'Fill the Void': A Film That Speaks Haredi, but With a Secular Accent

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While watching Rama Burshtein’s film “Fill the Void,” I thought of nothing. I just cried. I cried, I was startled, I was galvanized.

But only a few minutes after walking out of the film, which opened in New York theaters last weekend, a troubling thought occurred to me. Could the first film to come from deep within the ultra-Orthodox world, aspiring to be an authentic response to all the embarrassing and folkloristic portrayals of Haredim on the big screen, have come from anyone who hadn’t become observant as an adult, like director Rama Burshtein, but by a filmmaker who had been born and raised within the Haredi ghetto?

For those who may have missed the first incarnations of this saga, the most successful Israeli film of 2012, “Fill the Void” tells the story of Shira, a Haredi girl of 18, for whom it has come time to find a yeshiva student to marry who will be suited to her status and temperament. The plans get disrupted, however, when her sister dies in childbirth with her firstborn son, leaving behind a young widower and their baby.

Shira’s environment expects her to step into her late sister’s shoes and marry her brother-in-law, which throws her into the epicenter of an emotional and familial storm. This might sound a classic story for an uninhibited telenovella, but because it is taking place in the Haredi world, the audience is invited to dive into a sea of restrained emotions, beneath which effervesce impressive depths.
Among other things, this film’s achievement is that it provides us with an inside look at the Haredi world. There is none of the judgment or romanticizing that one usually finds in movies with Haredi characters, but observations born of honesty and complexity. And it works. Although the movie is full of love for its characters, plies us with Hassidic music and the modest Haredi aesthetic, and portrays the community’s solidarity admiringly, it doesn’t flee from dealing with the challenges posed by the Haredi way of life – for example, finding mates via matchmakers or the attitude toward older singles.

But even if the film provides a look from within, most of its audience is observing from without. And as one of those observers, it was hard for me not to wonder about the dissonance that exists in a movie written and directed by a woman that describes a society in which women’s voices are silenced. In the movie there are a few scenes in which the men are seen singing around a table or at a wedding (and they sing very melodiously), while the women are in an adjoining room or on the other side of the divider, looking on in silence. Behind the silence is a diluted memory of longing, restrained by years of being educated to be voiceless.
This is particularly obvious during a moving scene of Shira playing the accordion to help her nephew fall asleep, while his father listens. She’s forbidden to sing, but she can play. Her voice may be considered lewd, but her fingers on the accordion keys speak for her in a way that circumvents the restrictions of halacha, Jewish law. Perhaps, in the same way, directing this film was a halachic bypass road for Burshtein. She does not appear in the film, nor would she have, even if she was inclined to acting. Such a role would not be considered modest, according to her community. But her voice is heard via her instruments: The secular actors who are free to publicly express themselves.

Perhaps Burshtein can live peacefully with the silence that is imposed on Haredi women, because she has found a way to express herself, between the lines and within the limits. But is this mode of expression also available to women who are Haredi from birth? Would Burshtein have succeeded in harnessing all the necessary emotional strength to make a film if she hadn’t grown up in the secular world that pushed her to express herself? To create? Is it coincidence that the best films about Haredi society have been made by latecomers to observance (like Burshtein and Shuli Rand, who made “Ushpizin”), or by those who have abandoned observance, like David Volach (“My Father My Lord”)?
Kibbutz society has been caught up in a similar dissonance. For years it was nourished by revolutionaries who had abandoned the old world in which they’d grown up, and chose a life with sharp ideological boundaries. These new members had bountiful creativity and inspiration (for example, writers Natan Shaham and Amos Oz, or artist Moshe Kupferman), not least because they arrived at the kibbutz saturated with a rich culture that they chose to alienate themselves from.

But did something from their freedom of choice trickle down to the next generations, those who were born and matured under the indoctrination? Is it coincidental that the bursts of kibbutz creativity came from those who joined the kibbutz out of choice, or those who left it in anger or simply lack of interest (like Meir Ariel, Ayin Hillel, and Matti Caspi)?

It seems as if what spurs significant creative work in closed societies is the tension and friction between them and the outside world. Whether it’s by those who recently entered, or by those who have recently left, the road to serious creativity seems to pass through the space between the two worlds. The essence of inspiration is derived from this tension.

That’s what Burshtein has done in “Fill the Void.” That is its power. And what it means is that the first movie to speak “Haredi” fluently, the film that finally provides audiences with an authentic picture of Haredi society, is in fact a bilingual film - or one that speaks with one fused voice – Haredi and secular at the same time. It draws from both worlds, merging secular sensibilities together with a Haredi viewpoint more accustomed to condemning that secular world’s frames of reference.

Vered Kellner has worked as a journalist in Israel for 17 years. She recently moved with her family from Tel Aviv to New York. Follow her on Twitter at @veredkl

Actors in Rama Burshtein’s 'Fill the Void' during filming.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik
Filmmaker Rama Burshtein.Credit: Yanai Yechiel

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