Sunday, June 02, 2013

FILL THE VOID / LEMALE E HA'HALAL (2012)—The Evening Class Interview With Rama Burshstein and Hadas Yaron

Rama Burshstein was sitting at a wedding with a friend when a beautiful 17-year-old girl came to their table. She was wearing a lot of jewelry, which signified she'd recently been engaged. Burshtein's friend congratulated the girl, but in a weird almost mournful way, as if the young girl were going to a funeral and not her wedding. After the bride-to-be left their table, Burshtein's friend remarked, "You see her? She's about to marry her late sister's husband." That was "the end of it" for Burshstein, who became fascinated and pursued the young girl the entire evening, trying to understand why she had agreed to such an arrangement? Recently converted to the Hassidic faith, Burshstein had never heard of such a thing before; but, became intrigued enough to follow up with research. She met with 17 women, some girls, some already grandmothers, all married to their late sister's husband. By the end of her research, and with a more nuanced eye towards her culture, she came to accept that a young woman marrying her late sister's husband was a natural phenomenon, with hardly any of the drama she first imagined. Nonetheless, she drafted a treatment of the idea, even though she was not yet thinking about making a film.

Burshstein learned filmmaking at the Sam Spiegel School in Jerusalem. A few months after graduating, she became religious, and has been for 20 years. Though she didn't continue making feature films, she applied her skills to crafting films for her community, primarily films made by women for women (who ordinarily do not watch films). Paid for out of pocket, these films had to be generic enough—informational, educational, and with just the right balance of crying and laughter—to be something community women would come to see. Thus, they were hardly art films and had little to do with creative self-expression. They were, in fact, about making a living through providing entertainment. The experience taught Burshtein a lot about script writing, financing, camera work, directing and editing, all within a female-structured support system that met little resistance from the men.

But she felt mute. She felt women had no voice in Hassidic culture; a culture that was more than 3,000 years old, and which contained wisdom and beauty rarely shared from within. Any films made about the orthodox world were made by outsiders looking in, many were not researched thoroughly, and frequently were edited to misrepresent the community. She began to intuit meaning in the fact that she had learned a craft before becoming religious and became motivated to make a film that would reach past her community to the outside world, to give them an accurate view. Fond of saying her shoulders are too narrow to hold flags, Burshstein asserts her film was never meant to be political. She wanted to make a personal film, in the way the best stories told are personal. As a storyteller, she wanted to tell a story about her community set within her community. That's when she remembered the research she had done on the young girl marrying her deceased sister's husband.

With the blessing of her rabbi, and the support of her community, Burshstein began negotiations to make her first feature film Fill the Void (Lemale e ha'halal, 2012). It took a year to cast the film. Not because people weren't talented; but, because she didn't know what she wanted. It was important to her to cast the film from within her community, using non-actors, for fear that the performances would prove unbelievable otherwise; but, that ended up not being feasible because the characters proved too complicated for non-actors to perform. So she decided to audition actors, even though it was sometimes hard for her to believe they could accurately represent orthodox Jews. For example, the actor who played the male lead Yochay (Yiftach Klein) was already a recognized star in Israel, and had played such diverse roles as a pimp, a cop and a homosexual. Who would believe he was orthodox? The film's female lead Shira (Hadas Yaron) came to the project towards the end of Burshstein's year after auditioning everyone possible in Israel. Yaron walked into the room, "with love," and Burshstein knew immediately it was her. Yaron was Shira.

I met with both Rama Burshstein and Hadas Yaron in San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel during the 56th edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) where Fill the Void was featured in the festival's New Directors sidebar. My thanks to Karen Larsen for arranging same. Fill the Void opens theatrically in the Bay Area come Friday, June 7.

* * *

Michael Guillén: First and foremost, congratulations on such an intimate, authentic film that has bravely crossed cultural barriers to achieve an international audience. A remarkable achievement.

Rama Burshtein: Thank you.

