Israel’s biggest box-office hit of 2016, “The Women’s Balcony,” is a warm-hearted film about a close-knit Orthodox community living in blissful harmony until their synagogue literally collapses in the middle of a bar mitzvah. The rabbi’s wife is critically injured and the rabbi becomes depressed and foggy-minded. The men of the congregation are grateful when a charismatic rabbinical student known as Rabbi David (Avraham Aviv Alush), offers to help, bringing along his friends to conduct services and raise money to rebuild the temple. But he proves to be a very divisive figure when he urges the congregation to become more strictly observant, suggesting the men give their wives headscarves to cover their hair. The showdown comes when he tells the women that rebuilding the balcony, where the women sit separate from the men during services, will have to come after the creation of a new torah scroll. The women do not agree.
The details of the setting are fascinating, and while unfamiliar to many in American audiences, the elements of an Orthodox Jewish life are presented in a comfortable, respectful, natural manner. The film is immensely charming in its depiction of the quiet, gentle humanity of the community and the way their commitment to Judaism is reflected in every aspect of their lives. Evelin Hagoel is a stand-out as Etie, a grandmother who leads the rebellion and Yafit Asulin is radiant as a shy young woman who finds love. This is an endearing comedy with some thoughtful insights about the way we find and keep finding the sustaining force of grace in our lives.
Ilya Tovbis on the Washington Jewish Film Festival 2017
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It was great to catch up with Ilya Tovbis to hear about this year’s Washington Jewish Film Festival. I will be hosting “A Classy Broad” and interviewing its subject, trailblazing Hollywood executive Marcia Nasatir and filmmaker Anne Goursaud following the film. The schedule includes a screening of “Clueless” with writer/director Amy Heckerling, and a 45th anniversary screening of “Cabaret.”
Once again, Tovbis found a theme emerging from the films selected, despite the wide variety of genres and countries of origin. “I think the most timely theme that we have identified, very much reflecting the current political moment both nationally and also globally is our Mechanism of Extremism series which is looking at extremism and governments and societies from 1899 through to today. We have also continued a theme from last year which we actually intend to make an annual one, our Rated LGBTQ series. And then lastly on a much lighter side we found a whole lot of comedies of various sorts so we have bundled them together in a series called Laugh Track.
Special guests this year include two Visionary Award winners that Tovbis says he is “thrilled about, Barry Levinson, who based films like “Diner” and “Liberty Heights” on his own experiences. “The other winner is Agnieszka Holland who was Oscar-nominated twice, most recently with ‘In Darkness.’ We’ll be doing a repertory screening of her rarely shown 1985 film ‘Angry Harvest.'”
The films will be of interest to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. “I think we view ourselves first and foremost as a cultural artistic festival that has a Jewish interest. These films will appeal to a large audience that’s interested in great independent cinema. We do outreach to a whole host of organizations including arts organizations, nonprofits, issue driven organizations, different constituencies. As you dive deeper into the films you have this range of 136 events, with something for everyone. We have as always a lot of films on minority and Arab citizens of Israel and then we have some fun partnerships. We’re working with the local version of Comic Con, Awesome Con for our sci-fi films.
Tovbis has scheduled question and answer sessions following many of the films, with the filmmakers or with local experts. “We have a great partnership this year with the US Holocaust Museum and so many of the Holocaust films feature incredible experts from their museum which range from music historians and cultural historians and others dealing with issues of euthanasia and Romany treatment during the Holocaust.”
Many of the films are being shown for the first time in the US or in the area, and some of the older films are rare or recently restored. “And we hope that being in the festival will get distribution for some of the films that are not scheduled for theatrical release,” Tovbis said.
Another highlight is an evening celebrating Yiddish culture across artistic media. “We are starting out with ‘A Letter To Mother,’ which is a fabulous and also a really timely Polish film. It was filmed shortly before the Blitzkrieg and was the highest in this film in the American theaters a couple of weeks after the Blitzkrieg and it was the highest grossing Yiddish film in American theaters when it was released a couple of weeks after the Blitzkrieg. It is a really interesting historical document. The film itself, while it was shot then, takes place shortly before World War I and talks a lot about Jewish displacement for economic reasons from Europe to America and there’s a lot of relevance to the current refugee crisis.” The film will be followed by a live performance of Yiddish songs from a Dutch band called Nikitov.
Tovbis says, “I think one film that could fly under the radar is ‘People That Are Not Me,’ which is filmed by an Israeli woman named Hadas Ben Aroya who is really the entire force behind the film.” He compares it to critically acclaimed independent films like “Frances Ha” and Lena Dunham’s “Girls.” “It is very current, part of a new Israeli cinema of a kind don’t think I’ve seen come out of that country before, very sexually forward feminist, sort of wears its beliefs on its sleeve. It is not apologetic, it’s not tidy, it has this kind of really interesting take on modern romance or lack thereof or trying to find meaning for someone in their 20s or 30s but is very innovative in the way it’s shot. So I’m really excited about her as a new voice.”
