A Window to the Heart: “Fill the Void’s” Rama Burshtein and Hadas Yaron

2013-05-24 (limited)

Director Rama Burshtein’s Fill the Void is nothing short of a masterwork: gorgeously filmed, expertly paced, and, much like 2011’s Iranian classic A Separation, challenges its non-native audience to recognize familiar tensions, themes, and circumstances in an unfamiliar setting. Void, Israel’s official entry for 2012 Best Foreign Language Film short list consideration, also boasts compelling performances, namely that of its leading lady, Hadas Yaron, who snagged the Best Actress prize at the 2012 Venice Film Festival.

That Yaron would receive such an honor for her first film role — and as the first Israeli to win the title, no less — is appropriate: Fill the Void also happens to be the writing and directorial debut for the 46 year old Burshtein, who has spent much of her adult life promoting self-expression through film for women in the Orthodox Hasidic community. Fill the Void is a convergence of firsts, both onscreen and off, for it tells the story of 18-year-old Shira who, days away from being matched and potentially promised to a local young man, finds her future put on hold after her sister Esther dies during childbirth. When there are rumblings of Shira’s brother-in-law Yochay (Yiftach Klein) being quickly paired off with a widow in Belgium, Shira’s grieving mother Rivka (Irit Sheleg), sick at the thought of being separated from her only grandchild, proposes that Yochay marry Shira instead. What results is a deeply emotional, intimate look inside a world where the tenets of family, tradition and continuity are tested by the complications of loss, guilt, and personal choice.

PopMatters sat down for an in-depth conversation with Burshtein and Yaron recently in New York City to discuss the film’s unprecedented success, its portrayal of an often misunderstood and marginalized community, and the fascinating and complex relationship between the audience’s interpretations of its heroine’s plight versus Burshtein and Yaron’s intentions.

Readers should be warned that this interview is spoiler-heavy, as the conversation focuses on the film’s ending as a means of discussing the whole, so if you prefer to keep away from its surprises — and for a film of its genre, there are an impressive many! — and make a reminder for yourself that it hits theaters in limited release Friday, May 24, 2013.

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PopMatters: I must confess that coming into this film, I did not know very much about the Hasidic Orthodox community, which actually made it a much more exhilarating experience since I felt less confident in my ability to sniff out where the narrative was going. Did you keep the unfamiliar viewer in mind when you were composing this picture? Is there anything that you worry an “outsider” like me might miss or fail to take away?

Rama Burshtein: I very intentionally wanted to make this film a window: something is happening whether you look at it or not, and you may take from it whatever you want. Some will take nothing from what they are seeing because they are not interested in it, and others will go with it. This is a kind of peeping in – but not in a yellow way. And nobody explains anything when you’re not aware that someone is looking and I kept that in mind. I knew there would be a lot of questions for people who do not understand this world. But ultimately it’s not about understanding, it’s about feeling. It’s not about being an anthropologist or about religion or secularism. Rather, it’s about the heart.

PopMatters: The “window” metaphor makes a great deal of sense, since the film features so many shots that are either down a hallway, through the window, or cutting back and forth from one room to the other. There’s almost a Robert Altman sensibility to the filmmaking, where we see many things happening to many characters at once, and yet we don’t hear everything, because perhaps we don’t need to.

Rama Burshtein: Exactly. There are many happy accidents with the film, but this was not one of them [laughs]. I worked with the DP [Asaf Sudri] very closely on this. He’s brilliant, he’s extraordinary. I said to him that the real location of the film is the heart. How do you shoot a heart? What does it look like? I know it has doors, I know it has rooms, I know it’s very powerful… And so we worked on that a lot, and I was keeping the film very much as a window to the heart. For me, when I went to work on [the film] at first I thought it was too complicated and [Asaf] wouldn’t get what I meant, but he was such a genius he was able to translate it to visual frame. But similarities to Altman? Wow. Such a high compliment.

PopMatters: The camerawork is also so intriguing in the film’s final view minutes. Stylistically, it’s quite different from what comes before. When [SPOILERS] Shira is in her wedding dress, davening, and weeping euphorically, her makeup running down her face, and people are popping in and out of the frame to congratulate and console her, there are echoes of Terrence Mallick, even David Lynch. And then we get to our final scene, with Shira and Yochay about to consummate the marriage, we snap back to reality. It retains the documentary feel of the earlier scenes and really punctuates the film.

Rama Burshtein: Yes, and also it’s the first time in the film that the camera is not steady. We’re very still for the whole film. Then suddenly we’re going in and out, in and out, and what I was trying to do — which I find for Americans in a way is harder for them, because they want to really stick with one emotion — is convey that there are a lot of emotions happening here in these final moments. We don’t ever in life feel one emotion at a time, it’s always all together. And when Shira stands to the wall, it’s all there. She’s afraid, she’s excited, she’s remembering her sister, and yet she’s a woman in love, but it’s all coming now, together. When I watch the film with Americans, they tend to insist that Shira is only feeling one thing: so some feel she’s only sad, some feel the scene is very erotic. And It was important for me to not to finish the film when [Yochay] walks away and into the dark after he’s brought forward to marry Shira.

