Fill the Void
Directed by Rama Burshtein
Opens at the Charles Theatre June 21
Fill the Void is a simple story: It starts on the day that Shira goes to the local supermarket to sneak a glimpse of the man her parents have proposed she marry and it ends on her wedding night. In between, her older sister dies in childbirth, and their mother, afraid that her son-in-law, Yochay, will take her infant son away to Belgium when he remarries, suggests a new match, between Yochay and Shira. Anyone who's ever seen a rom-com can guess how the story unfolds.
What singles out Fill the Void, which played at the Maryland Film Festival this year-and makes it worthy of being the official Oscar submission for Israel-is writer and director Rama Burshtein's decision to tell the story within a Tel Avivian community of Orthodox Hasidic Jews. The yarmulke-wearing, bearded men gather for rituals like Purim, where they chant scripture and drink too much wine while their wives and daughters roll their eyes and chat quietly in the next room. Men and women are segregated in general, unless they are family, and marriage matches are conducted strictly-arranged by a matchmaker, negotiated by parents, approved (or not) by the couple after an interview, blessed (or not) by the rabbi. But silly teenage girls still dream about falling in love at first sight, and men are still prone to say stupid things when they're drunk. And the grief of losing a beloved family member still weighs heavily on the people who loved her. Burshtein's goal with the admittedly Austen-esque film was to tell a love story within her own culture that showed all its rules and boundaries but also honestly depicted the humanity of people in Orthodox communities-which is what saves the film from becoming two-dimensional.
City Paper caught up with Burshtein during her recent trip to the States to talk about her decision to make a feature film (her first) and what she hopes audiences get out of it.
CP: Why did you decide to make a film about an Orthodox Hasidic Jewish community? Obviously, that's not something you see often in film, in the U.S. at least.
Rama Burshtein: First of all, I'm from the community. I'm not a social artist, I'm a personal artist, so I talk about my life, you know-this is where I came from, this is I why did it. And I thought that we didn't have a cultural voice. We often see the community, but not in the culture of art. Everyone else is interpreting who we are, and I thought it was time to just tell a simple personal story from within.
CP: Would you mind explaining the title, Fill the Void?
RB: In Hebrew it has the same meaning, only the word ha'halal, which is "void," has more meanings. One of the meanings is that when a soldier dies, he's a ha'halal, he's like a void. And the other meaning is that it's out of place, ha'halal, and the third meaning is void. So for me, talking about voids-it's always voids, there's a vacuum that has to be filled, and there are many voids in the film, you know. Each character has a void that has to be filled.
CP: Leading off of that, I think going into this film you think that it's going to be a love story, but it's just as much about loss, and a family dealing with loss. How important was that to you as you were writing and producing the film?
RB: That's a beautiful question because I think in this film the story is about all of that together and I think this is what is true. It's not only about love or only about loss, it's about combining things together, like complications in life. There's love and hurt, pain, and when it's combined it becomes real. So for me, it was very important that it would not be just one thing. It would be a combination of all.
CP: Why did you decide to film in Tel Aviv?
RB: Everything that has been done about the Orthodox community, it has always been about secular-religious conflict. And the Orthodox Hasidic community has existed always as someone trying to get in or someone from the inside trying to get out, and I felt that it's about us just being, you know, just existing and having our own drama-we're 3,000 years old and we exist not only in terms of that conflict. In terms of being human and having all the love and pain and passion that people have, and I think putting that into Tel Aviv really made that point. If it had been in Jerusalem or in another city that is religious, then you won't see that this conflict is not spoken of.
CP: As you said, the film depicts a very specific culture, and you're bringing it into a wider culture and giving people the chance to experience that from within. What do you hope the non-Jewish audience will take away from the film?
RB: Very simple. It's just about showing humanity. They are human and they have the same feelings that people have all over. It is about passion and it is about love and pain. Very human-not about faith and not about religion, it's about feelings. And for me, if someone comes out of the film and says, "Wow, these people are human," then I did my job.