NEW YORK—At a time when the secular world looms just beyond the boundaries of Tel Aviv’s Haredi neighborhoods and the government of Israel considers ways to integrate young men of the ultra-Orthodox communities into the general social fabric of the country, Rama Burshtein has “opened a window” into the day-to-day life of the deeply religious, tradition-bound community—so often mysterious and shrouded behind the curtains of separation.
Her film Fill the Void—which took the top prize at this year’s “Ophir Awards” (Israel’s version of the Oscars), thereby earning an entry into the “Best Foreign Language Film” category at the 2013 American Oscars—welcomes the viewer into this family-focused, Torah-centered world, viewed from the perspective of protagonist Shira, an 18-year-old young woman tasked with making the decision that will define her life.
Burshtein provides an unprecedented entry into the Haredi community of Tel Aviv. In conversation following the film’s recent screening at the 50th New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, she said Fill the Void provides “a look inside the private world of Tel Aviv’s Hasidic community.” The film, she said, is “a movie taken from within… a window to the Orthodox world.”
“The real location of the film is Shira’s heart,” said producer Asaf Amir. “Detail is an integral part of the story. The need to be creative lends to the magical quality.” He noted that integrating the secular and religious cast was a challenge—few of the main characters had any experience with the Orthodox world. Yiphat Klein, who portrayed the widower Yochay, credited the film’s success to the work of Burshtein, who “has the ability to take everything in hand. It is her influence…First of all, Rama’s a storyteller.”
Before directing her first full-length feature for the secular market, Burshtein said she made films for Orthodox women “to help promote self-expression.”
“Fill the Void, is not a film for Orthodox people,” she said. “The language would be different. Still, nothing is crossing the lines.”
Burshtein is more familiar with such “lines” than many in the Haredi community: the ba’alat tshuvah filmmaker grew up as a secular Jew in New York, attended film school in Jerusalem, and became observant about 20 years ago. “I love my role as a woman,” she said. “I feel it is true. I chose it. It doesn’t stop me from doing films, but the way I see the home, between a man and a woman, it is more sexy.”
“I felt it was time to tell a story from within and say something that comes from really living the life,” said Burshtein. “Fill the Void tells its story from within the Orthodox world, avoiding all but the most cursory intrusions of the secular world. The film tells a story of transition: from heights of joy to depth of sadness, from death to life, from brother-in-law to widower to husband, from teenager to young woman to bride, from mourning to celebration.”
At a celebration in the family’s apartment, Yochay calls his very pregnant wife outside. “You are my Torah!” he tells Ester, expressing a depth of love the secular world might not expect. Younger sister Shira is actively involved in the innocence of matchmaking, and is looking forward to engagement and marriage (albeit, arranged), in which “everything is new.”
The dynamics of every relationship change dramatically when tragedy strikes and the beloved Ester dies in childbirth. Left behind are her bereaved widower, her newborn son, and her distraught family.
Months pass and Yochay is pressured to remarry. His disconsolate mother-in-law, Rivka, proposes a union between the widower and Shira, her second daughter. Both are faced with the challenge of an unexpected life choice. Neither one of the proposed pair immediately accepts the “match.” Eventually, however, both agree to follow the rituals of Haredi courtship, though neither believes the relationship can succeed. The unexpected is yet to occur.
When attempts at courtship fail and both decide a marriage relationship cannot grow, the amount and intensity of time Shira and Yochay are allowed together is unique. As brother and sister-in-law, they are unchaperoned. He sees her at a bus stop and drives her to her work. They are together at family events. Shira, caring for Mordechai, the child of her sister, has direct contact with Yochay, his father. They argue, alone together on a dark Tel Aviv terrace. The growing tension between them—as man and woman—is palpable. They are angry, he breathes heavily, and they nearly touch. “You are too close,” warns the young woman, as they argue about love and heartbreak.
Burshtein, step by step, brings the film towards it inevitable conclusion. “Haredi couples,” she said, “have their own playbook for expressing emotion.”
“Fill the Void” (Hebrew: “Lemale et Hachalal”), Rama Burshtein, 2012. Hebrew with English subtitles; 90 minutes. North American Distribution: Sony Pictures Classics.