Self expression through spiritual filmmaking

Updating a classic Rabbi Nachman tale, Maya Batash wrote and directed ‘Talking to God,’ about a group of women who travel to Uman, Ukraine, to seek spiritual fulfillment.

By BEN BRESKY
August 9, 2019 14:06
4 minute read.
 MAYA BATASH (far left) portrays a woman who joins a women’s trip to Uman, Ukraine, to seek spiritua

MAYA BATASH (far left) portrays a woman who joins a women’s trip to Uman, Ukraine, to seek spirituality in the new film ‘Talking to God.’. (photo credit: MAYA BATASH)

Funny, poignant, heartwarming and with a message, Talking to God puts on film a folk tale from Rabbi Nachman of Breslov from approximately 200 years ago. The film screened at the Jerusalem Cinematheque this month to an excited and packed theater. Maya Batash, who wrote and directed the movie, spoke following the screening about some of the similarities between her own life and the main character, Rebecca, a young, single, jaded and frustrated New Yorker who ends up on a group trip to Uman, Ukraine.

“I am very grateful for the positive response,” Batash told The Jerusalem Post. “The film took me eight years from the conception to this moment.”

Talking to God was filmed partially in New York and partially in Uman, the Ukrainian city where the grave of Rabbi Nachman has become a pilgrimage site for members of the Breslov hassidic sect and spirituality seekers.

The audience at the Jerusalem Cinematheque laughed out loud at scenes such as Rebecca’s blank stare as she wonders how she ended up in a room full of singing hassidic women.

The theological questions are offset by the well-timed humor by Batash and the other actors.

“I feel life is pretty funny,” explained Batash, “so why not include that in the film? Just because it has a message doesn’t mean it can’t also include some of the humorous aspects of life.”

In one scene, the random group of strangers who join the women’s trip each take turns explaining why they came to Uman. One has difficulty finding a husband and one has difficultly living with a husband. After they each share their foibles, the last woman states she came on the trip because she has cancer. The rest of the women respond with silence as they sit in the woods where Rabbi Nachman is said to have done his daily meditation.

But the women’s journey does not take up the entire plot. Much of it revolves around The Fixer, a man who, despite having nothing, is always happy and his relationship with a wealthy movie magnate who is always sad. The pair are a modern adaptation of Rabbi Nachman’s short story of a man who has nothing, but nevertheless retains his positive outlook.

The film studio mogul is played by Sean Haberle, who has acted in multiple episodes of various Law and Order TV series and The Good Wife. As a movie mogul, he owns multiple homes and has experienced much professional success but nevertheless quips, “if I, with all my wealth am still miserable, then no one has a right to be happy.”

He is annoyed by The Fixer, whose attitude is “everything is for the best, trust in God.” The role is portrayed by Australian-born actor and musician Zebedee Row, who plays Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant in HBO’s Vinyl.

Besides Batash and a handful of others, most of the actors including the main characters are not Jewish.

“I think the message of the film is a universal one, not just a Jewish message,” Batash explained.

Some aspects of the film parallel Batash’s own life. Born to Jewish parents from the Georgian Republic, Batash grew up in New York’s Jewish community and became a doctor.

“I was always drawing and acting since I was a kid and pretty much everyone I knew thought I would go into art or drama,” she told the Post. “But I come from a family of doctors, so when I was a teenager I decided to pursue that instead because I wanted to live a life of helping others.”

Batash explained that being an artist didn’t seem like the path to healing the world. But after earning her medical degree and working in the field of neurology, she felt a calling to her original passion.

“I thought being an artist was all about self-expression and didn’t realize that art can actually be healing and helpful to others in a unique way that can affect many people at one time,” she said.

She slowly shifted and started taking film classes.

Like Rebecca of the film, Batash also traveled to Uman on a whim approximately nine years ago and had a life-changing experience. She initially wanted to make a documentary about the amazing personal stories of the people she met, but many were reluctant to open up on camera. Batash also was less passionate about the idea of a documentary versus a full-length feature film that incorporated humor and drama.

Although she grew up traditionally observant and attended Jewish schools, Batash said she really became interested in a Jewish religious lifestyle in college. “I did it slowly. It depends on your personality, but for me, I didn’t want it to feel overwhelming,” she said.

She added that the theme of having faith and connecting to a higher power can be inspiring to anyone.

“I think people in the world, need to laugh more. The world can be a serious place,” she commented.

Batash added that when she approached the Cinemateque’s projectionist just before the screening he asked what kind of movie it was going to be. When she answered it was a comedy, he replied, “Thank God!”

Talking to God is currently being submitted to film festivals and will screen at the Florida Comedy Film Festival in February 2020. For more information visit TalkingtoGodMovie.com.


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