order to give something, you cannot be involved only with yourself. Instead, you need to think about the audience – not in the sense of indulging it, but to understand it and ‘give’ to it. And this in my eyes is a mission in its own right, even before my being religious,” adds Burshtein.

It all fits in with her belief that nothing in life is accidental. With “Fill the Void” she says, she felt very strongly when writing the screenplay that people needed to die in order for other people to live together. “This woman [the sister] needs to die in order for them to connect. There is something precise that is happening, it is not an accident. There is no coincidence; instead, there is harmony, which, even if we do not always know how to read it or interpret it, is there all the time. I’m probably always going to be dealing with matters in which this thing will be felt very strongly, that things are not unfounded – and even the most absurd thing, ultimately, has a sort of point that connects to something you can hold onto,” she says.

“What is certain is that I am a very personal filmmaker, and the things I make will always be very personal cinema, not film that waves a flag. If you were to ask me whether this film is feminist, I would say it is very feminine. I don’t feel it is feminist, because it isn’t within the feminist platform. But it is very feminine and strong. My cinema will always be like that, but the headlines, banners, return to religion and feminism – they will not be in my movies because it simply doesn’t interest me.”