The Israeli arranged-marriage drama Fill the Void begins as a spy caper. Eighteen-year-old Shira (Hadas Yaron) and her mother (Irit Sheleg) play P.I. at the supermarket, observing a handsome asthmatic with gold-rim glasses and a gawky frame to see if he's marriage material. Satisfied with the way he reads the ingredient label on a box, the two women agree: Shira will marry him.
Matrimony among the Haredim, or the ultra-Orthodox Jews of Israel, is the subject of director Rama Burshtein's sensitive, gorgeous debut.
The New York-born, Tel Aviv-raised Burshtein is in a uniquely insightful position to represent the often-cloistered ultra-Orthodox sect, whose members number in the hundreds of thousands. Having grown up in a secular family, Burshtein joined the Haredim at the age of 27, and thus enjoys the status of an insider and the perspective of an outsider. (Throughout the interview, she often switched between “we” and “them” when referring to the ultra-Orthodox.) A non-native English-speaker, she is tender-voiced, with a contemplative disposition and a keen awareness of the scrutiny her artistic and religious choices attract. “Everywhere I go, when people meet me, they're expecting to meet someone who is more stupid than I am, more primitive than I am,” Burshtein says with matter-of-factness. Unsurprisingly, then, she is eager to present a “window into this world that nobody knows about.”
But depicting the Haredim to outsiders meant having to break their rules. Before Fill the Void, Burshtein spent two decades making films for the ultra-Orthodox community, some for women only. She belongs to a community of Haredi filmmakers, nearly all of whom, she insists, are women. “The men are making money or they're studying all day. They don't have time for [film or the other arts]. They don't go see [films]. Therefore, they're not making it. This thing that's called cinema, it's all women's doing.” (A New York Times article on sexism within the tiny Haredi film industry seems to argue otherwise.) Gender segregation, a fact of life among the ultra-Orthodox, prevails on and off the screen. Not only are camera crews and theater screenings single-sex, but actors of the opposite sex cannot appear together in the same frame.
Working with secular actors and a co-ed crew to shoot Fill the Void, then, was a “totally, totally, totally different experience.” Burshtein was also troubled throughout production by the film's financial obligations to investors (most female Haredi directors self-finance their work). “[Fill the Void] doesn't have a direct connection to [my previous work],” she explains. “It's very commercial. It's not about artistic vision. It's more about entertainment. It's about making fun, with the right amount of crying and laughter.”
Apparently Burshtein calculated the balance between titters and tears just right, as Fill the Void swept the Ophir Awards, the Israeli equivalent of the Oscars, and was selected as Israel's entry for the Best Foreign-Language Academy Award last year. It also hits just the right note between familiarity and exoticism: Before Shira's engagement to the boy from the supermarket is officialized, her older sister (Renana Raz) dies during her ninth month of pregnancy. Fearing the loss of her infant grandson if her son-in-law, Yohai (Yiftach Klein), weds a new prospect in Belgium, Shira's mother pressures her to marry her sister's widower. Whether Shira agrees to her mother's plan—coerced only by a profound sense of familial duty—forms the crux of the film.
Still, the film will not likely be seen by the society it portrays—nor is Burshtein eager for it to be viewed by her religious peers. “They would relate to it totally, because it's their world,” she says. “But Fill the Void is not for the [Haredi] community. It's not made for them. If it was, it would be in a totally different language.” By this she means a different language of cinema, as the Haredim, she says, haven't seen the movies that have established the contemporary grammar of narrative features. “They don't have 100 years of film,” she says. “They have 10 years total that they've seen films.” If she were to have made the film for them, it would have looked, she says, like 1940s television.
Despite earlier reports otherwise, she clarifies, “I didn't consult with the community. I consulted with my rabbi.”
Burshtein is amazed that her portrait of a culturally specific dilemma within a small society has been received so warmly and traveled so far. “It shocked me that people would really go for this delicate, simple film,” she confesses, though she needn't be. Fill the Void's substantial similarities to the perennially popular Jane Austen ensure the accessibility of the questions the film raises about female agency in a gender-separated social system where marriage is near-compulsory and courtship an afterthought.
It's probably not just to her credit but also her benefit that Burshtein declines to use Fill the Void as a forum to assert her traditional views on relations between the sexes. “The definition of genders in Judaism, we don't play with it,” she says. “A man does things that a woman doesn't, and a woman does things than a man doesn't. If I speak for myself, in order for me to be really in love, the man has to be a bit bigger than me. There's no interest if we're the same. I lose the passion. The man has to be a king, [which] means taking care of his people.” But Fill the Void is compelling because it muddies these ideological waters—and the film only exists because Burshtein herself has taken the rare step among Haredi women to make a film outside the religious confines of her chosen community.
“I thought it was an inner story, but this very simple film really made some noise,” Burshtein says, marveling at its global relatability. “I hope I'll always be surprised that way.”