Guillén: At last night's Q&A after the SFIFF screening of Fill the Void, you were asked about your use of soft focus and its importance to the film's overall visual design. It was an interesting question to end your Q&A, but today I wanted to pick up from there because you mentioned that the soft and indirect focus was structured into your narrative script. By example, you brought up the brilliantly comic scene where the old woman interrupts Shira's conference with the rabbi to gain assistance with her oven. Can you speak to that comic timing—which I understood as a clear inflection of the humor within Jewish culture—and which you captured so well within that scene?

Burshstein: I can speak about the powerful thing that drew me into Judaism: the comic and the sorrowful working at once. Drama and comedy happen at the same time. Before I even joined the religion, a friend of mine who was religious had to marry off her son in the evening and her mother had died that morning. She buried her mother at 12:30 and at 7:00 she held the wedding and she was able to maneuver her conflicting feelings. I asked her, "How can you do that?" Ever since then I have asked the same question about Judaism. How can it be two things working at once?

The comic relief was about relief, yes, but it was more than that. You're drawn into a drama and interested in it, in what's going on and how it will end, and that's the time to break that focus because such is life. Life is never a movie that plays all the way out; there's always something interrupting. The rabbi, being responsible to his duties, knows that secret. He goes with whatever is floating. He doesn't say, "No, this is not important because this other thing is more important." Being a rabbi, a wise man, means asking, "Who says this is more important than the other? Who says?" So he leaves the conference with Shira to help the old women out with her oven. I didn't mean it to be so comic.

Guillén: But it was quite hilarious, perhaps because such "interruptions" are in and of themselves hilarious for being unexpected?

Burshstein: When the film screened in Los Angeles, someone came up to me and said that the only time she cried was during that scene because she felt the loneliness of the old lady. So everyone is watching this weird film differently. Yes, the scene was shot and edited to provide comic relief, but what I truly meant was that everything works together. For example, the wedding scene has everything in it: joy, excitement, and fear, and sorrow. It's all mixed up together. She's crying, so for a minute you think she doesn't want to get married. But then she's excited. Being honest is about allowing everything to happen, as it does in life. It wouldn't be true if she wasn't scared, excited, and sorrowful over the loss of a sister. For me this is the power of Fill the Void: everything happens together.

Guillén: Would you say that you're approaching this inclusivity of contrasting emotions from a cultural understanding? Or from a feminine viewpoint?


Burshstein: It's a cultural understanding. I had to learn this about my culture. I was brought up in a liberal family and taught to make clear distinctions—"I am a woman. Now I am happy. Now I am sad."—but, when I converted to orthodox Judaism, I had to learn that feminism within Judaism is about watching and observing and being able to hold what is witnessed without an immediate need to express it. Once I learned how to do that, new things happened. I'm still learning this. It's not my natural way of dealing with life.

Guillén: The comic strength in that scene, as well as the film's ambiguous ending, speaks to your directorial skill with timing. The ambiguity of the final scene has to do with, as you've said, the inclusion of so many different and contrasting emotions, but its strength lies in how you edited it and the moment when you chose to cut to black. Your timing is impeccable. The look on Shira's face begs interpretation and that scene's ambiguity becomes seductive. I didn't want you to stop the film there. I wanted to know more about what happened to these characters with whom I'd become so invested.

Burshstein: First of all because it's between me and God, I have to be honest and admit that the cut itself was made by Asaf Sudri, my cinematographer. I had cut the scene a little bit further and he came to me and said, "No, this is the place where we have to cut." So I have to give him the credit for the brilliance of that edit.

Guillén: Did he explain to you why he felt it would be better to cut right at that moment?

Burshstein: He was able to be more precise than I was. I looked for that moment, I looked for what he did, but I wasn't able to find it myself. He should receive all the credit for that choice. He suggested that the audience receive only a glimpse of what was about to happen, but they shouldn't be there when it happened. He made the cut and I saw how perfect it was and I asked myself, "Why didn't I see that?" Regarding that moment, some people feel it is erotic....

Guillén: It is! That's how I saw it.

Burshstein: But other people focus on how scared she is. They sense that Shira regrets the whole thing and wishes she could start over in the supermarket, having some say about the boy she wants to marry. Some people have focused on the difference in their ages, with Yochay being older than her, and it upsets them that he is going to be with her. Some people feel the romance. It's weird. Everyone reads it differently because all the emotions are there and they can choose whichever one they want to hold onto. It depends on who you are. From what you're saying, I can tell that you can see a lot of emotions at once; but, others can only go with one emotion at a time. They'll see the fear, or the regret, go only with the sorrow, or only with the romance. Everyone chooses their own lens to watch the film.


