One Film, Two Stories

Rama Burshtein’s journey to ‘Fill the Void’ and finding her truth.

Director Burshtein poses on the red carpet 390 (photo credit: Tony Gentile / Reuters)
Director Burshtein poses on the red carpet 390
(photo credit: Tony Gentile / Reuters)
On a warm morning, Rama Burshtein, the director of the extraordinarily successful film Fill the Void, sat on a Tel Aviv rooftop, savoring the sunshine. But it wasn’t just any rooftop, and Burshtein isn’t just any director. The building she chose for the meeting is the Shamayim Center, a social and educational center for the Tel Aviv ultra-Orthodox community. And Burshtein is the first female filmmaker from the haredi community to reach out for – and find – mainstream success. It’s ironic that while in the streets below, secular Israelis are strolling around in tank tops and shorts, one of the most celebrated women in Tel Aviv makes a turban – the modest headwear she prefers in public – look both chic and exotic.
Today, she is wearing a pink turban with gold designs. Indeed, you could follow the success of Fill the Void through the turbans its director has worn to award ceremonies and screenings. There was the gold and red-patterned one at the Venice International Film Festival in September, where the film received several awards, most notably Best Actress for its young star, 18-year-old Hadas Yaron. She is the first Israeli actress to win this prize in the 69-year history of one of Europe’s oldest and most prestigious film festivals.
For the film’s triumph at the Ophir Awards, Israel’s most prestigious film awards ceremony, she donned a dark brown and orange one.
The film won the Ophir for Best Picture, and Burshtein took home awards for Best Director and Best Screenplay. The film also won Best Cinematography (Assaf Sudry), Best Actress (Yaron), and Best Supporting Actress (Irit Sheleg, who plays Yaron’s mother).
While most first-time directors chase after the press, Burshtein is slightly guarded, and, perhaps, still in shock at the success of Fill the Void. Certainly, it doesn’t sound like a film that would be a hit. It tells the story of a haredi family that suffers a tragedy. The family’s oldest daughter dies in childbirth, and the younger sister, Shira (Yaron), is pushed by her mother to marry her brother-in-law to ensure her sister’s child will stay close to the family.
“I never thought that it would actually get made,” says Burshtein, who speaks in gently accented English (her mother was American). “It took five to six years to get it made. Once it was made, it took over a year to cut, and I had the feeling I would never get it finished. It was a very long pregnancy.”
While the rest is now history, Fill the Void’s tale isn’t over yet.
“People are saying it could get nominated for an Oscar, so we’ll see if that happens,” she says.
An Oscar nomination is a very real possibility. Fill the Void won the Ophir Award for Best Picture, and this nod by the Israel Academy for Film and Television makes it Israel’s official entry to be considered for one of the five Best Foreign Language Film nominations.
These nominations won’t be announced until January 10, but given Israel’s track record during the past five years – Beaufort, Waltz with Bashir, Ajami and Footnote have all received Oscar nods – it’s not a stretch to think that Fill the Void will join that distinguished group.
Although Burshtein always loved movies, she did not become religiously observant until her 20s. After studying film in the second class ever at the Sam Spiegel Film School in Jerusalem, she planned to make movies, but her life changed dramatically not long after she graduated.
“I was always a seeker,” she explains. Her “totally secular” family encouraged her creativity. She had never been especially drawn to religion, but when she took a trip to Munich to attend a film festival after she finished her studies, she was extremely aware of her Jewish identity for the first time in her life.
Not long after her return, she spent a Friday night with a friend who had started becoming religious in her teens, and they had dinner with a religious family.
“It was a very simple evening,” she recalls. While she was on her way out, her friend gave her a religious pamphlet to read.
“The next morning, I got up, I was having my coffee and a cigarette and I started reading it,” she says.
“That was the moment. Sometimes knowledge comes to you all at once.
As I read it, I was crying, because I understood there is the possibility of not being lonely again. I knew it was what I was looking for. There were no negotiations, no deliberations.”
From that moment on, her life changed. In eight months, she was married, to another ba’al teshuva (returnee to observance). “And that’s all she wrote, as my mother would say.” Burshtein studied Judaism for a time, then raised her four children, three boys and a girl, who range in age from 15 to 10.
Burshtein was galvanized to make Fill the Void out of a passion to tell the particular story she presents.
“I was at a wedding and I heard about a girl who had just gotten engaged to her brother-in-law after her sister had died suddenly.
And I thought, there’s a story. It’s interesting in itself. It doesn’t have to explain itself or justify anything.”
And here it’s possible to detect a bit of weariness in her voice, as she has been asked, since the film came out, to justify every action taken in public by everyone who calls themselves haredi.
“It just has to tell the story of this family,” she says. She admits that “there’s a prejudice [on the part of the secular community], and if I made a little hole in it, that’s good.”
When asked what misconceptions bother her, she says, “That women are all oppressed, miserable people in the ultra-Orthodox world. It’s totally not true. In this world, the women hold the wheels, and you see this in everything they go through in the movie. The women drive the story.Men don’t drive the car.”