PopMatters: I also thought it would end that way.

Rama Burshtein: Of course, because that makes us feel at ease, makes us feel comfortable. And then the last shot is uncomfortable. We say we’re talking about real life here. We’re just not selling a story. We’re not running away from reality. And we did many takes of those final scenes, actually one long shot that lasted about seven minutes until my editor…told me to cut it. And it worked perfectly. I couldn’t see it at the time, but in the editing room, it made sense.

PopMatters: There’s also this theme of authority figures in the film — mothers, fathers, aunts, rabbis — so often staking their claims as the “experienced” ones, and assuring the younger characters that they know best, a real “trust us, do this, don’t waste your time on that” kind of mindset. This is, of course, most strongly felt with the quasi-arranged marriage scenarios the film is centered around.

Rama Burshtein: This is amazing. It’s beautiful that this is the way.

PopMatters: Funny you should mention Tarantino. I feel like the armless aunt character is so jarring and quirky at first, like something you’d see in a Tarantino flick. And then the fact that we have that sweet cousin Freida who can’t get anyone to propose to her, and the movie suggests that the community equates Freida’s single status to the armless woman’s. It really shows how seriously the community takes the process of matching and marrying, and if you’re not there, it appears to be very black and white. You’re single, or you’re not. It’s terrible but also comical in is way.

Rama Burshtein: Right, and you are to say to yourself, I can’t understand why that character is not married. You can cast someone who isn’t very attractive, so everyone says ‘I can see why.’ But that character Freida is stuck and we all relate to being stuck. Everything is fine otherwise, but she’s stuck. When you look for love and when you finally find it, you know it couldn’t have come a moment before. You can cry, why doesn’t it come? A moment before you wouldn’t have been ready.

PopMatters: Speaking of humor, in terms of tone, you also achieve a truly seamless blend of humor, drama, even suspense. The opening scene, where Shira and her mother Rivka are scoping out a potential husband for Shira in the supermarket feels almost like something out of early Woody Allen. It’s hilarious. Even later in the film, when Rivka is visited by Yochay’s mother and at first they are having a tender moment, sharing this recent grief, but then the conversation quickly turns to getting Yochay remarried as quickly as possible. Rivka’s reaction — “are you trying to kill me?” — is at once heartbreaking but also, again, quite funny.

Rama Burshtein: Yes, and it goes back to one of the major goals in this storytelling being this desire to show that we don’t just feel one thing at one time. We feel many things at once.

PopMatters: There’s also this theme of authority figures in the film — mothers, fathers, aunts, rabbis — so often staking their claims as the “experienced” ones, and assuring the younger characters that they know best, a real “trust us, do this, don’t waste your time on that” kind of mindset. This is, of course, most strongly felt with the quasi-arranged marriage scenarios the film is centered around.

Rama Burshtein: This is amazing. It’s beautiful that this is the way you read it. This is what happens with this film: we go around screening it and we realize that people always see it differently from one another. You, specifically you, Joe, get the feeling that Shira has been pushed into making this difficult decision, but yet her mother never speaks to her about it. She speaks to the Yochay, the widower, she speaks with her husband about it, but never directly to Shira. And Shira’s father doesn’t like this idea. The pressure you felt was not on Shira, but rather on you, the viewer. Shira is never pressured. She never has or ever hears the conversations about what her mother is proposing. And when she sits with Yochay and asks how it was the first time, to marry her sister Esther, who she calls “the most beautiful women in that world”, because “it won’t happen to me”. But what won’t happen to her? It won’t be his first time, but it will still be her first time. She’s essentially saying to him, “You’ll never love me the way I love you”.

PopMatters: To me, this secular outsider, something about this whole process, objectively, just feels archaic and absurd. And yet, as we come to know the characters and empathize with the situation, I couldn’t help but root for Shira and Yochay to marry, to keep the family together. Objectively, I might think, in any other situation, “You’re marrying your brother-in-law? That’s insane”. But here, it feels like the most logical thing in the world.

Rama Burshtein: Right. And it’s funny how we come to feel that way. Doesn’t hurt that [actor Yiftach Klein] is a beautiful man! [laughs] Someone wrote in a review recently something along the lines of, “I just don’t understand why it took Shira so long to understand that Yochay’s the nicest guy in the room.” I wanted you to feel it is possible that they could be together and be happy in a beautiful way, for you to feel the attraction. Not just because it may be the “right” thing for them to do.

PopMatters: But the film also emphasizes that these young couples are matched together and then expected to grow up to together, to experience this all for the first time as partners. I felt that Shira was profoundly disappointed with this idea because of just that.

Rama Burshtein: You’re right, it won’t be a first for both them and that hurts her. She would wish to be his first, and some people read it as if she’s giving up love when actually she’s saying it hurts because she won’t get the love that she actually already feels for her brother-in-law. Just the way you read the lines, it’s so weird, right? Because we knew exactly what we were going for, but what you, the viewer, will receive is always unpredictable.

PopMatters: I think we have Hadas’ remarkably nuanced performance to blame for all this confusion!

