05/25/2013 07:24 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Fill the Void: Broadening the Feminist Gaze

Rama Burshtein's glimpse into Tel Aviv's Hasidic community, Fill the Void is a stunning film taking the viewer into the marriage practices of a hermetic society, offering an intimate, if fictional view, of how matches are made. Ultimately a love story, Fill the Void is most surprising in revealing unexpected emotional connection and subdued passion in places where love is most often a last consideration. Shira (Hadas Yaron), an 18 year old woman drinks tea with suitors at dates arranged by matchmaker; they interview one another as to how they want to live their lives; suddenly after a family tragedy Shira has to consider marrying Yochay (Yiftach Klein) her older sister's husband, twice her age.


Photo by Leslie Hassler

Who should marry whom is an appealing subject for any culture--witness the popularity of all things Jane Austen. But since the time of this movie's U.S. premiere at the New York Film Festival last fall, some critics have griped at the old world attitudes depicted here, particularly as the American born director turned deeply religious presents this world without irony, or any filter by which to judge it. Viewers will have to see for themselves whether the couple is "beshert," or meant to be.
Before the festival of Shavuot, I had the opportunity to converse with Rama Burshtein and Fill the Void's young star Hadas Yaron about their achievement, and the backlash.

How did you find this story?

I met a woman at a wedding and was told she married her sister's widower. When I'm curious, I research. I spoke to a lot of women who went through that. At the end it sounded very natural to marry your late sister's husband. But for the film, the matchmaker was the first character who came into my mind.

The real match came from mother. I didn't like her at first. I thought her idea for Shira to marry Yochay came from the self-interest of not wanting to lose her grandchild. Then I saw she had intuition. Was that your intention?

Most people can identify with her grief. When she looks at her daughter Esther before she dies, it is as if she knows something. At the end, when Shira marries Yochay, you feel it's the right thing to do, wanting to marry the nicest guy in the room.

In the last scene after the wedding, Yochay hangs up his fur hat and he has a look on his face, and then the scene cuts to her, and her look is a look of gee, I don't know what to do now. You may think he's going to show her and it's going to work out because he has learned something in their communication. Does every audience believe it is a good match?

That is special about this film. Because it is so subtle, it is open to interpretation. At the same screening, three friends had different responses: one said, I am going to take this bloody Yochay and hang him. An old man takes this beautiful naïve young girl. He should be hanged. Another said, what are you talking about? She was in love with him before the sister died. The third said, no, she's going to learn to love him later. Everyone spoke from who they were; they were sure they understood it, the true meaning of the story. More people saw it as a love story, but a lot of people didn't. They cried, it is so sad because she is a victim. I learned to really let go. You meant what you meant, but the audience response will surprise you. Some people say the last scene is the most erotic. If I really meant it, then I am really a genius but I didn't. I am fascinated by the response.

How do you respond to feminists who have rejected your film?

Sometimes I get a reporter who is shaking with anger at me. When you are open to complications of emotion, then feminism, chauvinism and other big words fall apart. There are no villains when you are able to hold all kinds of emotions all at once. For me, it is more important to be feminine than feminist.

Your characters go to rabbis, to male authority figures, for advice. What is the role of rabbis in your life?


Photo by Leslie Hassler

When I go to a rabbi, I understand my power, not his power. I came from a very liberal home, didn't ask for my father's permission. I left home when I was 16. I learned the tough way. I thought, would I ever be able to have a friend who loves me enough to tell me the truth? The first time I sat with a rabbi, I totally broke down and cried. He gave me the feeling that nothing exists but me. I am a streetwise girl, a liar and a thief. You cannot fool me or pretend that you are with me when you are not. He was so with me. He made me cry because this was a dry area in my heart. It was like going to a wise man, to the Dalai Lama. He sees a wider picture and you let him play that role in your life. He makes me feel smaller and that makes me feel beautiful. I wish people would make me feel smaller and protected. It's not about feminism. It is about humanity and emotions and confusion and having someone to talk to.

I am wondering would my Hasidic relatives in NY come to see this movie?

Probably not. It was not done for them. If I were to write for them it would be a different visual language. I had chutzpah enough to create my own, without wigs, for example. For me, the film was not about specific customs and rituals. But a lot of religious people told me the feelings were accurate, because they were into the story.

Is this filmmaking accepted in your community?

This is a first. No other film was made by a religious person within the religious community. Their reactions are not written. I thought there would be a war. When no one smeared the posters in Jerusalem, it was like a kiss from God, a miracle. My kids were afraid, what will they say in yeshiva? Someone said, your mother made a film and she went on a red carpet in Venice. Venice finished the war: a religious woman on the red carpet with her husband!

Is it expected for women to be chained to the kitchen?

I'm not so sure being chained to the kitchen is less than being a filmmaker. Making films is a vacation compared to everything you do, raising kids, being a good wife. Making films and being honored for them gives you strength. My being center stage, I am not shy, but at the end of the day, I like myself less. I never expected the international acclaim. I wish I could be more feminine.

Are you thinking of your next film?

The second project is a trap. I think, if I am never driven in a limo again, it is fine. And then an idea comes to me. So I have a new script set in New York.

A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.