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 very warm morning last week, 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, and you could follow the success of Fill the Void through the turbans its director has worn to awards 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.
There was a brown, gold and purple brocade turban for the Toronto International Film Festival. For the New York Film Festival in early October, it was a sparkly velvet brown-and-red number. And for the film’s triumph at the Ophir Awards, the prizes of the Israel Academy for Film and Television, 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 for Best Cinematography (Assaf Sudry), Best Actress (Yaron), and Best Supporting Actress (Irit Sheleg, who plays Yaron’s mother). Burshtein made what was perhaps the most succinct acceptance speech for an Israeli director ever: Since it was Friday afternoon and the Ophirs were being given out in Haifa, she said she had to rush home to prepare Shabbat for her family in Tel Aviv.
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 an international, or even a local 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. It took years to get the script written, and then to find the cast, then to get money. 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, it’s a history that 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 (a short list of nine finalists will be released about a week earlier), 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.
The fact that ultra-prestigious distributor Sony Pictures Classics has acquired the film and will be releasing it in the US also helps.
But after it shows this week at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival in Greece, Burshtein says she’s through traveling – for now.
“It’s really surprising to me that people are responding to the film so well,” she says. Directors often say this, but when it comes out of Burshtein’s mouth, as she adjusts her turban in the midday sun, she truly seems gratifyingly puzzled by how things have turned out.
Burshtein, who became religiously observant while in her 20s, grew up movie mad.
“I always loved movies. I loved David Lynch, how he deals with the Satan inside of him. And Ang Lee. I really liked American films.”
After studying film in the second class 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.
“When I went there, I was not just secular, I was a citizen of the world,” she says. “I never thought about spirituality. But then it just popped up – that there was this thing called Judaism. I didn’t like hearing the language, I looked at every person over 65 and wondered what they had done during the war.”
Not long after her return, she spent a Friday night with a friend who had begun becoming religious in her teens, and they had dinner with a religious family.
“It was a very simple evening,” she recalls. As she took off the skirt she had put on over her pants on the way out of the family’s building, 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 was different in a fundamental way, although it took three months before she shared her transformation with the rest of the world. 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.”
In fact, there is much more to her story, since both her mother and her sister eventually joined her in the ultra-Orthodox world. And while her father, a sailor, did not take this step, Burshtein emphasizes that he “is very close, very much a part of the family.”
“I grew up being encouraged to express myself, and my parents respected me when I chose this,” she says.
Burshtein studied Judaism for a time, then raised her four children, three boys and a girl, who range in age from 15 to 10. She worked sporadically in the burgeoning women’s haredi film industry, one which is virtually unknown in the secular world but which produces films for women and girls with budgets up to NIS 1 million. (There are also films made for men and boys.)
But making a name for herself in the religious film industry was never Burshtein’s goal.
“It’s an interesting industry, anthropology- wise,” she says. “It’s very commercial. I wrote for them, and taught them. But their world, their language...” she trails off. “It’s simple [film] language-wise, and when it gets complicated, you lose the audience.”
Given her rigorous Sam Spiegel training, this filmmaking style didn’t draw her artistically.
“It’s developing fast, and it’s interesting to see where it’s going,” she says. She did not think of making films herself, however, until the past few years, when she saw and became frustrated with the portrayal of the ultra-Orthodox on screen.
Ushpizin is a good film,” she says, referring to the film written by and starring the newly haredi actor Shuli Rand. “But the director wasn’t religious. It’s not really an ultra-Orthodox film.”
Acknowledging that she subscribes to the auteur theory of filmmaking, in which a film is seen as a personal vision of its director, she didn’t see her world portrayed accurately and meaningfully on screen.
“We had no voice,” she says. Although she declines to criticize particular films, the Orthodox world was strikingly absent on screen, even as the religious became more vocal and central in Israeli culture and politics. In the first 50 years of the state, observant Jews on screen were generally buffoons, in movies such as Salach Shabbati and the Kuni Lemel films.
In recent years, the national religious community has come to the forefront on screen, mainly, but not exclusively due to the successful career of Joseph Cedar, who made several films about modern Orthodox Jews, Time of Favor, Campfire and Footnote. In addition to Gidi Dar’s Ushpizin, the ultra-Orthodox community was portrayed on screen most notably by two male filmmakers, Amos Gitai in Kadosh (1999) and Avi Nesher in The Secrets (2007). These latter two films are mostly about women, but women in the ultra- Orthodox world did not make movies for the general audience.
Burshtein was not galvanized to make Fill the Void out of some wish to give her community a voice, but 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’s not about problems of faith or something that would be particularly interesting to the secular community. 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.”
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.”
Her husband, whom she praises extravagantly in her interviews and speeches, has been very supportive, as have her children, although her children have not seen the film.
“I don’t think the boys ever will. Their heads are in a different place,” she says. As for her daughter, “When the time is right. When she’s in love, when she’s about to get married, that could be the time.”
But her children have been extremely encouraging about her work and she knows they are proud of her. When the Fill the Void journey slows down, she does plan to continue making films, and is at work on a television project, which sounds a bit like an ultra-Orthodox version of the wildly popular Srugim, a series about the Modern Orthodox in Jerusalem.
“You can speak only from your world, I have to know the inner language of the people I’m writing about,” she says. “That’s how you make the bridge.”