Through a Lens, Darkly

Newly religious film student Rama Burstein was pained by the cinematic depiction of ultra-Orthodox, so she wrote and is presently directing her own film, aimed at changing stereotypes of Haredim.

Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
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Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman

The atmosphere on the set of the film "Lemalei Et Hahalal" ("Filling the Void" ) is different, special. In a ground-floor apartment in central Tel Aviv's Sheinkin area, the monitors, lights and other equipment whirl, surrounded by professionals clothed in cool clothes - some holding ever-present cigars or joints - as well as bearded, black-garbed Orthodox men, and Orthodox women in long dresses with wigs or head coverings. This is a curious mixture of the outright secular and the ultra-Orthodox - both groups united by a common goal: to make a movie directed by a newly pious woman, who prowls around the set with a clear agenda.

"Filling the Void" is the first film written and directed by Rama Burstein for the Israeli mainstream audience. Burstein is an ultra-Orthodox woman who lives with her husband and children in Tel Aviv, a few streets away from the studio; she is a graduate of the second class of students at the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School, in Jerusalem. Among other things, she studied alongside Tali Shemesh, who directed the acclaimed documentary "Moadon Beit Hakvarot" ("The Cemetery Club" ).

A few months after she concluded her studies at Sam Spiegel, Burstein became newly religious, and abandoned her dream of directing secular films. Instead, she taught cinema for years in educational frameworks for female pupils, and made independent films for a target audience of ultra-Orthodox women.

She works confidently on the set of "Filling the Void." She directs the actors, advises members of the film crew, gives directions, and cries "Action!" at the right moment. Her hair is carefully wrapped up in a scarf, long clothes cover her body and she concentrates her attention on the monitor that shows the scene being filmed.

Actors Renana Raz, right, and Yiftach Klein on the set of 'Filling the Void'Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

The character of Esther (played by actress Renana Raz ), a Haredi woman in an advanced stage of pregnancy, enters her parents' house, accompanied by her husband Yochai (Yiftach Klein ), wearing festive Hasidic dress. Shira (Hadas Yaron ), her younger sister, welcomes Esther with a warm embrace.

"Is everything all right?" asks Esther.

"What's with you?" replies Shira.

"I'm suffering the woes of the rich," the older sister says, smiling, and gets another hug. Esther enters the apartment and her husband follows her quietly.

"Cut!" cries Burstein, the moment Esther's image leave the frame. "As far as I'm concerned, that's it," she tells the cameraman, and waits to hear his opinion.

The secular prism

During one of the breaks in filming, Burstein finds the time for a brief conversation. After she became observant, she explains, it was natural for her to leave the secular film world.

"I understood that that [world] couldn't be reconciled [with religion], and it didn't really bother me," she says, adding that she enjoyed teaching film and making movies for Haredi audiences - at least for a time.

"I didn't dream of going back to making movies - I didn't have any ambition of doing so," Burstein adds. "It all began with the fact that I saw something which pained me. I grasped that in cinema today, one views the ultra-Orthodox world exclusively through a secular prism. You can't find a movie that presents Haredi realities told from a Haredi viewpoint. The only film that came close to doing this was 'Ushpizin,' but this was done by a secular director [Gidi Dar], and the film dealt with relations between Haredim and persons who become observant, rather than with an issue that is entirely within the Haredi realm."

Burstein was offended by the way Haredim were depicted in film, and she decided to do something about it.

"In Israel and overseas, the lives of Haredim never appear in films in a way that is interesting to watch, and that bothered me," she says. "It's wrong that we exist, in substantial numbers, but cinema does not present any opportunity of seeing our lives as they are. And so, after my creative energies were blocked for years - although I loved those years - this effort got under way and started to advance."

One of the causes of the problematic presentation is the lack of Haredi filmmakers.

Burstein: "There are no such Haredi creators, and secular [filmmakers] are generally interested in the lives of the Orthodox only from the standpoint of 'What does the Torah prohibit that I want in my life.' Living within the world of the Torah is not something which seems intrinsically interesting. That's strange, to me. In these films, it always seems as though the characters don't really love the Torah. They want to deviate from its rules and its spirit. In the eyes of someone who has become Orthodox, that's very strange."

Working on the film, and the prolonged dealings with a crew comprised of secular and religious people, is complicated, she admits.