Rama Burshtein (“Fill the Void”) is an observant Orthodox Jew who lives in Israel, but she reminds me in our interview that for more than half of her life, she was a secular Jew living in America. “I’m 50 years old. I became religious when I was 27 years old and still have lived more years secular than religious, still am. All my memories, all of who I am, this was not in a religious world.” That is an important part of what makes it possible for her to work with actors and crew who have different levels of religious observance and to relate to the audience for her films as well. While her new film, “The Wedding Plan,” like her first one concerns a young woman’s decision about who she will marry. But “Fill the Void” was set in a deeply religious ultra-Orthodox community, while “The Wedding Plan” characters, like Burshtein herself, are those who have chosen a more observant life as adults. So we see more variation in their practice, some uncertainty and inconsistency but more of a sense of intentionality.
The central character is Michel, played by Noa Koler in an award-winning performance of stunning intelligence and sensitivity in her first lead role. “This character is very, very complicated because she is supposed to make you laugh and cry at the same time, and it’s very complicated for any actress and… So it’s like you can’t discover anyone at that age so good but it’s not true, because Noa, she’s an actress in Israel, she played in the theatre. Everyone knows that she is talented. Nobody gave her a leading role. Ever. At the age of 35. And she’s like a genius. She is extremely talented, It’s like, I’m telling you there is no way to compare anything that she does in an audition than to other very professional actresses–good actresses. She has something that few people have in the world.” Burshtein said one of her most important roles as a director was to show Koler that she had confidence in her. “When I believed a hundred in her then she believed a hundred. But if I believed eighty, she would believe zero. Everyone around me didn’t think I’m doing right. Everyone was trying to convince me not to take her. Everyone knows that she is talented. People didn’t think that she could handle a role where all those nice guys want her. She is like the neighbour’s daughter, she’s not not Julia Roberts in ‘Notting Hill.’ You have to believe that Oz Zehavi, the guy that plays Yos, who is like a big star in Israel, that he would go for her. But I know that at the end when someone is so sincere and like the model of truth, this is what you fall in love with at the end. Even a rock star, that what you fall in love with, you don’t fall in love with a pretty face. We don’t fall in love with a pretty face, that was part of me saying that because today nobody is even asking that question. Nobody thinks that it’s unreal that he wants her.” Making that believable is very important because it helps Michal truly understand that she is lovable. “It’s like ‘La La Land,’ says Burshtein. “She brings this thing out and it suddenly all the actions are opened. She believes that the sky is the limit. It’s an energy shows in her and that brings a lot in.”
In Israel and Europe, the film was called “Through the Wall.” Burshtein says, “It’s not ‘Behind the Wall,’ it’s not ‘Breaking the Wall,’ it’s not ‘Climbing the Wall,’ it’s ‘Through the Wall,’ which is something that you cannot actually do you know. A wall is a wall. You can’t go through it unless you have a door. But that’s what she is doing. She’s going through a wall.
Burshtein wants to deliver a message with this endearing romantic comedy premise of a young woman who hires a hall for the date of her wedding even though she does not have a groom. “There is a thing that I call ‘the imaginary option,’ It’s like you always think that there is someone a little bit better than what you will have sitting in front of you. You do not see what is in front of you because you have a picture of something else. From my research, the women that can fall in love with everyone are married.” She points out that when asked why she wants to be married, Michel gives almost every possible answer except for the most important one: to love. “I would sit with a girl and ask ‘What are you looking for?’ and she’s going to give me that list. And the whole list, which is very interesting, would be what he could give her. I never had girls writing down ‘I feel like I want I want to give. I want someone that I want to do for.'”
My gallery of Easter movies includes “Ben Hur,” several different movie versions of the life of Jesus, a couple of choices just for kids, and a classic musical named for a classic song, Irving Berlin’s “Easter Parade.” There’s something for every family celebrating this weekend.
The answer to the same problem happening in film is not for filmmakers who have a deep faith to stop telling stories that reflect that faith or to water down the religious content of those stories but instead to strive to tell their stories in a manner that can be understood and followed even by those who don’t share their faith.
They must also resist the efforts of both their enemies in the mainstream and their “friends” who would effectively silence them in terms of having any meaningful impact on the mainstream entertainment culture and are even now attempting to create a Contemporary Christian film industry that will have as much impact as Christian rockers had on the mainstream music world in the ‘60s, ’70s and ’80s, which was almost none
“Secular filmmakers” have never accepted a cultural paradigm that would label their films “secular films” and those of us who loved Seinfeld can only be grateful that its creators didn’t accept the label “Jewish TV Show” and allow it to be broadcast exclusively on a “Jewish television network,” effectively cutting off access for non-Jewish American. In the same way, those who are animated by their Christian faith to make movies must say no to the faith-based marketers, reject attempts to hyphenate them and their work, reject efforts to show their movies in churches on a first-run basis, and only work with those film companies that will treat them as filmmakers who deserve to be given the chance to reach the widest audience possible with their work.