New York – Telling the stories of insular communities is a challenge for any veteran filmmaker, but it’s one Paula Eiselt artfully mastered in her debut film, “93Queen.” It’s a documentary that follows a group of chasidic women in Borough Park as they launch Ezras Nashim, an all-female EMT corps as an alternative to Hatzolah, the community’s all-male EMT service.
Since its release last September, the film has received accolades from culture critics and was featured at more than 50 film festivals and 60 community screenings in over 110 cities worldwide. It was broadcast nationally on PBS’ “POV” series and released theatrically in over 25 U.S. cities — including a six week hold over at the IFC Center here.
The success is astounding for any filmmaker but especially for one’s first-time feature, and even more so one that gives a voice to chasidic women who are so often silenced in both secular media and their own.
“I just knew in my bones that I had to tell the story,” Eiselt said. “Here were a group of women from the chasidic community who were not taking no for an answer. This was really the rumblings of change.”
And while so many films portraying the ultra-Orthodox community often resort to clichés and stereotypes, Eiselt’s storytelling offers a nuanced, complex and graceful portrayal of the women, all of whom remain deeply devoted to their religion and community, while directly challenging the power structures that seek to restrict them.
“This is what feminism looks like in Borough Park,” the Long Island native said. “It’s not going to be the same as what feminism looks like in Times Square or hipster Williamsburg. … This is a universal story of women’s empowerment, and it’s for us [women] to embrace each other wherever we’re at.”
The main protagonist in the film is Ruchie Freier, a mother of six who, aside from getting Ezras Nashim off the ground, is a lawyer and civil court judge for Brooklyn. She’s a petite force of nature whose determination far exceeds her size, and who through sheer force of will gets the EMT service up and running despite pushback on many fronts; including the community rabbis, the powerful Hatzolah leadership, and from within the volunteer corps who challenge some of her leadership decisions.
Eiselt herself is no stranger to the challenges of this balancing act, and one need not look far to find parallels between filmmaker and subject. The mother of three (ages 3, 8 and 10) had to contend with a grueling filming schedule over the four-year project, as well as the difficulties of breaking into a cutthroat film industry that rejected her pitches “countless times.” Gaining trust from the media-shy chasidic community was a whole other challenge.
“It’s been the single hardest thing I’ve done in my life,” she said, “There’s always a conflict between art and motherhood, and religion and art. It’s not a bad thing but I need to grapple with that balance.”
And like the balance Freier plays between her religious lifestyle and career goals, Eiselt also straddles a fine line between being entrenched in the decidedly secular film industry and pursuing her art. All while remaining deeply involved in her Modern Orthodox community in Teaneck, N.J., and on the JOFA board, which she recently joined. “I get to disrupt both worlds,” she said.
“Amplifying women’s voices is really important to me,” Eiselt said, “And among the film community, to show that I can be Orthodox and a mom and a serious artist, and upend a lot of the stereotypes and intersect in that way — I find it very enriching.”
Since the film’s release, satellite Ezras Nashim branches have opened and a successful fundraising campaign led to new equipment, including an ambulance to service the original’s growing ranks. And Eiselt is seeing more and more aspiring female filmmakers approaching her for guidance after screenings.
Following the success of the film, she’s now an artist in residence at Davis Guggenheim’s Concordia Studio where she is developing her latest feature documentary. She’s also working on a short on Jewish identity, another topic she feels strongly about.
No doubt this is just the start of Eiselt’s journey in giving voice to underrepresented communities.
Quiet on the set: Eiselt spent a few summers interning here at Darren Aronofsky’s production company where she read the script of “The Wrestler” years before it made it to the Big Screen. Incidentally, it was also his film, “Requiem For A Dream,” that gave her the filmmaking bug in her teens.