Guillén: I was startled last night by the question from the man who felt Fill the Void was all about duty and not about love. I wanted to turn around and ask him, "Did you just see this movie? Where were you?" You're clearly more patient with audience reception than I am, aware that the movie is being read in so many different ways. But perhaps that is what is widening your audience? The fact that the film is able to be read in so many diverse ways? You mentioned last night that before making this film you had made films within your community by women for women; but, you knew this film would reach past your community? You wanted that, right?

Burshstein: From the beginning I knew this film was not meant for the community. It never was.

Guillén: And yet from what I understand, it's been a blessed project from the very beginning. The community went with it and there were not a lot of issues about your making it. What has that been like for you? Did you anticipate such support from your community? Did you anticipate that the film would do as well as it's done and achieve the international reach it's achieved? Was it what you expected?

Burshstein: If you knew what I expected....

Guillén: What did you expect?

Burshstein: [Laughing] Nothing! My expectations were so low. I remember when the film was shown at Venice and I began to notice how the audience was reacting, I turned to Hadas and asked her, "Are you ready for this film to change your life? Maybe you're going to become a star?" First of all, I never expected to even make this film; but, then suddenly it was done. But as the director and the editor, it was really hard to achieve the precise energy of the film. I couldn't see if it was going to work or not. So I had low expectations of how it would be received by its audience.

Guillén: So the film's reception was a revelation for you?

Burshstein: It's not a question of revelation because it wasn't about my making a "successful" film. My reaction was more about, "I can't believe that people relate to this film." I was surprised. I couldn't believe that this simple tale, this love story where very little actually happens, where very little that is familiar happens, where the boy and girl don't touch, they don't kiss, and yet somehow this was so shocking to audiences.

Guillén: I consider Fill the Void to be one of the most eloquent expressions of the necessary restraint of desire. Because the Hassidic culture is completely foreign to me, as the film started I was concerned about whether or not I would be able to relate to it. But it didn't take very long before I began to sense that something was happening in this movie that was uniquely authentic, and fascinating for being so suggestive and erotic. And when I say "erotic", I don't mean sexual. I mean it in a classic sense, of eros being that which holds the world together. It's like atoms being attracted to each other to create molecules. What you have expressed about your culture through your film is the loving and erotic strength embedded in your faith. And I must commend you for communicating that so well to a secular audience.

Burshstein: I love you. I do. You've said it so beautifully that it makes me want to cry. Thank you, first of all. Really. I was always interested in the relationship between men and women. All I care about is people and their intimacy. For me, this is it, the secret and the enigma of all that, the chemistry. Judaism told me a great secret: passion is only for something you lack. You could never be passionate if you have it. The secret of passion is not having it. When you have it, you can be experiencing all sorts of wonderful things, even love, but it's not passion. As a secular person I didn't have an answer for why passion would go out of my life as swiftly as it came in.

I made this film going forward with the power of restraint that insures passion will be there all the time, and it's erotic as you say, but also sexual in a refined way. There are two sexual feelings and they are very different from each other. One happens here [she touches her heart] and then it goes down. But when it happens here [again, she touches her heart] and goes down, it is stronger when it goes down. That's what I was working with when I made this film. People feel it. Some people have told me they can't breathe watching the film; they're so into it.

Guillén: I like how Manohla Dargis described in her New York Times review that Fill the Void was sexy but chaste.

Burshstein: What do you mean by "chaste"?

Guillén: The sense of reservation, the sense of propriety, and the sense of not acting upon desire when it is not appropriate, and yet how sexy that all is. It's shown best in your film in the scene where Yochay comes perilously close to Shira and intimates what they could have had together. That scene is almost suffocating—the intensity of the desire sucks the air out of the room—and I found myself anticipating, "Are they going to touch? They can't touch."


Burshstein: [Laughing] You became the rabbi of the film!

