A race to the alter

Ultra-Orthodox filmmaker Rama Burshtein on the surprising success of her award-winning romantic comedy ‘Through the Wall’.

November 21, 2016 20:49
4 minute read.
AMOS TAMAM and Noa Koler star in Rama Burshtein’s ‘Through the Wall.’

AMOS TAMAM and Noa Koler star in Rama Burshtein’s ‘Through the Wall.’. (photo credit: SASHA TAMARIN)

‘Everyone knows that feeling between despair and hope,” said Rama Burshtein, describing the state of mind of the spirited heroine of her recently released film, Through the Wall. Burshtein’s own hope that this very enjoyable comedy would find an audience has already come true.

Through the Wall, now playing throughout Israel, was shown at the Venice International Film Festival and at the Telluride Festival in the US. It will be released commercially throughout Europe, the US and other markets.

Burshtein won the Ophir Award for Best Screenplay in a very competitive year, and the movie’s star, Noa Koler, received the Best Actress Ophir.

Harking back to American screwball comedies of the Thirties and Forties, with echoes of the stubborn heroines of French New Wave master Eric Rohmer, it tells the story of Michal (Koler), a young woman who, like Burshtein, grew up secular and became ultra-Orthodox.

Michal, quirky and exuberant, makes a living bringing animals to children’s birthday parties. She dreams of getting married, and visits a kind of faith healer to get a blessing that will make her dream come true. Not long afterwards, she gets engaged, but when her fiancé breaks off the engagement she decides to keep the wedding hall booked and find a new groom in three weeks.

“I’m more Through the Wall than Fill the Void,” said the charming, funny director, comparing her personality to the two films she has made. “My true voice has a lot of humor.”

Burshtein’s previous film, Fill the Void (2012), a serious drama, put her on the map as an important director, both in Israel and abroad. Also set in the ultra-Orthodox community, it is about a young woman whose former brother-in-law courts her after her sister dies in childbirth. What might have sounded like a very esoteric religious story connected with an international audience, winning major awards at the Venice International Film Festival (including a prize for Hadas Yaron, its young star), as well as a European Film Award (for the work of the movie’s cinematographer, Asaf Sudri).

Although Through the Wall might seem to be a big change in tone, Burshtein doesn’t feel that genre is that important.

“In Through the Wall, I tried to create a world that is magic – you go into the movie and want to stay there,” she said. “I think many things were on my mind as I wrote it... You can laugh and it can be a drama, or you can have a comedy with suspense. I like suspense. In Through the Wall, you sit on the edge of your seat and don’t know what is going to happen.”

Two of the men in Michal’s life are played by Amos Tamam (who had the role of Amir in Srugim), the wedding-hall owner, and Oz Zehavi, a pop star dabbling in religion who courts Michal after they meet at Rabbi Nahman’s grave in Uman, Ukraine. Tamam traveled with the film to Telluride, and Burshtein said proudly that “Women went crazy for him there, they were running after him after the screening, calling, ‘Shimi [the name of his character], marry me, marry me!’” No matter what story Burshtein is telling, spirituality is front and center, and while you might think secular audiences would find this off-putting, people have responded very positively to Burshtein’s movies.

“I feel that Through the Wall is more than just the journey of the character, it’s also the journey of the viewer,” she says.

Although most audiences don’t get set up on dates the way young people do in the ultra-Orthodox world, Burshtein feels it is a universal story.

“A lot of women go through that, they don’t have love in their lives and they are looking for it.”

However, she acknowledges that some have criticized her films for their focus on marriage.

“It’s very hard for them, they can accept films that are about love but not about marriage, which I understand... But in my world, love cannot come without marriage.”

Burshtein, who was born in the US but came to Israel as a child, is the daughter of an American mother. Before becoming observant, she studied at the Sam Spiegel School for Film and Television, Jerusalem.

Later, she worked in the world of ultra-Orthodox female filmmakers, whose films are made on a shoestring and are shown within the ultra-Orthodox community.

Although so far she is the first female ultra-Orthodox director to cross over into the mainstream Israeli film scene, she doesn’t find it a burden to be a trailblazer.

“Everyone in the world would like to be first in anything and I won’t say it’s not enjoyable and wonderful and surprising,” she said. She credits the mix of her secular background and her religious life for giving her the ability to tell stories that speak to all kinds of people.

“These worlds are combined in my heart,” she said. “When you are a baal tshuva [a newly religious person] you take both worlds with you.”

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