TORONTO (JTA) — On a dark Tel Aviv terrace, a young haredi Orthodox man and a younger haredi woman discuss love and heartbreak. There is tension and animosity, hurt feelings and broken promises. Then, in an emotional crescendo, the man steps toward the woman, stopping inches from her face. His breathing is heavy, their noses nearly touching.
This unusual and powerful scene is one of the climaxes of “Fill the Void,” the award-winning movie debut from Israel’s Rama Burshtein. While the film, Israel’s entry into the 2012 Oscars’ foreign language category, tackles death, attraction, love and sex inside a community not known for openly addressing emotion, Burshtein, who is haredi herself, insists she’s not a rabble-rouser or a rule-breaker looking to ruffle feathers inside the cloistered world of the haredim.
“Everyone else is trying to interpret what is going on” in the haredi world, the 45-year-old director told JTA in a recent interview, after “Fill the Void” played to critical acclaim at the Toronto International Film Festival.
“I felt it was time to tell a story from within, and say something that comes from really living the life,” Burshtein said. “That’s what I felt was important: to just tell a story that has no connection with the regular subjects that you deal with when you talk about the Orthodox world.”
“Fill the Void” may be the first film about haredi life directed by an insider for a secular audience. Aesthetically daring, softly lit, intimate and flecked with light humor, the film recently earned seven Ophir Awards — known as the Israeli Oscars — including best film and best director. After showings at the Venice Film Festival – where Hadas Yaron won a best actress award for her portrayal of the lovelorn 18-year-old protagonist, Shira – and in Toronto, “Fill the Void” makes its U.S. debut at the New York Film Festival on Oct. 9.
Burshtein, a native New Yorker who grew up in Tel Aviv, became religious at 25, shortly after graduating from Jerusalem’s Sam Spiegel Film and Television School. While no shortage of films have depicted the rigid confines of haredi Orthodox life, most, such as Gidi Dar’s “Ushpizin” and Amos Gitai’s sombre “Kadosh,” have been from a secular perspective, focusing on haredi Jews struggling with their identity or looking for escape.
The characters in Burshtein’s frank, fishbowl depiction of a tragedy-stricken haredi Orthodox family struggling to keep itself together live comfortably in a world ruled by faith.
The film probes the fraught relationship between Shira and Yochai, the widowed husband of Shira’s older sister, who died while giving birth. After Yochai hints he will remarry and move to Belgium, taking his newborn son with him, Shira’s grieving and desperate mother, Rivka, encourages her son-in-law to marry her second daughter. The unlikely pair attempt to reconcile the inconceivability of a union with the unexpected reality that they’re falling in love.
That conflict helped Burshtein steer the film toward her central motive: quashing the notion that the seemingly impersonal haredi Orthodox practice of chaste courtship and arranged marriages precludes love or affection. Haredi couples, Burshtein says, simply have their own playbook for expressing emotion.
“We’re somehow portrayed as a bit crippled when it comes to feelings,” she said. But, “the feelings are the same. We just have a different set of rules. It’s about attraction, it’s about sexiness — it’s about all those things that are usually absent when you talk about religion.”
What prompted Burshtein to write “Fill the Void,” she says, was how, just as in the secular world, those rules could be complicated. At a wedding several years ago, she encountered a woman newly engaged to her late sister’s widower. It seemed unlikely, but the story arc excited her immediately. Months of research led her to several other women who married their sisters’ widowers. As common themes of sacrifice, responsibility, family, sense of duty and learned intimacy began to emerge, it seemed less implausible that the couples actually could fall in love.
“At the beginning of the research, it sounded like it was impossible to understand how it works,” Burshtein said. “And then at the end of it, it was like the natural thing to do, to marry within the family.”
With the backing of her rabbi, Burshtein started production in January 2011 in a tiny Tel Aviv apartment not far from the home she shares with her husband and four children.
Questions over whether her identity as a haredi woman stifled her creativity as a filmmaker were never raised, even as she dealt with a largely secular cast and crew, many of whom were male.
“It was just like working with any other director,” producer Assaf Amir told JTA. “Religious, not religious, Orthodox, not Orthodox, first of all, Rama’s a story-teller.”
With “Fill the Void” set to premiere in Israel in early October, Burshtein anticipates some haredi backlash. But the trailblazing filmmaker emphasizes her open-ended, interpretative film was not made for haredi eyes. The art-house film grammar would be confusing, she said, for an audience unacquainted with secular movies.
And yet, despite it all, she hopes that maybe her community will embrace the film. She fully expects some haredi Jews will seek it out.
“The minute the posters come out, we will see what will happen,” she said. “I didn’t try to show something in an inelegant way. I love this world, I chose this world, I believe in this world and in its rules. I hope it’s a voice the Orthodox would like to be heard.”