Ultra-Orthodox Director Scores as Venice Film Festival Sensation

Article Summary
She does not shake men's hands, she arrived on the red carpet with a Hasidic head covering and, because it was the sabbath, she missed the ceremony where her film's female lead, Hadas Cohen, received the best-actress award. Get to know Rama Burshtein, the ultra-Orthodox director who became a Venice Film Festival sensation.

When director Rama Burshtein arrived at the Venice [Film] Festival last week [Aug. 29-Sept. 8], she was invited to a festive dinner hosted by Miuccia Prada. In the midst of the event, Florence Welch — of the Florence and the Machine, and a hot fashion icon — approached Burshtein. “From the moment you entered, I can’t take my eyes off your hat,” said Welch, referring to Burshtein’s ultra-Orthodox head covering. Welch was not the only one to find the ultra-Orthodox director to be fascinating this last week.

Burshtein’s first-rate film Fill the Void deals with the tragedy visited on a Tel Aviv ultra-Orthodox family. The film, together with Burshtein’s charming personality, warm smile and fascinating personal story, have all transformed the 45-year old chozeret b’teshuva [returnee to repentance, a term referring to a woman who embraces Orthodox Judaism] to a sought-after, well-known "item" in the Italian city of canals.

We are sitting on the balcony of the luxurious Excelsior Hotel, the festival's nerve center, and face a non-ending crowd of people who stop to chat with Burshtein. They congratulate her, compliment her, wish her continued success. But when Dieter Kosslick, director of the Berlin International Film Festival, approaches to shake her hand, Burshtein nods at him with her palms pressed together, leaving Kosslick’s hand suspended in midair. “This happens to me all the time,” smiles Burshtein after Kosslick leaves. “It seems very exotic to them.” [According to certain Jewish religious tradition, any physical contact between men and women is  forbidden except for spouses and siblings.]

They don’t take offense?

“I say, ‘I am very pleased to make your acquaintance’ and that mollifies most of them, but there are those who are taken aback. I don’t understand this business: Why are we expected to respect Indian traditions, and not those of ultra-Orthodox Jews? Ultra-Orthodox customs irritate people more than customs from India. I don’t know why."

I wanted us to have a voice

On Saturday [Sept. 8] the Golden Lion prize will be awarded to the most outstanding; other prizes will also be dispensed. If there is justice in this world, then Fill the Void, one of the best films screened at the festival, will not return empty-handed to Israel. In light of the fierce competition, including films by such esteemed directors as Paul Thomas Anderson and Terrence Malick, Fill the Void has good chances to receive the best-debut award. Burshtein insists that she harbors no expectations.

“The Italians really like the film,” she smiles. “But some of the journalists criticize the world I represent and the status of the woman in that world. Others complain that I do not deal with politics. But there are journalists who don’t know anything about the ultra-Orthodox world. Why should I criticize that world? Everyone else does. I love that world and I chose it. I open a window to that world, I don’t present a sugar-coated version of it.”

She was born in the United States under the name Rama (“named after Ramat haGolan, the Golan Heights”) Drimmer, grew up in Kfar Saba [a city in the center of Israel] and studied filmmaking in the Sam Spiegel School [for Film in Jerusalem] in the early 1990s. [During her studies there] Rama wrote the screenplay for Woman of Valor (Eshet Chayil) on the "Hebrew superwoman [mother]" — "even though at the time, I didn’t know that I was heading in the ‘woman of valor’ direction in my own life,” she says. Burshtein’s final film at Spiegel was Wedding Night. Twenty years later, she is still dealing with the wedding theme. “The man-woman issue is what really interests me,” she says. “It has always fascinated me, and will always fascinate me. That was also the gate from which I entered the Torah [Jewish Bible world]. I need a lot of passion in order to get excited about something. It has to touch upon these [male-female] points.”

Nineteen years ago Rama chose to embrace Orthodox Judaism (chozeret b’teshuva) and now she is married to Aharon and the mother of four. The family lives in Tel Aviv, belongs to the Breslov community and is connected to Rabbi Auerbach. If you still harbor doubts regarding the Tel Aviv director’s religiosity level, you can rest easy. “I am an ultra-Orthodox woman, totally. We are immersed in the Torah not because we have to be, but because we want to be. We choose it every day, anew.” Subsequent [to Burshtein’s entrée to the ultra-Orthodox world], she has been involved in producing films for women in the ultra-Orthodox sector; she was recently interviewed for an article in the Yedioth [newspaper] 24 Hours supplement about this unique film industry. In addition, she taught and wrote a novel. “I constantly involved myself in creative projects,” Burshtein says. “The big change was my decision to [take my current film] to the world outside the boundaries of the ultra-Orthodox sector. I wanted our world to have a voice.”

The result, Fill the Void, deals with the ramifications of a young woman's death on her ultra-Orthodox family; the mourning delays the match [shidduch] intended for her younger sister (played by Hadas Yaron). The new widower, left [to raise] the orphaned baby, receives the offer of a match with a widow in Belgium. And by the way, if you were wondering [but too polite to ask] — Burshtein only hit the road on her film when she received support from a Torah authority. “Rabbi Auerbach told me I could go for it.”

