Women in the picture

Robin Garbose’s groundbreaking new film, ‘The Heart that Sings,’ is a movie musical created exclusively for women and girls.

Robin Garbose 311 (photo credit: Courtesy of Robin Garbose)
Robin Garbose 311
(photo credit: Courtesy of Robin Garbose)
Many directors like to think themselves unique, but no one except Robin Saex Garbose could utter the sentence, “My frumkeit deepened while I was directing episodes of America’s Most Wanted.”
Garbose is in here this week to present her latest film, The Heart That Sings, which is being shown at the 13th Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival at the Jerusalem Cinematheque on Monday. The festival runs through December 23.
After the Jerusalem Cinematheque screening, the film will be shown throughout the country, including at Heichal Shlomo in Jerusalem on December 20, at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque on December 25, 27 and 28, and in Petah Tikva, Ramat Beit Shemesh, Rosh Pina, Kfar Chabad, Efrat and Safed throughout the month of December.
The Heart That Sings is as unique as Garbose, an ultra-Orthodox Jew who grew up secular, had a career directing sitcoms and America’s Most Wanted, and then opened a musical and dramatic camp for observant girls, Kol Neshama in Los Angeles.
The cast of the film, an original musical about a musically gifted Holocaust survivor who becomes the music and drama counselor at a camp for pampered city girls, is almost entirely composed of observant actresses. Garbose has “kindly requested” that only women and girls attend the screening, in keeping with the wishes of the actresses who appear in the film.
While she is keenly aware of the controversy this request has generated, she is also “over the moon” that the cinematheque management has agreed to it. Things didn’t go as smoothly three years ago, when her first film, A Light for Greytowers, also a musical with original songs and story featuring Orthodox women performers, was slated to be shown at the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival.
Garbose made the request that it be shown to female-only audiences, and the Jerusalem Cinematheque did not feel comfortable.
Eventually, the film was shown just across the road at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center, and then at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque for female audiences.
“Alon [Garbuz, the director of the Tel Aviv Cinematheque and a ‘long-lost cousin’ of Garbose’s husband] was very passionate. He said, ‘I believe haredi women and girls should also be able to enjoy the cinematheque.’” In spite of – or perhaps because of – the controversy (“You couldn’t buy that kind of publicity,” says Garbose) – the film was warmly received.
“Only Hashem [God] could have choreographed a moment like that,” says Garbose, who concedes she is not unsympathetic to the concerns of those who worry about the implications of sex-segregated entertainment.
“There needs to be dialogue about that,” she says, stressing that she is in no way sympathetic to haredi men who have harassed and beaten women who refused to move to the back in sex-segregated bus lines.
But the reality remains that her actresses feel it would be immodest to sing and dance for men, and she does not want to deny them the chance to “sparkle.” When her films have been shown in New York, “busloads of Satmar women have come from Williamsburgh to Borough Park to see the movies. It was so beautiful to see.
Some of them had never seen a movie before and they were so appreciative.”
Garbose, who is extremely funny and charming as she discusses her career, says she sees herself as “a person who crosses worlds. I’m comfortable with so many people, in so many places.”
One of those places was Brown University, where the Massachusetts-raised Garbose became involved in theater as an undergrad. She worked there with movie director Todd Haynes and went on to direct off-Broadway productions, including one that starred her college friend, John F. Kennedy Jr.
“That is and was my world,” she says. Although she was raised in a Conservative Jewish household, religion wasn’t a central part of her life. She plunged into the highly competitive world of sitcom directing and worked on the TV series Head of the Class. But questions of religion and identity became important to her as started doing research on Holocaust survivors for a screenplay she was writing, The Spark.
“It’s about a young girl, very secular, the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor who is dying. It’s her first time facing mortality.”
She realized, as she got deeper into this screenplay, “That everything I was looking for was in my own backyard – Judaism.”
As she started that journey, even taking the screenplay to a workshop at the prestigious Sundance Institute Laboratory.
“Who knew that one day I’d be wearing a sheitel [wig] and dressing sniyas [modestly]?” she says, indicating her wig and long sleeves.
Although she put the screenplay aside for years as she made the transition to an observant life and opened her school, she is now planning to direct it, and Abigail Breslin, the brilliant young actress who made such a splash in Little Miss Sunshine, has agreed to star.
Since Breslin is not Orthodox and the film is not a musical, it can be made as a mainstream film for mixed audiences.
While Garbose is looking forward to making The Spark, she will continue her work with Kol Neshama and is planning to hold a summer musical camp for girls in Israel.
“I feel that my work with Kol Neshama is inherently worthwhile for women. It empowers them by giving them a special joy,” she says. As for the screenings of her film at the cinematheque and around Israel, she hopes “to see women with double hair-coverings sitting next to girls in jeans.”
For information about screenings of The Heart That Sings, call (02) 583-1371.