(photo credit: PR)
‘In some ways I think it made me stronger,” said Anna Wexler, the co-director of the documentary Unorthodox, speaking about her experiences growing up Orthodox and then questioning her faith. “I’m happy I made it to where I am now.”
The documentary chronicles Wexler’s own life and also examines the lives of several of her friends, as well as some Orthodox teens who spent a post high-school year studying in Jerusalem, as a great many Americans do.
The film, which was co-directed by Nadja Oertelt, was recently screened at the States of Mind festival in Israel. This festival, which was held in partnership with the US Embassy in Israel and several US and Israeli organizations, was a multi-platform interdisciplinary media event that included an independent film festival.
Wexler, who has lived in Israel on and off for several years, came here to attend the film festival.
The film will be screened next in Geneva, Switzerland, on March 26.
You may have seen these American Orthodox teens hanging around the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall in downtown Jerusalem on Friday afternoons and Saturday nights, but unless you can count yourself as one of them, you would have no idea how much their religious identities fluctuate. Wexler, through her documentary, has tried to illuminate that world, and also to understand it better herself.
“It was surprising for me to see the process the people in the film go through,” she said. “The vast majority who go [to study in Israel after high school] are observant and stay observant. For many of them, the year in Israel brings an enhanced level of observance. But there is a fringe group, a rebellious one, that’s where the changes happen.”
The teens she followed in the film were all questioning their observance in different ways when they left for Israel. Some rebelled in dramatic ways in Israel, but the three all found their way back to an observant lifestyle.
“We didn’t comment on the changes, I don’t say this is a good thing or a bad thing. But it was definitely surprising” that all three ended up becoming Orthodox, since Wexler saw her subjects as kindred spirits. She is no longer observant and has not been for years. Her rebellion against her religious upbringing started in high school.
“I had some crazy experiences in high school,” she recalled. These included experimenting with drugs.
The film, which has been compared to the movie Devil’s Playground, about how Amish teens are encouraged to embrace the world outside their community before they settle down, shows how wild some Orthodox teens become when they try to break free.
“Drug use among those who were raised Orthodox is a huge issue. I think part of the problem is, when you’re smoking your cigarette you’re bad already, or if you’re hanging with a boy, you’ve broken the rules. So what’s stopping you from doing everything else?” A little tolerance would go a long way, Wexler said.
“If people were a little more accepting of non-believers it would help a lot. As soon as you don’t believe, you clash with people, you’re an outcast in the community.”
And feeling abandoned can lead teens to act out in extreme ways, she said.
Wexler, who is studying for a PhD at MIT in the STS (Science, Technology and Society) Program on the social, ethical and legal implications of neuroscience advances, spent nearly a decade working on the film.
She got funding for the movie from many sources, including a Kickstarter campaign, but also from many in the Orthodox community.
“There was some suspicion when we were shooting, but there was also a lot of support from the Orthodox community,” she explained.
Wexler was gratified by the reception Unorthodox received in Israel, from audiences who were both secular and religious.
“People related to it in a very personal way here... In the US people said, ‘I know somebody going through something like that.’ Here, they said, ‘You told my story. I’m struggling with these issues.’” For more information about Unorthodox, and to get details of upcoming screenings, visit the movie’s website at www.unorthodoxmovie.com.