Guillén: Hadas, was there something in particular about the story that made you want to play the role of Shira?

Hadas Yaron: It's a love story, which is always attractive to do. I guess it was because it takes place in such a certain community and a way of living a set of rules that added something much more intense to this love story; something you don't get to see a lot.

Guillén: Rama mentioned earlier that when the film screened at Venice she turned to you and asked you if you were ready to have it change your life? You then won the Best Actress award at Venice. The film has had a tremendous impact and you have achieved incredible visibility with this role. I saw an interview with Rama where she worried that everything was coming at you too fast and that you might become distracted from your studies. How do you see yourself positioned within your success?

Yaron: I don't know. Even though it's been a few months, I'm still letting it sink in. After I got that award, I did feel the need to go study. I had never studied in any kind of formal acting studio or drama school. I'd done maybe one workshop. While we were traveling with the film on the festival circuit, I just didn't know how to take it. It's weird when you do something for the first time, and you're not confident with what you do, and then someone tells you, "You're that good." You start questioning that. I'm still in that process with myself. I look in the mirror and it's like, "Really?" So I'm starting to do as many workshops as I can just to feel that I'm getting to know myself more as a person and as an actress. It's all been very strange, but I'm lucky to have the experience, and we'll see what happens.

Burshstein: Haddas is amazing as a person. She's not self-centered. She's humble and she's beautiful and she will succeed because of her nobility.

Guillén: How was your on-set interaction? How did you work with each other to create the character of Shira?

Yaron: Rama and I had a lot of conversations about how Judaism works so that I would understand. Because I didn't know anything about this world. You have to know how it works technically to understand what goes underneath. When I asked Rama for home work on how to work with this character, Rama just told me, "Read the script and see that you're getting it, that you're feeling it, and that you know what you feel in each and every scene."

Guillén: One of my favorite scenes is the accordion scene where we see Shira collapse into her uncertainty with music becoming the only way she can express her sorrow, however inappropriately in front of a group of children.

Yaron: I thought of my father working on that scene. My father always told me that—whenever the world became too noisy—he had a button that he could turn off to make it silent. I tried to do that with this scene. Shira doesn't have the vocabulary to tell herself what she's feeling.

Burshstein: She doesn't have it in words, but she's an artist. She's a true artist, because it's not about wanting to play to a packed audience at Carnegie Hall, it's about expressing herself through her music, which to me is higher than Carnegie Hall, in a bigger way, in bigger terms.

Guillén: This is the value of Fill the Void, and why I suspect audiences are relating to it so much, because it suggests a different way to approach desire and ambition. Here in the West we presume things have to be done in a certain way; but, your film suggests something else, another way. That there can be restraint. That there can be uncertainty. That final scene where Shira is preparing for her wedding is truly ambitious. As an actress, Hadas, you displayed a wide palette of emotions. How did the two of you work together to depict that conflict of emotions?

Yaron: All that I remember is that, first of all, it felt very real that day and I remember praying.

Burshstein: But you have to go back, especially when you went to go see a real Hassidic wedding. It was a strong experience for you.

Yaron: It was.

Burshstein: Mostly because the guy was crying all the time.

Yaron: Yeah, more than the woman.

Guillén: Is that what inspired Yochay's tearful approach to Shira during the wedding ceremony? How can anyone say there is no love in this film after seeing his eyes in this scene?

Yaron: That's true. When I saw the girl at the wedding, I was looking at her and thinking, "Okay, I'm going to be there." But when the boy—and he was a big boy—walked in, he was all red and crying. I was shocked.

Burshstein: It was important for me to express that a wedding for an Orthodox Jew is not just a ceremony; it's about a true moment where two souls unite. This is so strong for people in the Hassidic world. They've been educated in this moment. Usually when you go to a Hassidic wedding, it's so emotional that you can cry the whole time without even knowing the bride and groom personally. The connection is so strong. For me it was important that we show that strength and have the audience feel it.