Hadas Yaron: [laughs] I didn’t make a choice to be mysterious! Rama and I worked on something very specific for my character. What came out was something that everyone could interpret it in a different way. I don’t know how this came about, or how exactly I crafted my performance. It is difficult to answer that. But what I learned from Rama is that what you do and say is not necessarily what you mean on the inside or what you feel. So it’s about knowing or not knowing what you feel. Shira’s so confused, the complexity of the whole thing is very emotionally exhausting for her. It takes time for her to understand what she’s feeling, and once she is able to define it, it takes time to admit to herself and to others. So, the most important thing I had to remember and keeping telling himself was that this performance is just about really understanding that when Shira says something it is not necessarily what she means. What lies beneath [what she says] is the more important thing at all times.

PopMatters: Hadas, you’re the first Israeli to win Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival. In your debut film. This is, of course, quite rare — it’s well-deserved but also incredible. How did you come to be cast in the film?

Hadas Yaron: I just auditioned. It was that simple. [laughs] I was only given a few lines from the script, I knew very little about what the film was about. I think Rama wanted to keep it that way because she wanted to find something very specific, and if I knew what the plot was going to be and what was going to be asked of me later, what was being asked of my character, I may have behaved differently.

Rama Burshtein: It was an immediate click. She read and then, it was like she was the gift. The gift. The present.

PopMatters: Irit Sheleg, who portrays Rivka, Shira’s mother, is for me, the real center of the film. She orchestrates the plot, she plants the seeds. More importantly, the chemistry between the two of you is spectacular. It really feels as though we’re watching an actual mother and daughter in those scenes. It has a documentary feel to it, that’s how natural the interactions are. How did the two of you work together or prepare for that dynamic?

Hadas Yaron: Most of it was honestly just chemistry, like you said. We really liked each other. I was very comfortable around her, and I think that’s important. It’s also not something you can really fake with another actor. You have to have a level of comfort to make it work. She’s a really cool lady, so that was easy. [laughs]

Rama Burshtein: Irit is actually a partner in the movie. She’s been a part of it from the very start, so I think that her commitment to the project shows in her performance. And she’s also just such an outstanding actress. She has that rare ability to just… be. When she’s there, it just happens. She almost doesn’t move, and yet everything is there.

PopMatters: I’d say the same is certainly true for Hadas. You carry so much of the film and do so much, but so often without much movement or dialogue.

Rama Burshtein: Oh yeah. She’s got it. And she’s only going to keep developing it and maturing.

Hadas Yaron: You’re both too nice! [laughs]

PopMatters: It’s actually quite true for all of the players in the film. The acting and interactions feel so organic — and perhaps, again, that has to do with my own lens as an outsider looking in — that I at first wondered if Rama hadn’t simply plucked real people in the community and made them her actors. Speaking of sensitivity in performance, I also found myself, perhaps ignorantly, so surprised and overwhelmed by the gentility and the sweetness from the male characters towards the women. It wasn’t quite something I had anticipated in the Orthodox community.

Hadas Yaron: I agree. I also never saw it that way, or knew it to be this way, but I was glad to see that kind of representation of it. The women are very powerful, and so are the men, but the women in the film have all the heavy decisions to make.

Rama Burshtein: And they do it without making noise. This, to me, is being feminine. The women know where the money is, they have the keys, but they needn’t be forceful about it. The men are tender but they don’t lose their manhood. This is what attracted me to that world. I am into [as a filmmaker] relationships and intimacy and when I saw men in the community in such a close up back when I was totally secular, this is what drew me into it.

PopMatters: Well, ladies, this film is a first for you both. What’s next?

Hadas Yaron: Nothing is lined up right now. Winning [the award for Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival] was amazing but also very strange and honestly, it just makes you nervous. I am doing more acting workshops in Israel, and then coming to Los Angeles for a few months to do workshops here. I’m very excited about that.

PopMatters: Do you have dreams of crossing over into American films?

Hadas Yaron: Sure, if someone offers me a part in an American film, I will not say no! But there is also no rush. I think I’ll always have my baby face so that helps. [laughs]

Rama Burshtein: Well, for me its quite different. I’m 46 years old, I’m not 20, and that’s totally different if you’re making movies. I got married, had 4 kids, soon I will be a grandmother. I never thought [this film] would get done. I think my biggest talent is that I am not afraid. I am afraid of failure, sure, but when I want to do something I don’t think about it. I just go. I sew my own clothes, for example, but I never learned. I just take the material and fabric, and I say to myself, “Well, it might go into the garbage but who cares”. At 46, I was not afraid. But when you have to get money to make a first film, no one is going to trust that you can do it if you are 46 and you haven’t done it before. So it was hard in the beginning. People loved the script, but they were not sure I’d be able to do it. Step after step, given another chance here and there, and suddenly I am here in New York, having a very good espresso. Sometimes I ask myself, wait — how did I get here? So, I think it will both be easier and harder. Bu you know, that’s being Jewish! Life is about combining both, combing everything. That is the secret of Judaism. You may not be in a happy place and yet you’re happy. I love that complication.

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From Sony Pictures Classics, Fill the Void is now playing in limited release.