Last year, Rama Burshtein set the Israeli film scene ablaze, receiving 13 Ophir nominations ("the Israeli Oscar") from the Israel Film Academy for her very first full-length feature Lemale et Ha'Halal (Fill The Void). When Ophir Awards were presented in Haifa on Sept. 21, Fill the Void received seven including Best Film, Best Director (Rama Burshtein), Best Screenplay (Rama Burshtein), Best Actress (Hadas Yaron) and Best Supporting Actress (Irit Sheleg). And as the winner of the Ophir Award for Best Picture, Fill the Void automatically became Israel's candidate for the 2013 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.
As someone with an international reputation as an advocate for women filmmakers, you would think I'd be jumping for joy. After all, this was only the second time in 31 years that a woman had received an Ophir Award in the Best Director category, and only the fifth time in 45 years that a film directed by a woman was Israel's candidate for the BFLF Oscar. So why am I having such a difficult time writing this review?
Fill the Void is the story of "Shira" (Hadas Yaron), the 18-year-old daughter of a prominent Haredi family based in Tel Aviv. In the opening moments of Fill the Void, Shira is with her mother "Rivka" (Irit Sheleg) at the supermarket, and it looks like a Jewel or a Dominick's or any one of the myriad grocery stores you might find in any modern metro. Who are they speaking with on their cell phone? Maybe they are consulting with a friend about what ingredients are needed for a special recipe?
The person on the other end is actually a matchmaker, and what they are shopping for is a prospective groom. Rivka and Shira sneak over to the aisle specified by the matchmaker and see a young man who does not see them. Nevertheless, one look is enough; without ever speaking with this young man, Shira agrees to marry him.
But "Der mentsh trakht un Got lakht." ("Man plans and God laughs.")
In the midst of Shira's happy report about her trip to the supermarket, her pregnant older sister "Esther" (Renana Raz) excuses herself, walks into the restroom, and never emerges. Shira's marriage plans are put on hold as a grieving family copes with the death of a beloved daughter and the birth of a motherless grandson.
If we are just watching what is on screen without paying too much attention to the dialogue, everything will look totally familiar to us. Like women everywhere, Esther, Rivka, and Shira spend much of their screen time in kitchens, grocery stores and other domestic spaces. It is only when their men enter the frame, wearing full beards, twisted payot, long dark coats and fur shtreimels, that we feel the impact of religious orthodoxy on daily life.
Holding our hearts in her hands after Esther's tragic death, Burshtein wants us to believe that Shira always had and always will have full freedom to choose her own fate; that Haredi women are not "second class citizens" in any way. Shira and Shira alone can say yes to one prospective husband and no to another, and therefore, by implication, the rest of us--whether we are Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform, or totally secular--have nothing to fear.
I have no quarrel with Burshtein-the-Director. She has, in fact, made a gorgeous film that is filled with well-defined and deeply-cherished anthropological detail. She has elicited lovely performances from all her cast members, particularly Yaron (who had very little film acting experience prior to being cast as Hadas).
It is clear that Burshtein worked very closely with her cinematographer (Asaf Sudry) and her costume designer (Hani Gurewitz) to create glowing images of Haredi life. And they were both rewarded for their efforts, Sudry with the Ophir Award for Best Cinematography, and Gurewitz with an Ophir nomination for Best Costume Design.
But I am not so enamored with Burshtein-the-Screenwriter. To my eyes, she has "gone Hollywood," creating a Haredi version of Jane Eyre that deliberately romanticizes the story of a young woman falling prey to an older man who is still in thrall to his first wife.
I am sure Burshtein would be genuinely shocked to hear me say this, but I also think Fill The Void is propaganda. I felt this the first time I saw Fill The Void last September at the New York Film Festival. I felt this again when I saw Fill The Void a second time last February at an IFP screening. (Fill The Void was on the IFP screening list because it had received two Independent Spirit Award nominations: Best First Feature and Best First Screenplay.)
Then I read the Director's Notes Burshtein wrote for the press kit created by Sony Pictures Classics (Fill The Void's American distributor). "MOTIVIATION: I set out on this journey out of a deep sense of pain. I felt that the ultra-Orthodox community has no voice in the cultural dialogue... What I am good at is telling a story. I'm good at telling about those things I'm passionate about, and what can I do? They are all tied to the ultra-Orthodox world of observance."
When Charlotte Bronte wrote Jane Eyre way back in the middle of the 19th Century, she gave her novel a triumphant but hard-earned ending. Bronte equalized Jane's relationship with Mr. Rochester by providing her with a large inheritance from her uncle (John Eyre) and a marriage proposal from an impressive suitor (St. John Rivers). And oh yes, she blinded Mr. Rochester in the fire that destroyed his mansion (Thornfield Hall). In other words, Bronte gave her heroine genuine options. So if Jane still chooses to marry Mr. Rochester anyway, purging her mind of the now-dead madwoman in the attic, that is her choice. But I challenge you to watch Fill The Void and walk out believing Shira's "choice" is even half as free.
Fill The Void opens Friday June 14 at the Music Box Theatre on Southport. For schedule information, visit: http://www.musicboxtheatre.com/
Top Photo: Shira (Hadas Yaron) with Esther's husband Yochay (Yiftach Klein).
Bottom Photo: Women at the synagogue sitting behind the mechitza. From left: Shira's mother Rivka (Irit Sheleg), Shira (Hadas Yaron), Esther's Best Friend Frieda (Hila Feldman), and Shira's aunt Hanna (Razia Israeli).
Photo Credits: Karin Bar/ Sony Pictures Classics