Canadian-Jewish writer discusses her award-winning Jewish movie

Canadian writer and director Emma Seligman discusses her acclaimed indie film "Shiva Baby."

 RACHEL SENNOTT (center) in ‘Shiva Baby.’ (photo credit: PRIDE FILM FESTIVAL)
RACHEL SENNOTT (center) in ‘Shiva Baby.’
(photo credit: PRIDE FILM FESTIVAL)

A few weeks ago, just in time for Rosh Hashanah, the website Hey Alma chose the most outstanding Jewish films, TV shows, books and music of the year.

Not surprisingly, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby won the prize for Best Jewish Film. According to the site, this film was picked due to its “originality, excellent acting and its general vibe,” as well as because “it offered the most authentic portrait seen on screen of Jewish Ashkenazi culture” and “the vital and refreshing representation of people in the queer community.”

The film premiered 18 months ago, though its screening in theaters has been delayed for some time due to COVID-19. But when the film finally made its debut at local theaters, it became a cinematic sensation that earned a number of awards, extensive compliments in the general media, as well as sparking quite a stir on social media. After being screened at a number of film festivals, Shiva Baby is currently being screened at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, as well as on streaming services such as HBO Max.

Shiva Baby, which is the Canadian writer and film director’s first full-length film, is based on the script of a short film Seligman directed herself in the past. Rachel Sennott portrays the protagonist, a young Jewish woman who makes a shiva visit with her parents, only to discover that her sugar-daddy, as well as her ex-best friend and lover are also there. As is to happen at shiva visits, a swarm of her neurotic relatives and neighbors are overly inquisitive about her personal life and ask her endless questions about her future job prospects. As the review in Hey Alma states, the film asks what would happen if you were to take a young neurotic woman and plunk her right in the middle of her greatest nightmare, together with her parents and friends? The resulting scene would be overwhelmingly Jewish in character.

“My ambition was that Shiva Baby be screened at a film festival, so that it would get a minimal amount of exposure. That was pretty much the extent of my expectation,” admits Seligman in an interview held over Zoom just before the film’s debut screening in Israel.

“I never imagined it would be so successful. But even more than getting great reviews, what’s really moved me are the reactions of people who’ve watched it. Many Jewish bisexual women who saw the film told me that finally they are seeing themselves portrayed in a movie. From my point of view, this is the biggest achievement. I’ve also heard of grandmothers who watched it together with their granddaughters, which I guess shouldn’t surprise me, since every woman remembers what it was like to be young, and can therefore identify with the protagonist.”

A woman eats popcorn while watching television.  (credit: PXFUEL)A woman eats popcorn while watching television. (credit: PXFUEL)

What was your goal with respect to the Jewish nature of the film?

“First of all, I wanted to play with the Jewish mother as an interfering and prying character. Usually, Jewish mothers are portrayed as not caring about their daughters, but that’s simply not true. And so it was important for me to show that Jewish mothers meddle in their daughters’ lives because they care so much. My mother is like that, and she loves and supports me in everything I do. I also wanted to show how all the women in the community feel they’re permitted to pry into your private life, and so I wanted to make light of that too. And of course, also about Jews’ obsession with food and how much people weigh.

“And another topic that interested me was showing the built-in misogyny with respect to Jewish men marrying non-Jewish women. Why is the Jewish community so obsessed with the blond Protestant women who’ve joined the Jewish faith? I wanted to touch on that issue, too.

“Rachel and I wanted to play around with a phenomenon where women always say to their friends, ‘I would never say something mean about another woman, but so-and-so is a real bitch.’ And of course I also wanted to touch on the topic of sexual identity in the film.”

What role does sexual identity play in the modern-day North American Jewish community?

“First of all, the only community I can speak for is the Ashkenazi Reform Jewish community in Toronto where I grew up. On the one hand, it’s very progressive – or at least it views itself as being progressive – but on the other hand, it doesn’t really understand much about bisexuality, and is not very accepting of people who identify as bisexual when it’s someone close to them. I myself am bisexual, and I’ve discovered that many people I’m around have a hard time accepting bisexuality and sexual fluidity and think it’s just an experimental phase. Sometimes I wonder if it wouldn’t be easier for my parents if I would just come out of the closet and announce that I was a lesbian.

“They think that bisexuality is like polyamory. They don’t understand that I’m not interested in dating a man and woman at the same time, that it’s not a button I can push, so that one moment I’m into men, and then the next I’m into women. I try to explain to them that it just means I’m open to being in a relationship with a man or a woman. The community I grew up in claims to be progressive, but if we’re talking about one of their kids, all of a sudden they can’t handle talking about the subject with their friends.”

Sennott, who portrays the protagonist in Shiva Baby, is actually Catholic. And ironically, Dianna Agron, who portrays the goyish wife of the sugar daddy, is actually Jewish. Recently, there has been lots of talk and resentment about Hollywood’s tendency to cast non-Jews in Jewish roles. What’s your opinion on this matter?

“In my opinion, this is more of a gender-related issue. No one complains when Adam Driver plays a Jewish character in movie after movie, but when a non-Jewish woman is cast a Jew all of a sudden it’s a problem. Look, I’m not trying to evade the issue, and if in the future, when I’ll have a larger budget, I’ll be able to strive for a more authentic casting. An actor’s role is to act well, and to be able to achieve this they must be passionate about their work since they aren’t making much money working on independent films. They complained that Rachel plays a queer character but doesn't define herself as such, but this was an integral part of her character, and no one has the right to pry into her life and demand that she explain her identity.”

When was the last time you attended a shiva?

“Since I don’t live with my family anymore, the last time I went to a shiva was five years ago, and I really miss being together with people from that community. I guess the film was my way of bringing up memories from shivas I’d been to in the past.”

Translated by Hannah Hochner. Originally appeared on Walla.