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Behind the Scenes

Elise Teitelbaum

Rama Burshtein’s film, Fill the Void, is rife with paradox: It tells the story of a chassidic family — using mainly irreligious actors — and has won international acclaim. Family First goes behind the scenes to meet the players — and discover the power.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

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Behind the scenes with director Rama Burshtein

At a wedding, chassidic scriptwriter and filmmaker Rama Burshtein met a beautiful young woman wearing nice jewelry and a gold watch. Rama learned that the woman had recently gotten engaged — to her late sister’s widower. How could a young girl do such a thing? thought Rama. Over the next few months, she connected with other women who had made a similar decision to wed their sister’s widowers. These wives all shared a strong sense of duty to family. They spoke about responsibility and self-sacrifice, about how they learned to connect — as a spouse — to the man who was formerly a brother-in-law.

By the end of Rama’s research, her original question was no longer a question — she understood how a woman could make such a choice in marriage. She was also left with the germ of an idea for a new movie.

The story line: An 18-year-old chassidic girl named Shira is about to get engaged to a promising man her age when her 28-year-old sister dies during childbirth. The drama unfolds when, after Shira’s engagement falls through, the widowed husband decides he’s going to leave the country with the family’s only grandchild. In an attempt to keep the baby close by, Shira’s mother proposes a match between Shira and her widowed son-in-law.

Fill the Void scored seven prizes at the 2012 Ophir Awards inHaifa, including best screenplay, best director, and best film. The movie also earned international acclaim, winning numerous awards at international film festivals. It sold out at theaters inNew York,Toronto,London, andVenice; and it became secularIsrael’s choice for the Oscar awards inHollywood.

Rama, who grew up in a secular home inNew York, attended film school inJerusalem. She later chose to leave the world of secular films, adopt a chassidic lifestyle, and make films for chareidi audiences. Her decision to make a mainstream movie was prompted, in part, by disappointment: Since there are no chareidi filmmakers, chareidi people aren’t accurately depicted on film.

As she puts it, “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. You might even say we are mute. It’s fine for someone on the outside to interpret us, as long as someone on the inside is telling a story. Our political voice is loud — even boisterous — but our artistic and cultural voices remain muffled and faint. I’m not good at agendas and politics. 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.”

The film, Rama believes, opens an aperture to a small story from a special world not often seen. She stresses that the way to bridge Orthodox and secular worlds is through uncontaminated honesty, to find a speck of truth that every human heart shares in common.

Because most of her Fill the Void actors came from secular backgrounds (unlike Ushpizin where the director is secular and the actors are chareidi), Rama had to introduce them to the world of her characters. For several weeks, the actors spent time in chareidi neighborhoods, attended religious weddings, and even spent Shabbos meals with the Burshtein family.

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