Most filmmakers wonder who their audience is. For years, Rama Burshtein knew exactly who it was, using her degree from the Sam Spiegel Film & Television School in Jerusalem to make films for the Haredi Orthodox Jewish community in Tel Aviv after she converted to the religion in her mid-twenties. While her adoption of the most conservative Judaic principles likely meant that a mainstream career would never be in the cards, especially since the ultra-Orthodox rarely stray outside of their inner circle, Burshtein has found herself in the unlikely position of becoming a spokesperson of sorts for the seldom-seen world after her first film for the secular audience “Fill the Void” capitalized on its popularity in its native Israel, where it won seven Israeli Academy Awards, to become a hit around the world.
Not that’s she’s unqualified for the position. In person, Burshtein exudes both a regality and candor that make her an ideal representative, though also a healthy degree of disbelief on how well “Fill the Void” has traveled. And yet it’s her elegant, richly detailed feature that will do the most of the talking, a story of a young woman named Shira (Hadas Yaron) faced with the unexpected and difficult choice of marrying her newly widowed brother-in-law Yochay (Yiftach Klein) after her sister (Renana Raz) passes away in accordance with Haredi tradition. Inspired by a friend who had to make a similar decision, Burshtein saw a little Jane Austen in the situation and has created a narrative no less compelling than the works of the “Pride and Prejudice” author in its look at familial obligation with religion replacing class as the great unseen barrier. While in Los Angeles recently, Burshtein marveled at how the film came together, the need to express herself and why she shouldn’t be mistaken for her lead character Shira.
This actually isn’t your first film, but it is for a secular audience. Was it much of a transition in your approach?
I did [films] for the [orthodox] community, but this is not about art. This is very commercial. We fund ourselves out of our own pocket, which means we have to make sure they come and buy a ticket so they get exactly what they want, a certain amount of crying and laughter for them to come. It had nothing to do with being artistic and saying something I wanted to say. It has to be very educational.
What brought me to do [this] film is that we had no voice in the world. You don’t hear us. You just hear what the other people think about us and it’s because people in the community are not educated to express themselves. They’re educated to hold themselves, so they don’t have that need of expressing [themselves] in art. But I felt we do have a voice and it’s a beautiful voice and I wanted to express that. And this I bring from religion, the need to express.
Was it interesting seeing the interaction between the orthodox members of your cast and crew and those who were secular on set?
Very. I don’t think I would’ve done the film with [only] religious people, the actors mostly. I went for the best and the best made a mixture. And I was afraid of that mixture. I didn’t know how it would work. Then it was such weird harmony, but it was weird because it’s like a miracle. I think the fact that the secular people saw the religious people being human, then religious people saw the secular people being human made such a connection that real friendship came out of shooting of the film, a real connection between people that is still going on.
The film has a very warm, inviting glow to the image. How did that look come about?
When I was talking to my DP [Asaf Sudri] when we were getting to work on shooting, I knew the real location of this film is [Shira’s] heart and this [physical location of the place she lives in] is where it is — it’s a house, it has room, it has doors, like the heart. And as the heart, it has to be very, very colorful and it’s a very small place, but then something wide is happening. So we shot it in a widescreen to feel that air in a very closed [space]. [Asaf] was the genius who knew how to translate the whole thing.
I just knew what we had was a very low budget film and what we had was a character in frame – this is it. We have dialogue, character and frame and we just worked frame by frame. We also had a notion that it had to be a bit of a fairy tale and a bit of a western because they’re like gunmen – the religious [sides]. [Asaf] knew how to mix it and make that cocktail and make it work the way he does.
One of my favorite scenes is when an old woman interrupts a fairly important scene in the film to ask a rabbi about her oven. The woman is never seen again and while she represents a larger community, she has no bearing on the story, so in a lot of films, that scene would probably be excised. Why was it important for you to include it?
One of the other things that we were talking about regarding shooting with the actors is that you see fractures of a picture. There’s the wide picture that only the almighty sees, and you should be humble enough to know that you only know fractures of that truth. And part of it for me [was that] a wise man, a rabbi would be someone that if somebody knocks on his door twice and he’s being responsible for being so powerful, then he should see what this thing is about and the loneliness of an old lady is sometimes greater than the main drama. You should be humble enough to go to what’s inviting you and she knocks once and he says, “Not now.” She says, “Okay,” but when she knocks twice, then you say maybe that’s what I need to do right now. This is being very responsible of who you are and being with her was the [important] thing at that time.
I’ve read you really got into religion around the age of 25, which is just after the time Shira is in the film. By making this film, did it take you back to the place where you were figuring out what faith meant to you?
When my husband saw the film for the first time, he said, “You’re everyone. You’re Shira, you’re Yochay, you’re everyone. I see you all over the characters.” But I was never Shira because at 18 years old, she’s never read a book in her life that is outside of the community, never saw a film, never saw an art show. She doesn’t even know what she’s feeling. She has no words to say simply “I’m in love.” She has to find it out, which is so beautiful and yet it’s not my experience. I came to that world knowing everything I wanted to know. For me, it was really something I wish I went through, discovering something in such a genuine way without people telling me — without watching a film and seeing the love story and [thinking] maybe I want this kind of love story. It’s about her just trying to understand what’s going on.
“Fill the Void” is now open in New York at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and the Sunshine Cinema and in Los Angeles at the Royal Theater before expanding on May 31st. A full list of theaters can be found here.