To raise money, I made a four-minute documentary of a friend's wedding that focused on the bride waiting for the groom to come. She's crying and she's blessing. At one point she lifts her head after crying and her eyes are blackened with streaked mascara. In that moment she didn't care how she looked. She was into something so much deeper than that. Hadas and I talked about that footage a lot and it helped her prepare for that final wedding scene. Then there was this miracle where Hadas woke up that day, came to do the scene, and she was into it in a way that she said, "Tell me where to pray." She sat for three or four hours in that chair praying. I gave her the insights but she did the work.

After we shot the whole film, one nice thing that happened was that Yiftach Klein—who had been living with a girl for 15 years and had three children—finally married her with a rabbi. He went for it. He felt it. He felt the strength of it and he felt the need to do it.

Guillén: This touches upon what was asked of you last night regarding the tension between love and duty. Here in the West, love is something you try out. But you were clear that love for you meant commitment, a quality vital to your culture. Afterwards, I was arguing with someone about your response. They said, "I can't imagine not having had sex with the person I'm going to marry." And I said, "But this isn't just about sex. This is about an attunement." It strikes me that in your culture it is about being in tune with something larger? You don't need to try it out; you just need to be in tune with it. Is that a fair assessment?

Burshstein: It's fair enough. But I also understood what he was really saying; that it's scary to commit on that level. I'll speak freely, having sex with someone is about that specific time you're having sex with someone. But having sex is a lifetime thing. Sometimes it's nothing and it doesn't work. Sometimes it's beautiful. The way it works doesn't necessarily have to be beautiful and then it doesn't work. Sometimes it doesn't work in the beginning and it becomes beautiful. When you commit, it's not about now. That commitment is to the road, and that road has so many things that nobody's leaving. Nobody's going. Nobody's wondering, "Oh, will he call me tomorrow after we've had bad sex?" No. You have bad sex and then you work on it until you have good sex. Commitment revives love, but not in just a romantic way. Commitment doesn't let love go. You work at it. You understand it. You make it better.

Imagine you're stranded on an island until the day you die and no one is ever going to rescue you, and you're there with someone. It doesn't matter who that someone is. They will be lover and friend for your life, you and him, that's it. Even the genders don't really matter—you could be homosexual: a man with a man, a woman with a woman—or a man with a woman, but that's the person you have to work with. And it will work, right? Because that's the power of commitment. But I can understand the fear of commitment.


Guillén: As the closing credits roll, it's all in Hebrew except for the Sundance reference. Can you speak to your involvement with the Sundance Screenwriter Lab?

Burshstein: I didn't even know about the Sundance Screenwriter Lab and—if I'd known anything about it—I probably wouldn't have submitted my script, because only three out of every five thousand get chosen. But they came unofficially to Israel and the director of the film fund introduced seven new directors and they said they'd heard about my script and wanted to read it. I sent it to them, they read it, and then they invited me to the lab. Everyone was very excited about the opportunity but I didn't go because it was held on Saturday, which is a day when we don't work, and—even though they were into not letting me do much at that time—I felt that I had just finished the film and I was already playing around with my religion. I felt it was a test.

But the beautiful thing was that a month later they called me again and said, "You won't believe it but we're coming to Israel for the first time to bring the lab to you." They booked a four-day lab during the week so it didn't conflict with Saturday, and they invited two other Israeli female directors to attend. It was an amazing gesture of friendship. We've remained close friends, much how I imagine we would be close friends if you lived near me. It's so nice to meet people from your own tree.

Guillén: What a kind thing to say. Thank you. Can you speak a bit about who you were before you became religious and how it's changed your feeling of yourself as a woman?

Burshstein: Okay. That's a very good question. I was very naughty before I became religious and I stayed naughty. Nothing really changed. You stay the same. Being religious is not about not being you; it's about you on a way, on a path. So everything's the same. But femininity and womanhood is different. The difference is not who you are; it's the way you see femininity. I grew up in a very open house, home, family and I was educated. I was expressing myself and fulfilling myself and not holding myself. Being feminine in the orthodox way is to hold something inside, to be able—which I find very hard—not to express yourself all the time. When you force yourself to that which is really hard, then you start finding a new power that you didn't know you had within you. I love that power. So this is me, before and after.

1 comment:

john altobelli said...

i'm a movie buff.
i've seen countless movies
this is one of the most beautiful films i have ever seen
thank you Rama