“The preparation-process for the film was a tremendous spiritual trip,” testifies actor Yiftach Klein, who plays the widower. “We all felt party to a creative work that is greater than the sum of its parts. There was also something very different about the entire atmosphere on the set. It’s strange to say this, but I felt some kind of divine intervention over the filming: If it rained when we started to film, the sun would suddenly shine.”

“And what was it like to work with an ultra-Orthodox director?”

“Fascinating. She is super talented. The only difference between working with her and other directors is that we didn’t hug or shake hands. Other than that, we talked about everything. The work was very open, very deep.”

As a “totally secular person who grew up on a moshav [kind of cooperative community]” in Klein’s own words, he admits that the work on the film keenly fascinated him. “The opportunity I had to become acquainted with religious rituals, with prayers and [Torah] study, to attend a tish [large gathering of Hasidim around their rebbe] involving thousands of Hasidim and to meet with Admors [Hasidic rebbes or grand rabbis] — that really did it for me. I wanted to be part of it.” Nevertheless, Klein is not rushing to adopt the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle. “Like any actor, as soon as the filming ended I returned to my ‘real’ life,” he smiles.

But for Burshtein, the festival and everything connected to it was the furthest thing from her "real life." “Part of the time I stayed in Venice’s Jewish ghetto, and that was much simpler.” She talks about how she observed religious laws at the Venice festival. “I went to synagogue and there were kosher restaurants there. When I moved to Lido, the site of the festival, it became a bit more complicated; luckily my husband Aharon and Tammy Cohen the producer helped me work it out and brought me kosher food. In my soul, I felt really far from home.”

“Did you get excited at the premiere, standing on the red carpet?”

“I really did not want the whole red-carpet business. It somewhat conflicts with my desire to remain on the sidelines, on my religious level. I love privacy and anonymity and I felt that this was a price I had to pay. Even walking on [the carpet] seemed ridiculous to me — I am not 20 years old anymore and not a model. Fortunately, my husband was with me.”

Actresses and designers spend months planning for their red carpet [appearance]. What did you wear?

“One of my strangest, simplest dresses. I sew all my own clothes because I don’t find what I like in the stores.”

“Rama fascinates them,” says producer Assaf Amir. “She comes with her husband Aharon, who arrived with his hat and shtreimel [fur Hassidic hat], and when they were on the red carpet — the main attraction was Rama and her husband, with all due respect to the [other] actors. At the press conference we wanted to talk about the film, but everyone wanted to know about Rama and the world in which she lives. But beyond all that, she has great talent. She simply knows how to make movies.”

In your opinion, what are your chances for winning?

“It’s hard to tell. It was a real achievement just to get this far — it is a great honor just to participate in something that involves the [renowned] directors here. Beyond that — there’s always hope.”

Apparently there was a moment of truth at the premiere screening. “Until then I had the feeling that this was a festival for the big stars, not for us,” says Klein. “But on the day of the screening, we received a kingly reception: a red carpet, a press conference, photographers — the whole shebang.”

For Burshtein, on the other hand, the screening began on a low burner. “I didn’t understand what was going on inside my own self. It all seemed like one big unworkable mistake, and all I hoped was that it would be over as soon as possible without being too much of a fiasco.” Perhaps this is the reason that Burshtein was stunned and amazed when the audience stood up and applauded for almost 10 minutes when the lights went on after the movie.

“Emotions began to fill me when the music began to play at the end of the movie, ‘If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, [Psalm 137:5] I had to work hard to control myself and not start to cry,” Burshtein admits. “But when the clapping started — I wasn’t expecting that — then I felt very moved and excited. The combination of two things — the music that came from my world, together with this [festival] hall, not from my world — it was at once a powerful combination as well as a great contradiction. Everything seemed strange, out of a dream, I felt severed [from everything around me]. Suddenly everyone around me was crying, it was amazing. You do something thinking it’s a small thing, and suddenly — it’s wow. It was hard to contain it all.”

While Burshtein is not indifferent to all the effusively positive reviews (“a splendid production,” “an engaging debut film”), she says that “there is also a voice inside of me that says, ‘there’s a lot of noise here, and this noise is stressing me out.’ In general, my feeling at the moment is a little like being in a dream. In another week, I’ll understand more logically what I am going through now.”

When you got on that plane to Venice, is that what you anticipated?

“The truth is that I didn’t think too much [about it]. If I would have, I would have become very anxious. I feel more warm and comfortable here than I had anticipated.”

And by the way, Burshtein intends to play hooky from the final [awards] ceremony of the Festival. “It begins on the sabbath, so I can’t be there. I am not willing to die for a film while I am willing to die for the sabbath. This choice puts the whole issue into proportion.”

And if they say that you must come because you won a prize?

“Then Assaf, the producer, will represent me and I will join when the sabbath ends [on Saturday night after sundown]. We’ll wait and see — it is still premature.”

[Hadas Cohen of Fill the Void won the best actress award, while the Golden Lion went to Pieta by South Korean director Kim Ki-duk.]

Found in: venice film festival, ultra-orthodox, rama burshtein, israel, fill the void, cinema

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