Saturday 9 November 2013

Fill the Void - a Haredi Jane Austen?

This film was screened earlier this year as part of the Seret Israeli Film Festival. I had a ticket but was ill and could not go. The film was screened again this evening at the Tricycle in Kilburn as part of the UK Jewish Film Festival and I am happy to report good health because I wouldn't want to have missed this a second time.

Directed by Rama Burshtein, it tells the story of Shira Mendelman, a young Haredi (ultra-Orthodox Jewish) woman who looks set to be married when her older sister dies in childbirth causing the wedding to be postponed as the family is plunged into grief. The child survives and Shira's mother not wanting baby Mordechai to be lost to her begins to think that Shira could marry the widower. The film plays out the struggles each of the leading characters has with this idea.

It is important to note that Director Burshtein is herself a member of a Haredi community and although we have seen other films about the Haredim (Ushpizin, My Father My Lord, Eyes Wide OpenKadosh), this is the first one to have been directed by a member of that community - and a woman at that. Her insights are without doubt the reason that the female characters are so interesting and engaging. We see Shira's mother steering day to day practicalities in the household as well as taking the lead in potential marital arrangements. We also see her aunt, a disabled woman who does not have arms, forcefully putting her point across and playing a formidable part in a key moment. 

Anther interesting character is the rabbi. He is shown to be many things to his community - an advisor, a source of occasional financial help, a listener to those in distress and to be astute enough to not direct his congregants into taking actions that they are not ready for. There is a particularly touching scene when a distressed old woman arrives at his court whilst he is dealing with the problems of the films's main family. When she won't take no for an answer from his assistant he asks her to come in, interrupting the meeting. Her request for help with a domestic matter may seem small but he realises she has no-one to help her and adjourns to provide advice. This is an extremely (and unusually) sympathetic portrayal of a haredi rabbi. Interestingly he does not seem to need to refer to his books to solve people's problems!

For me, the film is about belonging - belonging to a family, to a community and to each other. There are characters who although part of the community are on the outside - the disabled aunt, a widower who has been alone for nine years, an attractive young woman whom no-one wants to marry. All challenge the community in some quiet way. All show that although they are part of one of the most tight-knit and even inward looking communities with an accepted way of doing just about everything, it is still possible not to belong and to feel adrift. Interestingly, it is this that has drawn comparisons between the world depicted in Fill the Void and that shown in Jane Austen novels where there are also clear, fixed and firm rules for everything but where women are also able to have subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) influence on events. Burshtein has said that she is a fan of Jane Austen.

There are many good performances in the film but Hadas Yaron as the central character Shira is outstanding and deservingly picked up an Ophir Best Actress award (Israel's version of the Oscars) for this role. I also liked Irit Sheleg as Rivka Mendelman, Shira's mother and Razia Israeli as Aunt Hanna. The screening was followed by a panel session and Q&A with the film critics of the Times and the Telegraph who made some interesting points. I do think they might need to get out more though. The comments about Israeli films being primarily action movies showed a disappointing lack of awareness for such a prestigious role at the Telegraph.

Fill the Void is to have a UK release before the end of the year. Go and see it.

You might also like Israeli TV drama takes the world by storm and Czech Film Noir at the UK Jewish Film Festival

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