"In the beginning, when I went to Assaf [Amir, the film's producer - N.A.] with a synopsis, he wondered how the filming of this production would differ from that of an ordinary movie, and I didn't know how to respond to that question," Burstein notes. "Now, I know that the subject of men and women working together is complicated. Boundaries that remained intact for me, for 16 years, without being crossed, were suddenly compromised."

For instance, Burstein is compelled to have a close working relationship with a male photographer, as well as a male producer and other male crew members and actors; most of these people lack knowledge of the norms of Haredi society. Klein, the lead actor, recalls that in one of discussion he had with Burstein, he touched her shoulder lightly, without thinking - a gesture that was discomfiting to both of them.

In order to make things easier for the director, and also to contribute to the film's authenticity, some of the film crew is comprised of Haredi males.

"A Haredi art director knows how to arrange a dining room table for a religious holiday, and an ultra-Orthodox costume designer knows all the nuances of dress in the Haredi world," says Amir, the producer. Of course, in contrast to other productions, a caterer who serves glatt kosher food had to be found to feed the crew for "Filling the Void."

Fear of publicity

At the start of the movie, which was produced with the support of the Israel Film Fund, the character of Shira goes with her mother Rivka (Irit Sheleg ) to the neighborhood supermarket, in order to catch a look at Pinchas, the young man slated to be her husband by arranged marriage. Shira is stunned: Not only is Pinchas a scholarly prodigy, he is also handsome. But then everything starts to go wrong. Esther, her older sister, dies in childbirth, leaving behind Yochai, her husband, and the infant. As time passes, Shira speaks with her mother about her own arranged marriage, but her mother is too deeply mired in grief to respond. The mother only springs into action when Yochai, the widower, receives a matchmaking proposal that requires him to live with his son in Belgium. She recoils from the idea of her grandson living overseas, and so decides that Yochai should marry her younger daughter.

On the Tel Aviv film set, it is hard to tell who is really Orthodox, and who is only acting as though he or she is religiously observant.

"We joke about how one has to pull beards here to tell who has a real one and whose is fake," says Amir.

Haim Sarid, a producer who makes his debut acting appearance in the film, in the role of the family's father, roams the set wearing black clothes, and with a beard and earlocks. When seen through secular eyes, he looks thoroughly Orthodox. and it turns out that some religious members of the film crew also think that he is religious.

"One of the religious fellows here asked me one day whether I'm really religious, and I told him, 'Yes.' He believed me until he heard me speaking on the phone," Sarid recalls, smiling.

Klein, also bearded and in black garb, wears an ornate, expensive-looking hat. He explains that these are holiday clothes worn by Hasids; the scene slated for shooting later in the day, he adds, involves a Purim party. For many long weeks, Klein says, he and other secular actors visited Bnei Brak, and took part in Haredi weddings and holiday celebrations, spoke with religious scholars, and ate Shabbat eve dinners in Burstein's home.

Klein: "During such events, I mainly watch, ask questions. Much to my surprise, I found that these visits gave me peace of mind. Being with a religious male group - there's something pleasant about it. It makes you concentrate on what's important inside you, and it blocks out distractions."

As a result of his frequent visits to Haredi events, rumors spread about the possibility that Klein was actually becoming Orthodox. He denies these rumors, but admits that he enjoyed the opportunity to observe Jewish religious life. He adds that during breaks from the shooting of the film, he goes to a local synagogue, to join services.

"I think that we miss a lot of the beauty in religion and belief due to fear and stereotypes, and that's a pity," he concludes.

Burstein, in contrast, confesses that the prolonged contact with the secular world is difficult for her.

"This film forces me to go out into the world, and that's hard for me," she says. "For some time, I considered releasing the film without my name appearing in the credits. I thought and discussed the film with my husband. We sought advice, and equivocated. For me, releasing the film under my name bears a heavy price because such publicity is dangerous. In private, I wondered whether if the movie were to come out anonymously, without anyone knowing the role I played in its making - would that really be a problem? It's a struggle. Because the very desire to get publicity, to exist and gain special status - that's a form of self-presentation that can be dangerous. Look, I have a son who is studying in a yeshiva; we are Haredim. Our children don't understand this [secular] world at all; they have never seen a film frame in a computer. So there were moments when I wanted to get up and leave everything behind, but the rabbi from whom we sought advice said: 'No, you must continue.' So we did.



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